Polyglot Meme

The question most often asked when people find out you’ve dabbled in linguistics is “How many languages do you speak?” Well, I’ve studied quite a few languages, but there are only a couple I’d be comfortable jumping in blind right now.

James McGrath has started a meme that widens the net a bit:

List every language that [you] have made some sort of concerted effort to learn, even if [you] didn’t get beyond the first lesson or so, or even if [you] are still learning it. No need to specify the degree of fluency in the blog post – if readers are curious how much Swahili you know, they can ask.

Here’s my list, in no order whatsoever:

“Deponent” is a Spurious Category

I’ve seen a few posts lately regarding the “problem” of deponency and/or the middle voice in ancient Greek. One blogger even suggests that we use a different word than “middle”, which is a dumb idea, because “middle voice” is a term of art, with a specific meaning that has only a tenuous relationship to the ordinary use of the word.

To a linguist, this is all very bemusing. Trying to build elaborate models and explanations to help English speakers wrap their minds around the idea that ancient Greek speakers used middle or passive constructions in contexts where English would use the active is just pandering to Anglo-centrism — all the models are attempting to explain Greek in terms of the writers’ English-language categories.

Look, folks, news-flash: ancient Greek is NOT English! The categories of ancient Greek are not those of English, and the ancient Greeks’ reasons for using a particular voice in a particular situation may simply be quite different from those of modern-day English-speakers.

And they may indeed have not had reasons! Far more of language is made up of arbitrary convention than most scholars of language would like to admit. A search for “reasons” (or “deep structure”, cough cough) is often at best an exercise in historical linguistics.

It might have been better had Greek been further grammatically from English — it’s hard to shoehorn an ergative-absolutive system, for example, into English-speakers’ conceptual framework — they just have to learn it on its own terms.

So in teaching ancient Greek it’s not a cop-out to say “that’s just how they did it”. The idea of “deponency” is actually a barrier to thinking in ancient Greek, because it tries to keep the learner using English concepts, instead of forming Greek concepts! I think sometimes language pedagogy goes overboard in trying to teach systems of rules. Languages are in general messy, and the most useful and interesting parts of language are often exceptions to the rules.

I’m brushing up on my Attic Greek right now by going through Reading Greek, which I cannot recommend highly enough, but for my own amusement, I’m not bothering with making sure I’ve got all the paradigms, or even memorizing new vocabulary. Of course, I did have the advantage of memorizing lots of paradigms back in school days, but I’m surprised at how much structure and vocab I’ve been picking up simply inductively. It helps that the texts are interesting, colourful and thus memorable.

First Contact

Emily at three months has begun to communicate about things that are not immediately related to her physical needs.

The other day I was bouncing her on my knee and singing a song, she was paying attention and sort of giggling. When I finished, she began waving her arms and vocalizing, so I started singing another song, and she smiled.

Very exciting.