Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

A Book to Sink Your Teeth Into

Posted by Neal on January 28, 2008

A few weeks ago my wife caught me reading a book I wasn’t supposed to have. She was hurt. She had thought that out of consideration for her, I would have refrained from buying this material.

“Well, I didn’t get it for Christmas, so I went and bought it now,” I said.

“Yeah, but your birthday’s coming up!”

“Oh! You mean you — ?”

“Yes! I got that hint you dropped!”

Oops. Guess I messed up. I muttered that maybe we could consider it an early birthday present, but of course, she’s still stuck with having to get a refund for her copy of Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic, by Elizabeth Little. But truth to tell, I didn’t want to wait until my birthday. At first, just reading the title, I thought the book was a collection of marketing-disaster stories (some of them true) involving poor translations, epitomized by the Coca Cola/wax tadpole story. I realized I was wrong, though, when I read reviews like this one (from one Michael J. Hines, Jr.) at Amazon:

Little’s look at the world of languages, their common traits, and their huge range of differences, will introduce everyone but the most well-informed of linguistic scholars to the unique and at times amusing quirks of language. …The real charm of the book, however, is Little’s frequent use of pop cultural references, witty remarks, and double entendres, to make what could be a dry topic turn out simply effervescent.

Now that sounded like a cool book. I guess I should have done what my dad does. When he’s run dry on reading material, he’ll ask Mom outright if she’s stashed away any books for his birthday/Father’s Day/their anniversary, etc., and if she has, could he get an advance?

That’s water under the bridge, though, and since then I’ve finished the book. It was a lot of fun to read, and as the Amazon reviewer noted, there are lots of jokes in there; I’d estimate about two per page, on average. Between the introduction and the conclusion, Little has five chapters: Nouns, Verbs, Numbers, Modifiers, and Speech. In each one, she gives a taste of just how different languages of the world can be from the familiar English in how they handle that chapter’s particular aspect of language. She starts with languages that are just somewhat different, before moving on to the stranger and more exotic ones.

For the chapter on nouns, Little starts with languages that have more cases and more suffixes (or other ways of marking those cases) than English’s scantily differentiated subjective (e.g. I), objective (me), and possessive (my, mine). If you took German, Latin, or Russian in high school, this is familiar stuff. But then she moves into mind-bending territory that most English speakers don’t learn about unless they’re taking a linguistics class or studying one of the relevant languages: ergativity.

To get an idea of what ergativity is, you know how some people claim it drives them crazy when they have to read a whole page full of sentences in the passive voice? Well, let’s imagine a situation that would drive these people completely around the bend: Passive voice has become so stylistically preferable that speakers use it whenever they can, and say things like this (with passives in boldface):

I was walking down the street when I was seen by them. I ran, but I was caught. Then, I was kicked, punched, and noogied by them. I screamed for help, but none came.

If things progress to a point where the only active verbs you ever use are those that don’t take direct objects (like walk, ran, and scream in the above passage), then you end up in a situation where you have one case form that is used both for when the subject is doing something that doesn’t involve someone or something else (such as walking, running, or screaming) and for when someone is doing something to the subject. Look again at the passage above, and you’ll see that that’s how the subjective form I is used. The other case form is used for an entity that is actually acting upon someone or something. That’s how the objective form them is used in the passage. Now, if you forget that there were true active-voice forms of these sentences (they chased me, etc.), and you reinterpret the passive verbs was seen, etc., as active verbs, then you have a situation where subjects that don’t act upon others and (newly relabeled) direct objects have the same case form (known as absolutive), and subjects that do act upon others have a different case form (known as ergative). (I’ve simplified somewhat; for more information, read the Wikipedia entry.)

And that’s just talking about noun case. Little hasn’t even started on number (singular and plural is just the beginning of the possibilities) yet, or gender.

For the chapter on verbs, Little starts again with ground familiar to people who have studied typical American high school offerings in foreign language: conjugation. Then she moves to languages where you have to make the verb agree not only with its subject, but with any direct or indirect objects. And then to an extinct language in which (deducing from what she tells the reader), if the sentence contains the equivalent of I/me, then that’s the subject, regardless of whether the subject is performing the action or being acted upon. That was something I’d never heard of. From agreement, Little moves on to tense, with a sidebar on Guaraní, in which even the nouns have tense. To illustrate the point she gives the Guaraní equivalent of “former future president”, concluding with, “In other words: Al Gore.” (See this Language Log posting, and also research by Judith Tonhauser, for more on nominal tense.) She continues on to all the other modulations of meaning that verbs can express: aspect, voice, and mood. In other words, all the things that people who don’t know any better tend to refer to as tense. At this point, I’ve thrown in so many grammar terms that I need to repeat that all this material is explained with the focus mainly on entertainment, with one-liners and pop culture references throughout.

The chapter on numbers (i.e. counting systems) turned out to be a lot more interesting than I thought it would be. How much could she say about counting, after noting things like base-12 or base-20 systems? But I’d forgotten about the French system, where after sixty-nine, you say the equivalent of sixty-ten, sixty-eleven, … on up to sixty-nineteen, at which point you switch to four-twenties, four-twenties-one (i.e. 81), … all the way up to four-twenties-nineteen before you finally hit 100 and return to some more familiar counting. Little covers that, and goes into some other systems that are at least as strange.

The chapter on modifiers begins with the slippery distinction between nouns and adjectives in many languages (and to a significant extent in English, as anyone who’s ever argued about whether oatmeal is an adjective in oatmeal cookie will agree). Then Little moves on to color-naming systems in different languages, and from there to other languages’ versions of a(n) and the. She finishes with a few pages about adverbs, which I didn’t find especially interesting.

The chapter on speech seems to consist of two chapters that were too short to stand on their own. The first part of this chapter is about the sounds of other languages. Little starts with what are probably the most familiar of the unfamiliar sounds to American readers: German ch, French r, Chinese r. From there to the stranger sounds of clicks in certain African languages, and then to sounds that require you to suck in air instead of blowing it out, or those that require you to hold your breath and just push out the air that’s already in your mouth. Little then talks about pitch and stress.

The second part is about the different ways of indicating respect or familiarity in different languages. Most familiar is the tu/vous distinction in French (or similar ones in Spanish, and German), and as usual, Little starts with this more familiar example and quickly moves to the more complicated and interesting cases.

BWT is an entertaining overview of some of the primary ways that languages differ. It’s an eye-opening book for someone who thinks of different languages as just different sets of words. Even for linguists, for whom most of these concepts are familiar, there might be a few surprises. Speaking just for myself, I can say that even the stuff I knew about already was fun to read about in this humorous yet accurate presentation. This is a good book to give to friends who wonder what it is that you find so interesting about linguistics, assuming you find linguistics interesting. However, I would not recommend giving this book to children, at least not those in elementary school. At times when I was reading it, I was tempted to give it to Doug to read, but I want him to wait a few years before I knowingly give him a book with passages like:

My Arabic grammars assure me I will get a “feel” for which nouns take which [irregular] patterns, a maddeningly common circumlocution in language texts for “this shit is hard.”

And then there’s that part about the French novel that Little read in high school. In it, the man and the woman suddenly one morning start using the familiar tu form with each other instead of the more formal vous, “[w]hich made matters as clear to a classroom of hormonally astute fifteen-year-olds as if they had stumbled down to breakfast in flagrante.” I want another few years months before I have to explain that, too.

UPDATE, Apr. 3, 2008: I spoke to Judith Tonhauser recently, and realized that if I’d actually read some of her research closely instead of just skimming it, I’d have realized that one of her main theses is that Guaraní doe not have nominal tense; it just has the same kind of time-referring adjectives like former, future, to be, ex that we have in English, and like in English, they’re optional. If this were really tense we were talking about, leaving off one of these markers would be as grammatically bad as using the present tense when you’re talking about the past.

UPDATE, Apr. 4, 2008: Change the optional in the last update to sometimes optional.

5 Responses to “A Book to Sink Your Teeth Into”

  1. Glen said

    Doug is old enough now that I suspect you’ll need to have that conversation sooner than “a few years.” (How many is “a few”? I think at least three.)

  2. Viola said

    I agree with Glen and highly recommend What’s the Big Secret?. Doug is rather intelligent and it’s much easier for him to fill in the ???’s (that so many children have a tendency to do) when this explanation comes from parents. I received a bit of a shocker about a year ago while I was driving Holt (then age eight) to school from an orthodontist appointment…..”Mom, is sex a bad word?” My response “Ummm, uhhh, no, it’s not, and I’d like to talk to you about that when I get some more information. But don’t say that word at school, okay? Because that would be inappropriate.”

    My other son, Gregg,(then 4)was in the car. They are both sponges and wallflowers. I talked to the school counselor for a list of books and it took her a few days to find a list that was age-appropriate. On one of the snow days when the boys were both home, I casually approached the subject with them. At first Holt was “Ew!” about it (I think Gregg was rather fascinated with the pictures and the whole process–perhaps he will be a gynecologist), during one point in the book. When I explained that they wouldn’t be here without this whole thingy going on, he immediately shut his mouth. I explained to them that if Mommy and Daddy closed the door (my husband was overseas at the time, so the chances of having a closed door, except for changing, was rare,) they were not to open it, unless the house was on fire or someone was bleeding to death. So Holt piped up, “I thought you did that in the bathroom.” As if this was nothing more than a quick procreation-type transaction wherein a deposit was made that would result in a baby being born nine months later. I explained that in addition to the procreation we just covered, it was also a way for adults who loved each other to show affection toward each other–so just make doubly sure you don’t open our closed bedroom door. Whew!! Outstandingly amusing as it all seems, we got through it. I’ll have to review with Gregg in a couple of years, but he did alright with this book. It was a great help through an awkward time. 🙂

  3. Neal said

    [counting on fingers] By golly, you’re right! OK, let me just … there. I’ve made the correction. Don’t worry, though, we’re not at square one with Doug, or Adam either, for that matter. Experts advise treating the topic of sex kind of like the mythos in The X-Files or Lost: a little bit at a time over the course of multiple seasons. We’ve been doing that at various teachable moments, as far back as the one that came along when Doug was about 4 years old. Gosh, I remember it like it was just three years ago, even though it was really more like five years…

    …as we drove past the hospital where he’d been born, I pointed it out, and Doug decided that this was a good time to review and consolidate his knowledge about his and Adam’s origins.

    “I used to be in Mommy’s tummy,” he said.
    Right, I agreed.
    “And Dr. B. took me out of Mommy’s tummy.”
    That’s right, he did.
    “And put Adam in.”

  4. Viola said

    That is so….darn….funny! Dr. W., I’ll never look at your famly the same way again….and I don’t mean that in an offensive way. 🙂 It sounds as if you’ve had your hands full in an incremental-type fashion. Not a day goes by that we cannot participate in a heart-felt giggle. 🙂

  5. The Ridger said

    That is a great book, isn’t it? I’ve picked up a couple of copies for presents (gave one this Christmas, in fact).

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