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This essay/rant is mostly based off of an essay by a friend of mine whose website vanished from the internet because she's moved on. Or died. I have no idea, she's just gone. Farewell Nurvingiel, you were a great writer and your essay on using foreign languages in story-telling was one of my favorites.

Whether you're writing about Middle-earth or the Beika district of Tokyo, you'll be dealing with foreign languages that you may or may not know. You may be tempted to work in some of the native languages to give your readers a greater feeling of immersion in the world. There are several things I'd like you to keep in mind though.

  1. Don't assume that your readers will know as much about the language as you do. Therefore, use the same language you use for the narration for all of the dialogue. Any term not in this language should be clearly defined for the reader. This also applies to honorifics, titles, and terms of address, like Mr./Mrs./Mz./Miss/Lord/Lady. Translate them or leave them out entirely.

Say someone is jumping into a fandom for the first time, and doesn't speak any Elvish or Japanese or Na'vi. They click on a fanfic that looks interesting, but they can't read the dialogue because it's a word-salad of languages they don't know. They give up and go away.

  1. Write the dialogue from the point of view of the characters whose point of view you're using. You can use a different language to reflect the characters' inability to understand what is being said to them, immersing the reader more into the characters' perspective.

So, you've got a Japanese character in a Japanese setting, and you're writing in English. They'll be able to understand everything said to them in Japanese, so write all of the Japanese dialogue in plain English. But, if the character doesn't speak English well, or at all, you could phonetically transcribe the English into the Japanese phonology, so it seems just as foreign and bizarre to your English speaking readers. Here's an example:
“Ah, I didn't see you there; forgive me,” Kogorou said, stepping aside.

The woman with a long nose and carefully fluffed brown hair looked confused a moment, then said, “Aimu sari, ai dina kachi za. Kudju ripii za?”

Kogorou blinked, uncomprehending. What was this strange amalgamation of sounds this woman was spewing?

Conan sighed loudly behind him and answered the woman. Ran tugged him aside and whispered, “It's English; Dad, they're speaking in English.”
As you can see, it is as confusing and incoherent as Kogorou would find it.

For another example, say you're writing in English; your POV character only speaks of Westron in Middle-earth, and they meet an Elf, who only speaks Sindarin.
I stood back, surprised. To me, it'd looked like the tree and sprung to life, but now, I realized I was looking at an Elf. A real, live elf. The elf backed up a step, hands up to show she wasn't holding any weapons. “Goheno nin. Ú-ethilen dhe thostad.”

I blinked. What was this “thostad,” and did it hurt?
Another situation that you may come across is a bilingual character. You need some way to distinguish the fact that they're speaking another language, but it needs to be in plain English. I suggest putting the dialogue in the other language in italics (no more than that though, too many layers of italics, bolding, and underlining can be distracting) or simply mention in the narration that they're speaking this other language now.
Ah, I didn't see you there; forgive me,” Kogorou said, stepping aside.

The woman with a long nose and carefully fluffed brown hair looked confused a moment, then said in English, “I'm sorry; I didn't catch that. Could you repeat that?

Kogorou blinked, uncomprehending. Conan sighed loudly behind him and answered the woman, “He just apologized for bumping into you. He's very sorry.
In scenes such as this, using the foreign language in the dialogue makes sense. Most of the time, just don't.

  1. Make sure that the translations you use are accurate. Bad translations could end up annoying or insulting everyone who does speak the languages in question. Or rather, it's a pet peeve of mine and it drives me up the wall.

This is so bad in Anime fandoms. The Fan-Japanese is so... so... *tears hair out, flails uselessly at the screen for a few minutes, mouth starts frothing* MAKE IT STOP.

  1. Using foreign terms in the narration is the most effective, and could lead to using them in the dialogue.

This is pretty simple to do, actually. You have a character think about or discuss the term. Here are a few examples:
Ran scowled down at Shinichi, hands on her hips. “Stop using my name without honorifics. Little boys should call older girls 'Neesan.' I'm older than you.”

Shinichi looked down, inspecting the floor. He hated being reminded of his condition. “Yes Ran-neesan,” he mumbled to his toes.

“I don't think I heard you. Say it again.”

He glared back up at her. “I wanna go home, Ran-neesan!”
Now the reader will know the significance of Shinichi addressing Ran as Ran-neesan when in his child-form, and they get some insight into Shinichi's situation and personality.

My fingers brushed across the net the Elfwoman had tucked my hair into. I'd never seen such a device before, but it was holding in all of the stray hairs with ease.

The Elf tugged gently on the net. “Cathrae,” she said, clearly pleased with my reaction.

“It's a cathrae.” I said, tasting the word.

“Ma!” she said grinning. “Cathrae.”
In the scene, we get a taste of Elven hair-styles by having the elf character teach our human about Elven hairnets.

Once home, she absentmindedly stuffed her shoes into the kutsubako, a small shelf by the door that they put their shoes away in.
Or, it can be as simple as this.

In conclusion:
Write in whatever language you're writing in.
Don't expect everyone to know as much or as many foreign languages as you do.
Use foreign languages from the perspective of the characters that you're telling the story through.
When introducing foreign terms, define them carefully and creatively in the story.
Make sure the translations are correct, because this little linguist and translator is driven insane by bad translations.

Thank you.

Back to the Rant Index
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Oh what the hell, no one reads my blog anyways. I wrote a highly technical paper for my Historical Linguistics class that uses my own theories, instead of just regurgitating other people's theories. I'm really proud of it. But, I don't think many people will be able to understand much of it, or care.

Chain Shifts and Two Opposing Forces Theory of Phonetic Change

Understanding Chain Shifts is the key to understanding why language is constantly, never ceasingly changing. What makes them so fascinating is the symmetry the sounds move in and preserve. A Chain Shift is like a toy train set sitting atop a tray. Just tipping it slightly to one side, and the whole thing rolls off the tray together. To better understand Chain Shifts, we’ll look at Grimm’s Law and the Great English Vowel Shift in detail. Then we’ll organize the characteristics that are universal to all Chain Shifts, and finally, we will figure out why and how this dramatic set of changes is even possible.

Grimm’s Law

Arguably one of the most famous Chain Shifts, and a good starting point. In this Chain Shift entire natural classes of sounds changed all at once, which as it turns out, is a pretty common occurrence in Chain Shifts (and phonetic changes in general). Here is a table copied out of Lyle Campbell’s Historical Linguistics: An Introduction, page 49-50, illustrating Grimm’s Law.

-voice, stop>fricative +voice, stop>-voice +voice, +aspiration, stop>-aspiration
*p > f *b > p *bh > b
*t > θ *d > t *dh > d
*k and *k̂ > x/h *g and ĝ > k *gh and ĝh > g
*kw > hw *gw > kw *gwh > gw

The carets indicate palatal consonants that appear in Proto-Indo-European, but that merged before or during the Chain Shift. There are a few modifications I’d like to make though. First, the /*p/>/f/ change is missing a step. I think it should be /*p/>/ɸ/>/f/. Going from a bilabial stop to a bilabial fricative involves less changes than going to a labial-dental fricative. The change from bilabial to labial-dental easily could have taken place after the initial change. Second, I think that the /*t/ was a dental stop, not an alveolar stop. If it had been an alveolar stop, I think that /*t/ would have merged with /s/ instead of making a brand new fricative. Actually, this makes a lot of sense, considering that there were four places of articulation for stops in Proto-Indo-European. To make these four places spread out as far as possible, bilabial-dental-palatal-velar makes a lot of sense. After the palatals merged with the velars, the dental sounds easily could have moved back to the alveolar ridge.

The Great English Vowel Shift

Vowel Chain Shifts are common. Vowels themselves are quite mushy. Any one vowel phoneme is actually a range of sounds that we think is the same sound. For example, compare Northwestern US vowels with Japanese vowels: (data from me, for I speak these languages)
Japanese Vowels North Western US English Vowels
As you can see, the organizing and sorting of these sounds is quite different, but both languages identify more than one place of articulation as the same sound- as well as everything between the two sounds. So, the lines of the categories can easily shift. The Great English Vowel Shift itself: (illustrated by Robert Stockwell in Studies in the History of the English Language – A Millennial Perspective, page 17)

The Great English Vowel Shift

fig. 4

This Chain Shift, the bane of many children learning how to spell, only deals with the natural class of long vowels. Except for the high vowels, the change that happens is vowel raising. After the vowel raising, some more diphthongization happened to the mid vowels. One thing that this chart doesn’t cover is that vowel length as a phoneme in English disappeared, so /a/ didn’t vanish from the language.

Characteristics of Chain Shifts

Chain shifts follow a specific pattern and have some very specific characteristics. At one end of the chain, there will be a change that doesn’t fit the pattern of the others. At the other end, a sound will be lost. The changes happen in two phases.

Phase one is where the change that doesn’t fit the pattern happens. Examples of this are the voiceless stops becoming voiceless fricatives in Grimm’s Law; and the high long vowels becoming diphthongs in the Great English Vowel Shift.

Phase two is where the rest of the changes in the chain happen. These changes won’t be very drastic, often staying in a category of some sort and only tweaking one feature (as far as I can tell, I’ll need to examine more Chain Shifts to see if this holds true). The rest of the changes in Grimm’s Law are from one type of stop to another, and they all kept their places of articulation. In the Great English Vowel Shift, the vowels stayed in their category – front or back – and simply moved up. Finally, something will be lost from the phonetic invatory. In the Great English Vowel Shift, vowel length was lost, and in Grimm’s Law, aspiration was lost.

But why? Why do Chain Shifts follow this pattern? Both Trask and Campbell write of it in terms of “drag/pull chains” and “push chains”.

The Problem with Push Chains

Trask defines a “push chain” as “a chain that starts with a movement of one segment dangerously close to a second one, causing the second one to move out of the way and do the same thing to a third segment (108).” This, doesn’t make much sense to me. When segments get dangerously close, they merge. Certainly, there is a universal pattern of human languages’ phonetic structure wherein the sounds are as far apart and different as they can possibly get – but that appears to be a function of keeping the sounds as spread apart in the mouth as possible. And what would constitute being too close? Looking back at the NW US English vowel chart versus the Japanese vowel chart, the English vowels are much, much closer together than the Japanese vowels, but they aren’t pushing each other out of the way, and have been relatively stable for the 500 years since the Great English Vowel Shift. There seems to be little resistance against mergers. For example, look at the changes to ancient Greek vowels: (Trask 110)

Greek Vowels

This chart shows a small chain shift, actually. Look at /o:/>/u/>/i:/.

Pull/Drag Chains

Trask defines a “drag/pull chain” as “a chain that starts with the introduction of some holes [in the phonetic structure] which ‘drag’ other segments into them, thereby creating more holes which in turn drag other segments into them, and so on (108).” This makes a lot of sense to me, and sounds quite natural. It likely describes very accurately what happened to the Greek vowels above. But, I’m not sure it can be so easily applied to entire classes of sounds so easily. It’s certainly possible, but I think there’s probably another force at work.

Two Opposing Forces

We may have a glimpse of this force in Campbell’s definition of push chains.
“Sometimes the notion of ‘maximum differentiation’ is called upon in the instances. The idea behind maximum differentiation is that the sounds in a sound system tend to be distributed so as to allow as much perception difference between them as possible(48).”
This is a great theory, but I don’t think that it could explain the sounds pushing each other out of the way. All this means that before we can figure out how Chain Shifts work, we’ll need to figure this out why phonetic change happens. This leads us to many more questions about the nature and structure of phonologies and phonetic change in general. From here on in is my own musings, though I’m certain I’m not the only one too look at Chain shifts and think this up.

The first step into figuring this out is to ask some questions:
  1. Why are places and manners of articulation often reused with the phonology of a language? One reason that the IPA chart works so nicely when organizing the sounds in a language is because all languages will already have the sounds within them grouped and organized.
  2. Why are the sounds spread so far apart from each other in the mouth? This has the odd byproduct of making the phonetic charts look symmetrical, because they are based on where the sounds are made in the mouth. This is the most noticeable in vowel charts.
  3. Why aren’t words getting endlessly long? It’d mean they could be made up of very easy to say sounds.
  4. Why Fortition? Lenition is easy to figure out – making words easier to say is a very easy trend to spot. But more difficult? Why bother?
My “maximum differentiation” theory is a bit different from what Campbell writes about. I think that there is another piece to the puzzle, one that has completely incompatible goals. I think that these two forces of language change are in a ceaseless battle against each other: Ease of articulation, and Ease of differentiation.

Ease of articulation’s goal is to have the fewest number of different places and manners of articulation to learn for speech, and for those sounds to flow easily from one to another. It also doesn’t let words become too long.

Ease of differentiation’s goal is to have lots of different sounds far apart from each other in the mouth and made in many different ways that are easy to tell the difference between when listening to the speech. Speakers will say words in more difficult ways if it means they will be understood more easily.

With such different goals, it’s no wonder that language is constantly changing. Neither side can ever be happy.

Applying Two Opposing Forces to Chain Shifts

And we’re back to the problem of Chain Shifts. What gives them their peculiar shape? I think that the reason that change can be sped up is that a language’s phonology can be destabilized. If a change happens that upsets the delicate balance between the two forces, change will happen very quickly to correct the balance. Ease of differentiation will spread the sounds out, and ease of articulation will be look to use efficiently the places and manners of articulation.

In phase one, a change happens that upsets the balance. Ease of Differentiation will cause instability because the sounds are no longer spread out as far as possible. Ease of Articulation will cause instability because the manners and places of articulation are no longer being used efficiently.

In phase two, the sounds spread out as Ease of Differentiation wants, but staying in the categories that Ease of Articulation holds them to. One segment moves at a time, never overlapping, else there’d be mergers. Possibly, a segment could gain and lose ground at the same time, making the changes happen all together, like a slack chain laid out on a desk, being pulled taunt from one end.

Works Cited

Campbell, Lyle. Historical Linguistics: An Introduction - 2nd ed. Edinburgh University Press, 2004
Stockwell, Robert. Studies in the History of the English Language : A Millennial Perspective. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2002
Trask, Arnold. Trask’s Historical Linguistics - 2nd ed. 1996. Ed. Robert M. Miller. London: Hodder Education, 2007

Free Will

Dec. 9th, 2011 04:53 pm
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I’d say it was luck, but it’s not. These events corresponded to make me. I am the happy effect of these causes. There is no “could”; it happened this way. There was no other way for it to happen, because this is the way it happened. We can argue about the “how it happened” for a millennium, because we can’t relive moments with a billion ways to scientifically record the data. In the end, it doesn’t matter all that much. I am here. I’m sitting on a couch, typing. The battery of my laptop is slowly dying. My friend is texting me, and I set aside the computer to answer her back, and I was struck by this thought, which I struggle to put to words.

What is free will? The most instant answer that popped to mind is “The ability to make decisions that aren't controlled by outside forces.” Every decision we make on our own then is exercising our free will. But there is a fatal flaw in this definition.

Could influences that result in poor judgment or seemingly abnormal judgment and decision making be considered the lack of free will? “Driving Under the Influence” and “Criminally Insane” come to mind as examples of this. These particular ideas seem to be based on the idea that free will can be compromised. What about advertisements then? Could they not be considered taking away our free will by influencing our minds into buy their products or services? What about peer pressure? Mob mentality? Hunger? All of these things are outside influences on our decisions.

But, what does that mean?

Nothing. Free will is irrelevant. Claiming to have or not have free will is redundant at best, superfluous at worst. Our wills are the products of our current environment juxtaposed against our past environments and a healthy dose of our personality. What goes into weighing our choices – the criteria and the weights that we assign them – means that our decisions are not random and therefore not “free”, and are always under the influence of something.

For example: my choice to not eat ice cream during my lunch break isn’t because I don’t like ice cream. In fact, I love ice cream. But, I’m lactose intolerant and eating ice cream would make me sick without taking medication before hand. So, (using Optimality Theory because I’m a linguistics nerd) I’ve made a little chart to help explain this.

 Lactose IntoleranceStinginessLove of Ice Cream
Eat Ice Cream with Lactade *! 
Eat Ice Cream*!  
→Don’t Eat Ice Cream  *

If you don't know Optimality Theory then I'll explain this chart for you: (*) means "violation". (*!) means "fatal violation". The constraints on the top are listed by importance, from left to right. (→) means "winner". (Normally it's a little hand, but I don't know the HTML for it, so I went with a little arrow instead.)

It doesn’t matter if there is or isn’t free will. Our wills and decision making processes don't work that way, so the idea isn't applicable to reality.

But, that we have will is very important. It keeps us breathing, working jobs, struggling through boring classes, and drives us to achieve great things.

Did I just disprove Free Will with Optimality Theory?

July 2015

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