Sunday, October 29, 2017

Butterfly-collecting: the history of an insult

Chomsky's barb about butterfly-collecting has echoed in the ears of descriptive linguists for decades, and is sometimes blamed for the withering away of field linguistics over the late 20th century. The earliest published version I could track down via Google is:
"You can also collect butterflies and make many observations. If you like butterflies, that’s fine; but such work must not be confounded with research, which is concerned to discover explanatory principles of some depth and fails if it does not do so." (Chomsky 1979:57)
So I was surprised to find a similar statement attributed to the eminent early 20th century physicist Ernest Rutherford, quoted by Dyson (2006:179) as saying "Physics is the only real science; the rest are butterfly-collecting." How did this metaphor make its way into linguistics?

For a start, it appears that Dyson's version is somewhat inexact. The Rutherford quote appears to belong to the oral tradition of physics, rather than deriving from any publication of his; the earliest version that I can find on Google Books is from Baker (1942:96):

"These ideas are crystallized in the statement, attributed to Rutherford, that science consists of physics and stamp- collecting. This is an epigram intended to mean that particular objects are uninteresting : it is the extreme view-point of a general analytical scientist."
The shift from stamps to butterflies came decades later, first attested only in 1974. In fact, the derisive comparison to butterfly collecting seems likely to have seeped into linguistics not from physics but from, of all subjects, anthropology. Edmund Leach (1961:2) makes it the central metaphor of his assault of Radcliffe-Brown:
"Radcliffe-Brown maintained that the objective of social anthropology was the 'comparison of social structures'. [...] Comparison is a matter of butterfly collecting — of classification, of the arrangement of things according to their types and subtypes. The followers of Radcliffe-Brown are anthropological butterfly collectors and their approach to their data has certain consequences."
Anthropologists would reuse the metaphor in debates over the distinction between different types of comparison in linguistics itself, whether endorsing it like Lehman (1964:387) or rebutting the criticism like Sarana (1965:29). From there it seems to have been taken up by Chomskyan linguists as an argument against Bloomfield's "disovery procedures", if I am correctly interpreting the incomplete fragment of Ferber and Lynd (1971) that I can find on Google Books:
"These procedures, which are largely a matter of classification, have been uncharitably called "butterfly-collecting" in the manner of pre-Darwinian biology: they account for a detailed "external" description of each language (what Chomsky [...]"
Geoffrey Leech (1969:4) deploys the same metaphor against rhetoric:
"Connected to this is a second weakness of traditional rhetoric - what I am tempted to call its 'train-spotting' or 'butterfly-collecting' attitude to style. This is the frame of mind in which the identification, classification and labelling of specimens of given stylistic devices becomes an end in itself [...]"
The redeployment of this argument to belittle descriptive work in general, rather than particular approaches, seems to be attributable to David DeCamp (1971:158), criticizing sociolinguistics from a Chomskyan perspective:
"The weakest theory is a 'functional' model, which only relates outputs from the black box to inputs, e. g. a grammar which would generate all and only the sentences of a language; the goal of much scientific research is to replace such a functional model with a 'structural' model, one that makes the stronger claim of describing what is actually in the black box. Mendel's 'genes' were only a functional model of genetics; the research on the DNA and RNA molecules has yielded a model that is much more nearly structural. Thus one branch of biology has at last become a true science; general linguistics is approaching that status; sociolinguistics is still in the pre-theoretical, butterfly-collecting stage, with no theory of its own and uncertain whether it has any place in general linguistic theory."
He then clarifies (ibid:170) that:
"'Butterfly collecting' is simply the collection of a whole lot of information toward the day when somebody can produce a formal theory. Now this is valuable, this is useful. We need a lot of empirical data collection also. I certainly would not want to imply by this that in this I'm saying that there is not an importance to the kinds of things that the Urban Language Survey is doing at CAL, or Bill Labov's work in New York. This is immensely important. What I am saying is that although it is necessary, it is not sufficient. We've got enough data now; it is about time to guide further research by means of some sort of a theory."
So, if we have to blame one person for reducing descriptive linguistics to butterfly collecting, it looks like it would be David DeCamp, at least until someone tracks down an earlier citation. But that misses a broader point: the disparaging comparison of data gathering to butterfly collecting seems to have become rather pervasive across a variety of disciplines in the late 20th century - including biology itself, which may well be part of where DeCamp got it from. All the way back in 1964, Theodosius Dobzhansky - who had been an ardent butterfly collector before becoming a prominent evolutionary biologist - comments sarcastically that:
"The notion has gained some currency that the only worthwhile biology is molecular biology. All else is "bird watching" or "butterfly collecting." Bird watching and butterfly collecting are occupations manifestly unworthy of serious scientists!" (Dobzhansky 1964:443)
Had he lived to see molecular biology turn to such quintessentially descriptive, list-making pursuits as the Human Genome Project, he would surely have enjoyed having the last laugh.

(If you have any earlier citations bearing on the history of this metaphor in linguistics, please tell me below!)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Siwi on Wikipedia

I am not a big fan of Wikipedia, despite its usefulness. To contribute good material to it - and there is a lot of wonderful material there - is to make an article look reassuringly reliable. That appearance of reliability then makes the article prime prey for anybody with an ideological or even commercial agenda to push: one little edit, and their propaganda is integrated into the same text, gaining credibility from its context, and getting copied over and over and over. Nevertheless, the insistent niggling itch of knowing that "someone is wrong on the internet" eventually got to me, and last month I ended up massively expanding the article Siwi language - including a fairly extensive section on Siwi oral literature. Suggestions or comments are welcome, although I make no promises.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Shoes in Songhay and West Chadic: towards an etymology

The proto-Songhay word for "(pair of) shoes, sandals" is *tàgmú (Zarma tà:mú, Kandi tà:mú, Gao taam-i, Hombori tà:mí, Kikara tă:m, Djenne taam, Tadaksahak taɣmú, Korandje tsaɣmmu). It is evidently related to a less widely attested verb *tàgmá "step on" (Zarma tà:mú, Gao taama, Hombori tà:mà, Djenne taam). (Velar stop codas are lost in all of Songhay except the Northern branch, leaving behind either compensatory lengthening or a w; see Souag 2012.)

In Hausa, the word for "shoe, boot, sandal" is tà:kàlmí: (borrowed directly into the Songhay (Dendi) variety of Djougou as tàkăm). Within Hausa, this likewise corresponds to a verb tá:kà: "step on". The two-way similarity is striking, but if there was borrowing, which way did it go? A cognate set in Schuh (2008) casts some light on the question.

Hausa belongs to the West Chadic family, in which the best comparison to Hausa "shoe" seems to be Bole tàkà(:), with no obvious cognates within its own subgroup, Bole-Tangale (Ngamo tà:hò looks similar, but Ngamo h seems normally to correspond to Bole p, not k.) For "step on", however, Schuh points to a potential cognate set in a slightly more distantly related West Chadic subgroup, Bade. In this subgroup, we have Gashua Bade tà:gɗú, Western Bade tàgɗú, Ngizim tàkɗú which Schuh analyses as *tàk- plus an unproductive verbal extension -ɗu supported by Bade-internal evidence, eg tə̀nkùku "press" vs. tə̀nkwàkùɗu "massage". Within Bole-Tangale, one might speculate that Gera tàndə̀- is cognate, but Gera seems to be known only from short wordlists, so that would be difficult to show.

So the comparative evidence provides some support for the idea that Hausa tá:kà: "step on" goes back to proto-West Chadic. If tà:kàlmí: "shoe" could be regularly derived from this verb within Chadic, then the answer would appear clear: Songhay borrowed it from Chadic. However, while Hausa frequently forms deverbal nouns with a suffix -i: (Newman (2000:157), there seems to be no plausible language-internal explanation for the -lm-. In Songhay, on the other hand, a suffix -mi forming nouns from verbs (sometimes -m-ey with a former plural suffix stuck on) is reasonably well-attested: Gao (Heath 1999:97) dey "buy" vs. dey-mi "purchase (n.)", key "weave" vs. key-mi "weaving", Kikara (Heath 2005:97-98) kà:rù "go up" vs. kàr-mɛ̂y "going up", húná "live" vs. hùnà-mɛ̀y "long life". A shift *-mi to *-mu seems natural enough, especially since a few Songhay varieties actually have reflexes of "shoe" with a final -i in any case; so the Songhay form looks kind of like it could be **tàg "step on" plus deverbal -mí̀. To top it off, deverbal noun-forming suffixes in -r- are widely attested in Songhay, and Zarma attests a combined suffix -àr-mì: zànjì "break" vs. zànjàrmì "shard", bágú "break" vs. bàgàrmì "piece of debris" (Tersis 1981:244). If we treat the Hausa form as a borrowing from Songhay, we can then analyse it as **tàg "step on" plus deverbal -àr-mí. But before we get carried away, we should note that within Songhay there's no motivation for analysing the -mu / -mi in "shoe" as a suffix; the verb and the noun differ (if at all) only in the final vowel.

So what to make of all this? So far, the scenario that suggests itself is something like the following:

  1. Songhay borrows a verb *tàk "step on" from West Chadic (or vice versa?).
  2. Songhay internally forms a deverbal noun *tàk-mí "shoe" (there is no reconstructible contrast between *k and *g in coda position in proto-Songhay), alongside a variant *tàk-àr-mí.
  3. Hausa borrows this as tà:kàlmí:.
  4. Songhay replaces *tàk with a denominal verb formed from "shoe" (which becomes internally unanalysable): *tàgm-á. This step has possible internal motivations: in most of Songhay, final velar stops disappeared leaving behind only compensatory lengthening on the preceding vowel, and the resulting form tà: would have been homophonous with the much commoner verb "receive, take".
  5. Djougou Dendi, a heavily Hausa-influenced, somewhat creolized Songhay variety spoken in Benin, borrows the Hausa form as tàkăm.

Further Chadic comparative data may yet turn out to bear upon this etymology, but one thing seems clear: these two families have been affecting each other for a long time.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Berber and not so Berber words in Tunisian Arabic

Not too long ago I finished reading Lotfi Sayahi's Diglossia and Language Contact: Language Variation and Change in North Africa. The book is a valuable contribution to the study of synchronic language contact between Tunisian Arabic, Standard Arabic, and French in Tunisia, with some coverage of the rest of the region as well. Unfortunately, when it briefly looks at Berber lexical influence on Arabic (pp. 135, 187), reflecting joint work with Zouhir Gabsi, its conclusions are rather over-hasty. Since this book is likely to become a standard point of departure for English speakers studying language contact in North Africa, I think it's worth correcting the record here even at the risk of being pedantic:
  • fakru:n "turtle" and ferzazzu "wasp" really are Berber, though the -u:n suffix in the former was first added in dialectal Arabic (almost all Berber varieties have forms similar to Kabyle ifker/ikfer).
  • garžu:ma "throat" is a very difficult word to etymologize, but may ultimately be Berber (compare Tuareg a-gurzăy), although it does bring to mind Romance forms such as French gorge.
  • karmu:s "fig" is clearly derived from karm-a "fig tree", which is definitely not Berber, and seems to come from a narrowing of the meaning of Classical Arabic كرم karm "orchard" (see the brief discussion in Behnstedt & Woidich 2011:491). The suffix -u:s might theoretically be Berber, I suppose, but probably not; it's not widely attested across Berber, and it fits well with the widespread dialectal Arabic pattern of augmentatives in -u:-.
  • sebsi: "pipe" is from Turkish sipsi.
  • bu-telli:s "monster/nightmare" ("sleep paralysis", to be precise) is a compound involving bu- "possessor of" (originally "father of") plus telli:s (a kind of rug). The latter is well-attested within Arabic in the Middle East as well as in North Africa; its etymology is controversial, but it may derive from Latin trilicium "triple-twilled fabric".
  • ḍabbu:ṭ "axilla" (ie "armpit") is evidently an expressive formation from Arabic إبط 'ibṭ. The widespread Berber word for this is rather taddeɣt (from which we get Maghrebi Arabic dəɣdəɣ "tickle").
  • dagdag "to shatter" is a reduplicated form from Arabic دقّ daqqa "pulverize".

I don't have the time to check the rest of the reduplicated verbs he cites (tartar "to mutter", dardar "to muddy", maxmax "to nibble", maṣmaṣ "to rinse", sɛksɛk "to flow", tɛftɛf "to graze", and wɛdwɛd "to talk nonsense"), but maxmax and maṣmaṣ include phonemes with no regular proto-Berber sources, and I doubt any of them is really Berber in origin.

I don't mean to pick on the authors; notwithstanding this brief lapse, it's a good book, and worth reading. But I do want to hammer home to every linguist the message that etymology needs to be done properly. If you want to do etymology in a North African dialect, don't just assume that any word you don't recognize from Modern Standard Arabic or French is a Berber loanword; check other regional languages (especially Turkish), check existing publications on the subject, check the distribution of the word across different Berber and Arabic varieties. Etymology may not be a very trendy subject, but that doesn't mean it's easy.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Street math and diglossia

In "Mathematics in the streets and in schools" (Carraher et al. 1985), child street vendors were given a paper and pencil and asked to calculate multiplications that they had, in fact, already done in their heads in the course of selling their wares. The results were often sobering, as in the following case:
Informal test
Customer: OK, I'll take three coconuts (at the price of Cr$ 40.00 each). How much is that?
Child: (Without gestures, calculates out loud) 40, 80, 120.

Formal test
Child solves the item 40 x 3 and obtains 70. She then explains the procedure 'Lower the zero; 4 and 3 is 7'.

As you can see, the children were perfectly capable of doing (some!) multiplication their own way, but when faced with school-style problems, this ability frequently deserted them. Confronted with a piece of paper, they attempted to apply the algorithm they had learned at school, without so much as checking their answers against the algorithm they had mastered as part of their daily life. In daily life, conversely, they presumably weren't getting much out of the multiplication algorithm they had learnt at school, even though it would let them tackle a much wider range of multiplication problems. School-learning that stays at school, and never affects real life despite having an obvious potential to be useful there: it's an educator's nightmare.

What this immediately reminded me of is diglossia. In a schoolroom or an essay, you obediently attempt to use Standard Arabic, and all the grammatical rules and vocabulary you learned for it. Almost anywhere else, you carefully avoid it, even while claiming to accept that Standard Arabic is correct and that what you actually make very sure to speak is wrong. To me, that seems to send a fundamentally problematic message: that what you learn in school is not supposed to be useful outside of some limited institutional contexts. I hope that's not the message most people get from it, but it would be great to know for sure. I don't suppose anyone knows of a study addressing the question?

Thursday, August 24, 2017

*-min-: an Algonquian morpheme that went global

American English was born in the clearing of the eastern woodlands, where British settlers encountered native Americans mostly speaking Algonquian languages. The same is true, mutatis mutandis, of Canadian French. If either language can be said to have a native American substratum at all, it's Algonquian. This substratum is hardly conspicuous, manifesting itself almost exclusively in loanwords. If the Algonquian languages had vanished without record, as most of the pre-Indo-European languages of Europe did, could anything at all be said about their morphology on the basis of this influence?

It turns out that there's at least one bound morpheme that shows up in quite a few loanwords: *-min- "berry, fruit". But it manifests itself more clearly in French than in English, where it has been obscured by a number of irregular developments.

Today, French barely survives in the upper Midwest; but before Jefferson's purchase of the Louisiana Territory, France claimed the whole of this vast area, and attempted to back up its ambitions with a handful of missionaries and settlers. There, up among the Illinois near Peoria, French speakers encountered two quite unfamiliar fruits, and adopted their names from the Myaamia-Illinois language:

English missed the chance to borrow a local term for the pawpaw - the English word derives from papaya, a fruit originating much further south - but adopted a reflex of the same word for "persimmon", along with several other terms containing this. Unfortunately, most are fairly obscure (although no more so than "asimine"), and no two show the same form of the morpheme:
  • persimmon; cf. Virginia Algonquian putchamins (Smith), pushenims (Strachey), apparently reconstructed by Siebert as pessi:min (cf. Skeat 1908; although that looks rather implausible given the Illinois form).
  • hominy (because it's made from corn); cf. Virginia Algonquian ustatahamen (Smith), vshvccohomen (Strachey) and other forms.
  • chinquapin (a kind of chestnut); cf. Virginia Algonquian chechinquamins (Smith), checinqwamins (Strachey).
  • saskatoon (a berry); cf. Cree misâskwatômin ᒥᓵᐢᑲᐧᑑᒥᐣ.
  • pembina (a kind of cranberry); cf. Cree nîpiniminân ᓃᐱᓂᒥᓈᐣ.
The prospects are not that encouraging, but combining the English and French evidence, an alert etymologist just might be able to spot the *-min- morpheme, and hence guess that Algonquian had head-final compounds. Thankfully, in North America, such hyper-speculative substrate chasing is hardly necessary; Algonquian is a fairly well-documented family. In other parts of the world, though, such approaches may occasionally prove effective.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

What's wrong with the obvious analysis of waš bih واش بيه?

In the Algerian Arabic dialect I grew up speaking, "what's wrong with him?" is waš bi-h? واش بيه. (Further west, in Oran and in Morocco, it's the more classical sounding ma-leh? ما له.) When the object is a pronoun, as it usually is, waš bi-h? can readily be understood as waš "what?" and bi-, the form of "with" (otherwise b) used before pronominal suffixes (in this case, -h "him"). But substitute a noun, and this historically correct interpretation becomes synchronically untenable: we say waš bi jedd-ek? "what's wrong with you (lit. your grandfather)?" واش بي جدّك, whereas "with your grandfather" would be b-jedd-ek بجدّك. Nor can we cleft it with the relative/focus marker lli اللي: *waš lli bi jedd-ek? (*"what is it that's wrong with you?") is totally ungrammatical, while *waš lli b-jedd-ek? does not have the appropriate meaning (in fact, out of context, it makes no sense at all). This tells us that, whatever its origins, waš bi- can no longer be analysed as "what?" plus a preposition "with"; it has to be treated as a morphosyntactic unit in its own right. In particular, this bi- cannot be used to form an adverbial - it only forms a predicate - so it can hardly be treated as a preposition. Nevertheless, it continues to take the prepositional pronominal suffixes: "what's wrong with me?" is waš bi-yya? واش بيَّ, not *waš bi-ni.

The independent unity of waš bi-? becomes a lot clearer when the construction is borrowed into another language, as has happened in the Berber variety of Tamezret in southern Tunisia. The stories recorded there by Hans Stumme shortly before 1900 are a bit hard to read, but provide probably the single most extensive published corpus of material in Tunisian Berber. These texts furnish many examples of aš bi-, although Tamezret Berber neither has to mean "what?" (that would be matta) nor bi- to mean "with" (that would be s). Many of these look just like Arabic: aš bi-k "what's wrong with you? (m.)" (p. 14, l. 11); aš bi-kum "what's wrong with you (pl.)?" (p. 27, l. 26), aš bi-h "what's wrong with him?" (p. 14, l. 3); and even, with a noun, aš bi iryazen "what's wrong with men?" (p. 41, l. 5). But the similarity is somewhat deceptive; in some cases, this construction takes Berber rather than Arabic pronominal suffixes, as illustrated by aš bi-ṯ "what's wrong with her?" (p. 25, l. 21) instead of Arabic aš bi-ha, aš bi-m "what's wrong with you (f.)?" (p. 10, l. 5). Unfortunately, the texts do not provide a complete paradigm - further documentation is needed! But judging by the available data, all cells but match well with the Berber paradigm:

Algerian ArabicTamezretTamezret, direct objectsTamezret, objects of prepositionsš bi-kaš bi-k-ak-kš bi-kaš bi-m-am-mš bi-kumaš bi-kum-akum / -awem-kumš bi-haš bi-h-ṯ-sš bi-haaš bi-ṯ-ṯ-s

The and suffixes are quasi-identical between Tamezret Berber and Arabic, facilitating the borrowing; for the second person, neither language clearly distinguishes direct object forms from objects of prepositions. The third person, however, distinguishes the two in Berber but not in Arabic, and suggests that the object in this construction is treated as a direct object, not as the object of a preposition, contrary to the situation seen for Arabic. This fits Berber-internal patterns; throughout Berber, nonverbal predicators (Aikhenvald's "semi-verbs") typically take the direct object pronominal paradigm, and assign absolutive case to their arguments. The perfect agreement of the most frequently used cells in this paradigm between Arabic and Berber surely facilitated the borrowing of this item, but within Berber the paradigm got rebuilt on a largely Berber basis. In morphology, etymology is not destiny!