Monday, January 15, 2018

Pants on fire

It’s appropriate, I think, that so many talking heads in the American media are rushing in to tell us what a great place Haiti is – the beaches, oh those great beaches. And how cruelly the Africans suffered under colonialism and how they therefore deserve much better than to have their countries described as shitholes. All good.

And all beside the point.

There are places on the planet where people live in misery. It’s not surprising that people have noticed that Mogadishu is not Paris and Port-au-Prince is not Amsterdam.  If you live in a wealthy country where things work and people dash around in shiny cars that you are not allowed to park in front of your house the first Thursday of every month because that’s when the streetsweepers come by, you might well be inclined to describe Haiti or Somalia as a shithole. You might do the same for Moldova or Jakarta or any number of other places. You may describe Ciudad Juarez or Acapulco in Mexico that way because of the wretchedly high crime rate. Or Detroit or the Bronx because of the urban decay.

It strikes me as silly, and more than a little bit sad, that people are stepping up to tell us how beautiful the beaches are in Haiti and how underestimated the history and people of Africa are. What the defenders of these places are missing is that POTUS Agent Orange’s calling African countries a shithole was a stand-in for calling its people inferior people. He was suggesting that people trying to escape poverty are indistinguishable from the countries they come from. Don’t enter this restaurant, don’t come to this school, don’t sit next to me because you live in the wrong part of town.

If AO and his enablers had any character, they would face this topic directly. We once allowed masses of people in, mostly from Europe at first, but eventually from all around the globe, in full confidence that people who come here from hardship situations tend to work hard. Their struggle would have its rewards in their children: first generation factory worker, fruit picker or housecleaner; second generation merchant, maybe, third generation doctor or lawyer. Now we want to keep the poor out and let in the techies and the mathematicians. We want instant immigrant gratification. It's a terrible argument, and I hate it that we would think we had to make it, but it is at least an argument that people could debate. The thing is, AO obviously isn't interested in debate. He's got the fast food equivalent of an academic line of reasoning - keep out people who come from shitholes.

AO’s defenders take my breath away. I just listened to a Pastor Mark Burns talking on a panel on CNN, for example. Burns, an evangelical preacher quoted scripture: specifically, 1 Timothy 5:8: "But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel." My mind runs instantly to that quote* in The Merchant of Venice that has to do with the devil quoting scripture.

Burns, like most American Evangelicals these days, is preaching the message that Jesus defines family according to modern political realities and wants us to give somebody with an American passport priority over somebody without one - a curious theology, to say the least. And yes, that's precisely what Burns is saying; otherwise why this particular quote? What Burns is missing entirely is   the point that you are not providing for your relatives by shutting out people from basket case countries simply because they come from basket case countries. On top of it all, AO’s thinking is uninformed. The overwhelming majority of Haitian immigrants are law-abiding and hard-working. 78% of them have a high school education or higher, compared with 75% of Caribbean immigrants on the whole. 71% participate in the civilian labor force, compared with 66% of the foreign-born population all-told, and 62% of the U.S. population. There is no justification for singling them out as having “shithole” features.

I had a friend from Haiti back in graduate school. His family had sent him to France for a higher education and he had done well enough to get a professorship in philosophy at a major American university.  Very smart fellow. I remember a conversation with him once when we had both had a lot to drink. He let it slip that he was filled with self-loathing for having turned his back on his country. I tried to persuade him not to be so hard on himself. “Maybe you needed to get out to find yourself,” I offered. It was the 80s, but I was still filled with a 60s world view. “France gave you a home that permitted you to go farther than Haiti would have. Don’t fault yourself for your desire to stretch and grow,” I insisted.  I don’t know what happened to him; we lost contact and I can’t dredge up any contact information. What I do remember was the personal agony he experienced as a man who desperately wanted to love his country but felt he had to move on. How many similar stories are hidden, I wonder, under that cold hand designation: “people from shithole countries.”

People who have long wanted to call AO a racist but have thought better than to say that out loud have now found their voices. It now seems that everywhere you turn you hear one news commentator after another declare, in no uncertain terms, that that’s precisely what he is.

A friend just wrote me she couldn’t help crying when she heard the shithole remark, shocked by the “new level of hideousness coming from the White House.” Yes, I said. It’s good to cry. Appropriate to cry.

Unfortunately the president’s remarks are only the beginning, and the story only gets darker. Apparently the fact that AO used the term several times made its way into the Washington Post, which attributed it to “several people briefed on the meeting (with POTUS on the immigration issue.”  Illinois Senator Dick Durban, who was sitting next to the president in photos of the meeting, confirmed that AO used those exact words. Not once, but repeatedly. And the story went round the world, as I reflected upon two days ago.    Initially, the White House was silent on the matter and Republican attendees at first claimed they could not recall whether the president used such language or not. But then the Twitterer-in-Chief twittered that he absolutely had not used that word. He did use strong language, he admitted, without specifying what exactly he said, but not that word. Whereupon Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Georgia Senator David Purdue, who had initially stated they “could not recall” allowed as how they could recall, after all, and that the president never used such language. Durbin repeated his assertion about what he had heard, saying AO’s denial made him feel he had been “hit between the eyes…” 

So who’s lying? Durbin or Cotton/Purdue/President Orangestainonthesoulofhumanity? And is Cotton just rubbing salt in the wound by declaring that Durbin “has a history of misrepresenting what happens in White House meetings…”?  We should maybe believe AO, who some have calculated makes incorrect statements 80% of the time?  Can we take seriously the reporting on Morning Joe that Trump was calling his friends from Mar-a-Lago the night before testing out the use of the word shithouse/shithole? Boasting about how clever he was in coming up with it?

What is so off putting – disgusting, frankly – about this discussion in the U.S. Senate is that these are the leaders of the Senate. Not intelligent people agreeing to disagree, but individual characters bearing false witness against one another. We hear constantly that “the two sides have to learn to talk across the aisle.”

But how? How do you sit down and work with bare-faced liars?

With men so conspicuously lacking in character?

Don’t tell me this is business-as-usual and that politics is always dirty and politicians lie by nature. They push the limits of decency sometimes to get their way, yes. Politics is a struggle for power, after all.

But this U.S. Senate of ours is turning out to be a real shithouse.

I don’t care who you vote for in 2018. But take the time to dig around on your candidates’ backgrounds before you do. We can do better than this.

Throw these bums out.

“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.

An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!”

       – William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice


Saturday, January 13, 2018

Where birds don't lay eggs

Modern-day American discourse - who says the two
sides aren't talking to each other?
When my father bought the house in rural Connecticut where my sister and I grew up, it had a shithouse out back. A one-holer, unlike the two-holers we were accustomed to in the more sociable Nova Scotia, where we spent the summers. Plumbing was an afterthought. My father was a grocery clerk at the time and still looking for a second nickle to press against the first, so they had to make do. When they did finally put in indoor plumbing – my father did everything himself – he had to dig through hardpan to put in a septic tank, and that took him years. The tank went in, but it never drained properly, and the toilet often backed up. The outhouse was left standing for emergencies. My mother complained constantly that she was not born to live in a shithole.

I learned at an early age that shit was a bad word, and they would threaten to wash our mouths out with soap if we used it. My German grandmother, however, routinely referred to the outhouse as the Scheißhaus – the “shithouse”, in the quiet but certain conviction that one should call a spade a spade. In later years I learned that words don’t really have any inherent meanings; it’s only the way words are intended and understood that determines their power, or what linguists call illocutionary force.

I remember arguing with my German roommate in Munich about which language, German or English, was more expressive. He used shit as an example. “You say shit, he said. One syllable and you’re done. In German, you can draw out the double s in Scheis-se and it’s so much more satisfying.” We would simply have to agree to disagree. Now, some sixty years later, thanks to the internet I can watch German talk shows day in and day out and I have observed that Scheisse is routinely in use by folks, even on television, while here in the U.S. one feels the need for circumlocutions. When POTUS Agent Orange came out with shithole the other day, most news agencies twisted themselves into pretzels to avoid repeating the word.  In writing and in speaking both, most of them chose to speak of “s-hole countries.”  Confrontation with this everyday word was suddenly turning everybody into prudes who – if forced to refer to it at all – could only blush and speak of “the s-word.” Huffpost even featured an article on the avoidance, “How May Times Can Wolf Blitzer Avoid Saying Shithole?” 

NBC’s Peter Alexander introduces a segment in which he tells his audience that he is going to use the word  (sic) “once so that you can hear the complete quote for yourself” and warns that it might not be suitable for younger viewers.”  What a fuss over language. I understand the media have to create a firestorm to keep their viewers glued to the tube, but this American prudishness only distracts us from the weightier problem, the fact that we are dealing with a president who doesn’t give a shit what’s socially acceptable or whether America’s reputation as a land of opportunity is being shitcanned before our eyes.

If you watch international news you may be amused by the difficulty people are having translating the word shithole. It’s the illocutionary force, you see. Translate literally and the air goes out of the balloon. It isn’t easy to translate the shock and the loathing. The words alone won’t carry that.

The Tageschau on Germany’s Channel One reported the president’s insult to Haiti and Africa with Drecksloch-Länder.  Dreck, curiously, is already a circumlocution for Scheisse and carries far less of a punch. It is associated as much with mud as with shit, and the adjective dreckig suggests muddy, dirty, soiled, rather than “shitty.” On the other hand, once you add the word Loch (hole), that kind of snaps you to attention, and you kind of get the point. Since the loanword shitstorm is now an everyday word in German, one wonders why they didn’t simply stick with the English original.

I came across a marvelous satire this morning in which Norway was alleged to have changed its name to Dritthull, in solidarity with Haiti and the African countries being disparaged by AO.  Dritt is a Germanic cognate to Dreck, of course, and hull to hole. 

The no-nonsense Chinese got right down to the point. Rather that struggling with a word for shithole, they translated AO’s remarks as carrying the meaning of countries “where birds don’t lay eggs” – 鳥不生蛋國家.  One reader claims that the Korean paper, the JoongAng Ilbo, chose “beggar’s den.” In Japan, notorious for its poverty-stricken vocabulary for translating English (to say nothing of Russian or Arabic) vulgarities, apparently the best the Sankei (a.m. circulation 2 million plus) could come up with, oh dear, was countries that are dirty like toilets (便所のように汚い国). Another Huffpost reader points out how Romance language readers seem to suffer from a failure to appreciate the polysemy of shithole countries, settling for the simpler shit countries (pays de merde/ países de mierda).

Forgive me for this linguistic tangent. Sometimes you get tired of gazing directly into the fire, and have to look aside.

Tomi Lahren/Kevin Sieff  twitter exchange
letter from Botswana Ministry of International Affairs and Cooperation

Added Sunday evening:

Shit in Icelandic is skít.  Country/countries is land, plural lönd. They've followed the French and Spanish examples above and chosen "shit countries" (skítlöndum in the Dative plural, following the preposition  fra (from)) to translate AO's remarks, as opposed to "shithole countries." Got it.


„Hvers vegna er allt þetta fólk frá þess­um skíta­lönd­um að koma hingað?“ is an adequate translation for AO's "Why do all these people from shithole countries come here?"

So how come when you type that Icelandic sentence into Google translate, they give you:
"Why are all these people from these countries to come here?

Prudes, prudes. American prudes on all sides.

Then there's Hebrew, where, according to the Jewish daily Forward,  shithole countries is rendered medinot mechurbanot by Ha'aretz, Tel Aviv's lefty newspaper and Yediot Aharonot, Israel's largest.

I cannot speak to the power of "mechurbanot," but Forward tells us it is "not exactly elevated, fit-for-company Hebrew."

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and such

If you are a hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobe, i.e., someone with a fear of long words, you will likely want to stop reading here. If not, you may be interested in noting, if you haven’t already, that the longest word in English language dictionaries is currently pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling very fine ash or sand dust. Some prefer to refer to it as silicosis, which means pretty much the same thing. It's pneumonoultramikroskopikosilikovulkanokonioosi in Finnish;  neumonwltramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis in Welsh; Viêm phế quản-phế quản giác mạc in Vietnamese, 폐렴 현미경 in Korean.

I remember as a kid being told that the longest word in English was antidisestablish-
mentarianism.  I see now that that word wasn't even close. Just another "fact" that needed correction in due course of learning about the world and its complexities.

Long words are rare in most languages, but common in German, where words can go on forever as long as they convey something about the real world. Mark Twain observed that German words are so long that some of them even have perspective.

Grundstücksverkehrsgenehmigungszuständigkeitsübertragungsverordnung (in English: “regulation on the delegation of authority concerning land conveyance permission.”) hit the dust a few years ago, pushing Vermögenszuordnungszuständigkeitsübertragungs-verordnung (“regulation on the delegation of authority concerning fortune responsibility”) into first place as the allegedly longest word in the language.  [Note, please, that the hyphens in the above words are not there naturally. I put them there so I could break the words in a way that would keep the margins pleasing to the eye. The words are properly written without hyphens.]

In regular use, that is. Germans can combine words till the cows come home, thanks to the German convention of writing words together which express single concepts, as opposed to our way of keeping them all apart if they have meanings that stand alone.  Take any number, for example. What we write as three hundred sixty four thousand five hundred twenty-two, Germans write as dreihundertvierundsechzigtausentfünfhundert-zweiundzwanzig. And you can see the potential as you climb into the godzillions.

Speaking of being misinformed about long words, I remember years ago being told that the longest German word was Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft, which I read as “Union of lower rank officers of the Danube steamship’s main electrical workshop company,” but I am happy to defer to a native speaker from Dresden named Hutschi, who has determined it should be rendered in English as “Company for subordinated state employees for the main control office for electricity constructions/building for Danube Steamboat shipping. At the same time, I feel obliged to point out that “Haupt” (“head” or “main”) is ambiguous and could refer to a number of things – the Betrieb (enterprise), the Betriebswerk (factory of the enterprise), the Bau (construction being done by the factory of the enterprise), the Beamten (officials – actually “Unterbeamten” – or subordinate officials) or the Gesellschaft (society, or union, or company) Main lesson to draw from this, I guess, is length cannot be counted on to disambiguate.

Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft, while being proof that speakers of German can be as witty (or silly) as anybody else in the world (the word is made up as a means of poking fun at bureaucratic language), it also illustrates what can happen when people try to simplify things. There once was a German spelling rule dictating that if three identical letters come together, as in “voyage by ship” (Schiff-fahrt), one of them must be dropped. However, in its infinite wisdom, the folks who brought about the spelling reform of 1996, which I have not gotten a handle on to this day, decided to drop that rule of dropping the third letter. Hence, the three fs in the Schifffahrt of Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhaupt-betriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft is now once again de rigeur. You might like to meditate on the German words for "stinging nettle" - Brennnessel; "having 'grip strength'": grifffest; and "fast-moving/short-lived": schnelllebig.

Place names are a separate category of their own. There is Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyllllantysiliogogogoch, a village on the island of Anglesey in Wales ; and  Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu, a thousand foot high hill in Northern New Zealand.

But back to the world of non-proper nouns, we must take note of the word Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz (“the law concerning the delegation of duties for the supervision of cattle marking and the labelling of beef), introduced by EU authorities in 1999 during the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis (which many prefer to abbreviate to the BSE crisis – or use the slang “mad cow disease”). Because it was in regular use there for a while, it had its own abbreviation, the RkReÜAÜG. Which was OK for written materials, I suppose. Don’t know what they did every time they had to speak of it.

To a linguist, this discussion is just plain silly. One only has to reflect upon the distinction between a word and a morpheme (defined as “the smallest unit in a word that carries a distinct meaning”:  “Say” in English is a single word and a single morpheme, but “says” is a single word but two morphemes, the suffix -s signaling that the word is in the third person singular. Antidisestablishmentarianism contains the morphemes anti (against); -dis (undo); -establish; -ment (the suffix that makes the verb establish a noun); -arian (a person who does this sort of thing); and –ism (the ideology which advocates this sort of thing. Incidentally, use the Google translator to get the Chinese translation for antiestablishmentarianism and they give you 反政教分離運動.  Character by character, that comes out  Fǎn zhèngjiào fēnlí yùndòng.  My knowledge of Chinese characters acquired through the study of Japanese tells me these "words"/"syllables"/"morphemes mean, in order: anti-politics-separation-movement. (Put it back into a Chinese-to English translator at Google Translate and you get Anti-Semitism movement - but that's a hurdle for another day.)

Chinese, in terms of word formation, is at one end of a spectrum one might say. It doesn’t have words. It has only morphemes, with a character for each morpheme. (OK, OK, that’s an oversimplification, but stay with me here). At the other end of the spectrum are agglutinative languages, languages like Japanese, which pile up morphemes into a single word.  “I had to do it,” in Japanese, is “shinakerebanaranakatta.”  Proof of the existence of demons who roam the earth seeking the ruination of souls lies in the fact that the designers of the Japanese writing system chose Chinese characters as the basis of their written language. Imagine drawing an elaborate character for each of the syllables in shinakerebanaranakatta. Cleverly, following the principle of designing magnificent microsystems for dealing with their ridiculously cumbersome macrosystems, the Japanese created two separate systems – one based on Chinese character images, which they use for the content words, and one based on sounds, which they use for writing the string of grammatical forms. 

The point being there is nothing strange or unusual about what seems like impossibly long words. They are a natural feature of agglutinative languages like Japanese or Turkish. If your eyes have not clouded over by now and you want to know how to say "As though you happen to have been from among those whom we will not be able to easily/quickly make into a maker of unsuccessful ones," in Turkish, Wikipedia has a marvelous morpheme-by-morpheme breakdown of
Muvaffakiyetsizleştiricileştiriveremeyebileceklerimizdenmişsinizcesine here

There. See?  I can go a whole day without once mentioning Agent Orange (as the Russians call him) in the White House. Or the need to go to the polls in November to throw out the bums currently taking money from the poor and giving it to the superrich, throwing people off of health care, advocating drill, baby, drill, along both of our coastlines, removing regulations put in place to keep children from ingesting lead, and pouring kerosene on fires all over the Middle East. Or wringing my hands in despair at the ever growing numbers of our arrogant and overweight population inclined to advocate notions that are comfortable to believe rather than truths that can be grounded in fact.

A whole day.

Maybe tomorrow.