Rocks and Ravel: On the ranges of functions of the human hand

Think about how differently the hand has to function for a rock climber, versus a classical pianist.

You’ll often read dilettantes in the field of evolution talk about “the” function of this or that organ, structure, or whatever.  I say “dilettantes” because it’s simplistic to think in terms of one function for any part of an organism.

Consider the human hand.  Think about how differently it has to function for these two kinds of people:

  1. A rock climber
  2. A classical pianist

These two folks have to develop their hands to do two things that are essentially polar opposites.  To wit:

  1. rock climber: …needs his fingers to be able to (a) support a lot of weight, for (b) prolonged periods of time, in (c) the same position.
  2. classical pianist: …needs his fingers to be able to (a) move rapidly, (b) across a wide range of forces, (c) with great precision.
Source: By zaui/Scott Catron –, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Being able to keep his fingers in the same spot with a lot of weight on them for a long time is what lets a rock climber figure out his next move without plunging into the abyss–presumably to his depth.  Being able to execute very subtle variations in pressure across a wide variety of speeds (see the English notes below for what the verb to execute means in this context) is what allows a classical pianist to express what we call “emotion” in a piece of music.  “The” function of the hand?  It’s an incredibly complex organ capable of many different functions, you dilettante.  (I’m speaking to some hypothetical wanker who thinks they know something about evolution here, not to you, dear reader.)

I always think about Frank Wilson’s observations on the rock climber versus the pianist in his book The Hand  when I head to Guatemala the first week in August.  I spend one week a year in Antigua, Guatemala, where I serve as an interpreter for a group of surgeons, technicians, nurses, therapists, and anesthesiologists who provide free specialized surgeries for people for whom the almost-free Guatemalan health care system is still too expensive.  A lot of that time I spend with a hand surgeon and with a therapist who specializes in rehabilitation after hand surgery.  Wilson’s observations about the very different kinds of demands that we can place on our hands come to mind in this context because, as Dr. David Kim, our hand surgeon, puts it,

The number one goal in hand surgery is restoration of function.  People can differ quite a bit in terms of the kinds of functions that they carry out with their hands, so I don’t necessarily address the same problems with the same surgical technique.  A tailor and a farm worker need to be able to do very different things in order to return to the normal functions of their lives, and I keep that in mind when I am determining the best surgical approach to addressing their problems.

The majority of people in Guatemala have two options in life:

  1. Do manual labor
  2. Starve to death

So, when the Surgicorps team gives someone back the lost function of their hand, it is not just a surgical procedure–it is allowing that person to not starve to death, and perhaps to make it possible for their children to go to school–and thus have a few more options in life than the two that I listed above.  Would you like to help support what we do here?  Our volunteers pay all of the costs of their own involvement–we buy our own plane tickets, pay for our food and lodging, etc., and donate all of our services.  Your donation goes straight to supporting surgeries, pre- and post-op care for our patients, and lodging for the family members that accompany them here.  You don’t have to give much to help a lot–$250 US pays all costs of surgery for one patient, and $10 US pays for all of the pain medications that we will send patients home with the entire week.  Follow this link to donate–a small donation is a great way to make your day better!

English notes

to executeone of the meanings of this word is to perform or carry out some action.  How I used it in the post: Being able to execute very subtle variations in pressure across a wide variety of speeds is what allows a classical pianist to express what we call “emotion” in a piece of music. 

to death: this prepositional phrase is a structurally unusual way of expressing the idea of dying due to a specific cause or being killed by a specific method.  Here are some examples from Sketch Engine, purveyor of fine linguistic corpora and the tools for searching them.

  • 400 people then broke through the barrier and stamped the soldiers to death“Stamped…to death” means that they killed the soldiers by stomping on them.  (Yes: “to stomp.”  From Merriam-Webster: “to strike or beat forcibly with the bottom of the foot.”)
  • Anything approved today will not be implemented until next August at the earliest, but people cannot be left without aid for such a long period unless they are supposed to starve to death. “To starve to death” means to die by starvation.
  • On July 10th , 1941, in the Polish town of Jedwabne, at least 340 Jewish citizens were murdered – burned to death in a locked barn after having been publicly beaten and humiliated in the town square – not, as one might have expected, by the country’s Nazi occupiers but by a group of twenty-three Polish men, acting, more or less enthusiastically (“more” seems likely), at the instigation of the German gendarmerie, who were on hand to shoot down anyone who tried to escape from the barn. “Burned to death” means that they were killed by burning.



Marde…and Kraft Dinner

I don’t even wanna think about what’s in that orange powder, but the stuff is strangely tasty.

Being the North American that I am, you would think that my French would be sprinkled with Canadianisms.  Not really: there are some words that I learned from Québécois and can’t seem not to pronounce like them–poussiaire when I should be saying poussière, lampadaillere when I should be saying lampadaire, and drette when I should be saying…well, actually I don’t know how to say drette in hexagonal French, which is why I say it in Québécois.  Some little stuff like that, but otherwise, you wouldn’t take me for a Canadian–ever.  (Well, there was this one incident on the métro… another time, perhaps.)

One exception to the general non-Canadianness of my (feeble) French: marde.  As an expletive, merde in Québec is…marde.  Why?  No clue.  Why is it what comes out of my mouth if I spill my coffee, drop my vocabulary flashcards on the RER B, or notice that I left my laundry in the washing machine overnight and now they’re moldy as fuck?  Also no clue.  But, if you wanna hear marde straight outta (outta explained in the English notes below) the mouth of an autochtone, you won’t find anything better than a recording of Québécoise superstar Lisa Leblanc.  She has a delightful accent–I believe from Newfoundland, given her pronunciation of words like gars as “guh.”  There are approximately one bazillion YouTube videos of her singing this song; I like this one because of her backup singers.  Linguistic mystery: why connes and not cons in

A matin mon lit simple fait sûr de me rappeler que je dors dans un lit simple avec les springs qui m’enfoncent dans le dos // Comme des connes…

…or maybe I’m just hearing it wrong?  Phil dAnge?  In any case: enjoy Lisa LeBlanc’s Ma vie c’est de la marde, and then scroll down to the English notes for a discussion of outta, plus a special bonus explanation of Kraft Dinner.  Why?  Keep reading, keep reading…


English notes

outta: an informal spoken form of “out of.”  Click here for a good video about how to use it.  It’s not typically written, but if it is, it’ll be o-u-t-t-a.  

Kraft Dinner: a disgusting but completely delicious kind of macaroni and cheese.  You buy it in a box, boil the pasta, sprinkle an envelope of orange powder on it, throw in some butter and some milk… I don’t even wanna think about what’s in that orange powder, but the stuff is strangely tasty, and at 25 cents a box the last time I checked (which was probably the last time that I could only afford 25 cents for dinner), you can live on it for surprisingly long.  Why it’s relevant to us today: it’s the title of a truly lovely Lisa LeBlanc song.

Au pire on vivra ensemble // En mangeant du Kraft Dinner // C’est tout ce qu’on a besoin…


Want to learn to speak Québécois?  Free lessons hereHilarious, and actually pretty helpful…

I’ll have your baby anyway: Sally Folk

The rest mostly make me think about shooting myself–in a *good* way.

What surprises Americans: when I tell them how much, in general, the French love our country.  But, the complaints about all of the English language used in France… The movie subsidies… The laws about how much French-language music has to be played on the radio…  They miss what seems to me the obvious inference: the government support for French cinema, the laws requiring that at least some French-language music show up on the radio, the complaints (from almost no one) about the invasion of the English language–they’re all there because the French love to mix some English with their daily language, because they love American movies, because they know American music better than I do (I’m an American).  The “cultural exception” that allows the French government to financially promote French films and music is there precisely because left to their own devices, many French will consume American entertainment media almost exclusively, and the indigenous entertainment industry would croak (slang for “die”–maybe equivalent to crever?).  No stereotype is true of everyone–but, this one applies to a lot of French people.

sally-folk-deuxieme-acteThe latest evolution of the laws regarding French-language music on French radio: you can’t just play the same French-language songs over and over again.  Radio stations are required to play a certain percentage of French music.  Many stations have tended to fulfill that requirement by just playing the same classics repeatedly, which makes no one happy.  The radio stations’ excuse: there just isn’t that much good new French-language music.

This is bullshit.  Quebec is at the center of a number of the interesting things happening with respect to French, and one of them is music.  There are some really good–amazing, even, to my ears–Québécois musicians putting out new albums all the time.  I would categorize (’cause us French do love to taxonomize shit) them roughly as follows:

  • singer-songwriters
  • “folk” musicians
  • straightforward rock-and-rollers
  • pop

Picture source:

One of the most interesting of the singer-songwriters: Sally Folk.  She is an ineffably adorable pint-sized brunette who rocks a 1960s glam/girl-group look.  A couple of her songs are the sort of perky, happy tunes that you might expect from someone who looks like that–and the rest are dark, sophisticated, dark, complicated, dark… Did I say “dark”?  One that stirred up a lot of controversy when her third album recently came out is J’aurai ton enfant quand même, “I’ll have your baby anyway,” in which the narrative voice (is that the term?) talks about how she knows that her guy doesn’t want to have a kid, and the relationship is ending, but she’s gotten pregnant anyway.  On dira aux autres is (as far as I can tell) about a hook-up: on dira aux autres qu’on se connaissait déjà, “we’ll tell the others that we already knew each other.”  Nous sommes heureux infidèles: about an affair, obviously.  I don’t even understand her song La cigogne–my French isn’t that good–but it makes me blue every time I hear it.  (I think it’s maybe about a miscarriage?  Phil d’Ange?)  Certes, j’ai fait quelques erreurs//De jugement comme de pudeur–yep, that’s me alright…  Check ‘er out, and scroll down for the English notes, where we’ll discuss perky, to be left to one’s own devices, and to have one’s druthers.

A rare song that sounds as cheery as Sally Folk looks.  The rest mostly make me think about shooting myself–in a good way.

Try not to think too much about the words in this one–if a better expression of regret has ever been sung, I really don’t want to hear it…

Sally Folk at her “just don’t give a fuck” best (thanks for that expression, L.):

English notes

perky: this adjective can refer to two things, and in those cases, the meanings are quite different.

When it refers to someone’s personality or attitude, it means…well, here are the synonyms from Merriam-Webster:

Screen Shot 2018-07-19 at 05.10.24…and its antonyms, also from Merriam-Webster:

Screen Shot 2018-07-19 at 05.12.17

Seems like a pretty positive word, right?  And, it most certainly can be–I strive to always be perky, personally.  But, culturally, it’s a bit more complicated: perky is often used to describe some who is annoyingly activy, airy, animated, bouncy, etc.  Looking up the word on the Sketch Engine web site, purveyor of fine linguistic corpora and the tools for searching them, I see that the adverbs with the strongest statistical associations to perky are:

  1. annoyingly
  2. unnaturally
  3. impossibly
  4. delightfully
  5. relentlessly

Delightfully is, of course, good; annoyingly most definitely is not.

So, that’s the meaning when you’re talking about someone’s personality or attitude.  The other meaning applies in reference to a woman’s breasts.  I just showed you the top adverbs associated with perky–when you look at the top nouns, 9 out of 12 of them refer to a woman’s breasts or nipples, one of them refers to butts, and the other two are probably language processing errors.  If you can’t intuit the meaning in this context, Google perky breasts, but do not, not, not do so at work.

It’s almost 5:30 AM in Australia and I have to talk about the Cold War origins of biomedical natural language processing (who knew?) at 9–and I’m too lazy to write up to have one’s druthers and to be left to one’s own devices.  Disappointed?  Say so in the comments.  Or, even better: write them up yourself!

American English listening practice: How to interpret news stories about science

For those of you who would like to improve your ability to understand spoken American English, here is a story from National Public Radio with a recording and transcript: “How to be a savvy consumer of science news.” 

Listening to spoken language while following a written transcript (is that a pleonasm?) is an excellent way to improve your oral comprehension skills.  For those of you who would like to improve your ability to understand spoken American English, here is a story from National Public Radio, with a recording and transcript: How to be a savvy consumer of science news.  To get you off to a good start with the material, here are some of the vocabulary items that you will come across:

savvy: an adjective meaning something like “understanding practical things.”  How it appears in the recording: Our friend from the world of astrophysics, Adam Frank, has offered to provide some tools to help make us all savvier consumers of science news.

to feel like: this expression can have at least a couple of different meanings.  In this case, it means something like to think that.  Here is how it appears in the recording: Adam, why did you feel like this guidance was especially important right now?

Another possible use shows up as to feel like + noun.  For example, to feel like shit means either to feel sick or to feel sorry or sad/upset about something:

  • I drank a LOT of beer last night–I feel like shit this morning.  (the feel-sick meaning)
  • I must’ve eaten something rotten–I feel like death warmed over.  (the feel-sick meaning)
  • I was a real asshole yesterday, and I feel like shit about it now.  (the feel-sorry)
  • I feel like shit about what happened to you in the meeting–it was COMPLETELY wrong.

Another possible use is to feel like + present participle, meaning to have a desire to do something.  For example:

  • I feel like having cereal for dinner–whaddya you think?
  • I really don’t feel like seeing anyone this evening–I’m just gonna stay home.
  • Do you feel like going to the party?

such a: an intensifier.  How it appears in the recording:  Science is such a part of our lives.   That means something like “science is very much a part of our lives.”  Some examples:

  • Trump is such an asshole.
  • I’m gonna give you such a smack.  


Sometimes my mouth just stops moving

The hard part is not studying more than one language–the hard part is keeping them separate.

One of the more interesting books that I’ve read over the course of the past couple years was Michael Erard’s Babel no more: The search for the world’s most extraordinary language learners.  It is a book about polyglots and polyglossia–people who speak a lot of languages (as opposed to linguists, who are people who study language in general).

Erard is an actual linguist, and knows what he’s talking about.  One of the points that he makes that I found interesting is that there’s no single recipe for learning a “second language”–in his travels amongst the polyglots, he found that people who are into this kind of thing figure out what works for them, and it’s not necessarily the same approach for everyone.

So: I’m going to show you how I prepare for my annual trip to Guatemala, where I volunteer with a wonderful group called Surgicorps.  (We provide free specialty surgeries for people for whom the almost-free national health care system is still too expensive.)  But, don’t feel like it’s a magic recipe (am I mixing metaphors here?) for success–just know that it has been working for me for the past few years, and there’s something that will work for you.  (Which might be this!)

For context: Spanish is a “second language” for me–one that I can function in for my daily life, and professionally.  But: because I spend at least half of my life in the French language and only speak Spanish when I go to Guatemala, it’s very difficult for me to not mix French into my Spanish incessantly.  (As I believe Erard also points out: the difficulty is not learning a bunch of languages–the difficulty is keeping them apart.)  Consequently, on July 1st of every year since I started spending As Much Time As Possible in France, I cut French out of my life completely.  En contrepartie, on July 1st I start doing the same kinds of things in Spanish that I would normally do in French–listening to the news on the way to work, learning my daily vocabulary words, reading The Walking Dead comics, etc.

I also put together a schedule of everything that I need to work on between July 1st and July 30th.  If you’re unfortunate enough to have been reading my blog for the past couple years, you saw me do this for the month before I took my French C1 test.  The main difference is that for the CEFR exams, I need to include “written production” in the things that I work on–for my volunteer work in Guatemala, I don’t need that, because I almost never need to write anything in Spanish.  So, for Guatemala preparation, I have four main categories of things to focus on:

  1. Vocabulary: technical (medicosurgical)
  2. Vocabulary: general
  3. Grammar
  4. Oral  production

Why do I have an entire “section” for general vocabulary?  Because as I’ve written about before, that’s the biggest challenge.  Medical vocabulary is finite–there are only so many body parts, surgical procedures, etc.  It’s the general vocabulary that gets you–remember that Zipf’s Law reflects the fact that languages are full of words that almost never occur, but, they do.  When the guy comes to the hand surgeon with two mangled fingers hanging there uselessly, the first question that the surgeon asks him is going to be what happened, and the answer to that could be anything.

  • A snake bit me
  • I got a cactus spine stuck in my palm
  • The fuel pump caught fire and exploded while I was in the passenger seat
  • Two guys tried to steal my car and they went after me with a machete

…all of which I have run into.

So, I expand out my vocabulary study into these categories:

  • Vocabulary: technical (medicosurgical)
    • Areas of the hospital
    • Surgical techniques and equipment
    • anesthesia
    • anatomy
      • the hand (because I mostly work with a hand surgeon)
      • gynecology (because I don’t interpret for the gynecologists very often, and therefore like to make sure that I give the terminology a once-over since I don’t have occasion to use it much)
      • the face and head (because we always have multiple plastic surgeons with us)
  • Vocabulary: general
    • the Guatemalan regional dialect (lots of fun loan words, mostly from one or another of the 20+ Mayan languages spoken in the country)
    • professions (see this post for why that gets a day of its own)
    • farm work and other kinds of manual labor (because most of our patient population consists of children or manual laborers–see this post)
    • animals and plants (see above about “anything can happen to your hands”)

I split grammar into three topics:

  1. Conjugation (because when in doubt, I’ll conjugate Spanish verbs as if they were French, and that does NOT work)
  2. Usted forms of verbs (they get a day of their own because it’s the form that I should be using with patients and their family members, but I almost never use it in my daily life)
  3. The subjunctive (much easier in Spanish than in French because it gets used far more often in Spanish, so you don’t have to think about it as much–my French problem is that I use the subjunctive too often)

Now, I know you’re wondering: why do I have oral production on my list, and why don’t I have oral comprehension?  Oral comprehension is the hardest part of learning any language for most people, and oral production is what most anglophones find the easiest part of learning Spanish.  The answer goes back to Michael Erard: the hard part is not learning more than one language–the hard part is keeping them separate.

This comes into play for me in two ways.  One way will be familiar to anyone who has two foreign languages running around in their heads: when you don’t have a word that you need in one language, it’s hard not to substitute it with the word from the other.

The other way that French interference in Spanish works out for me is more subtle, and it’s purely a question of oral production: it’s very difficult for me to say sequences of sounds in Spanish that would not be possible in French.

A problem context that comes up quite often is possessive pronouns followed by vowel-initial nouns.  For example (English followed by formal/informal French and then formal/informal Spanish):

your eye votre œil ton œil su ojo tu ojo
my artery votre artère ton artère su arteria tu arteria

Francophones will note that artère is feminine, but it has the masculine form of the possessive pronoun–mon.  No huge surprise to students of French–any vowel-initial noun takes the masculine, consonant-final, form of words like possessive pronouns.  Where the problem comes up: when I have to say one of those words before a vowel-initial noun in Spanish, my tongue stops.  It’s like it runs into a wall–my mouth just stops moving.  What the fuck??

From a linguist’s point of view: I’ve developed my own little foreign-language phonology.  In languages other than my native one (American English), that little phonology really does not like sequences of vowels at the end of one word and the beginning of the next.  So, I need to say tu abuelita, your grandma, but my phonology really, really wants it to be tun abuelita, or something of that ilk, which does not exist in Spanish… and my vocal apparatus just comes to a halt.

Solution: oral production drills.  Focussed drills, not just making myself speak–that will happen in Guatemala, where I’ll show up a week before the rest of the team to get those Spanish-language juices flowing.  I’ll put together exercises for myself that focus on the specific things that I know I have trouble getting out of my mouth, et voilà.  For example: ¿le duele todavía su axila?  (Does your armpit still hurt?)  Ya hablamos con su abuela (we already spoke with your grandmother).  Both of those are short sentences that force me into saying the vowel + vowel sequences–in these cases, su axila (your armpit) and su abuela (your grandmother) that are so hard for me.

Screen Shot 2018-06-30 at 09.12.08So, you take all of those individual things to work on, mix ’em up to give yourself a little variety in your daily study.  Prioritize things in a way that makes sense for what you plan to be doing with the language–I have a day in there for learning the vocabulary of food and beverages, but that’s more so that I can translate the menu for my fellow volunteers than for the actual volunteer work, so it wouldn’t make sense to be working on that first, and I don’t.  Mix in some review days–review is essential, and you don’t want to do it all at the end.  Boum, as the French kids say–a month’s-worth of work.  I’ll start it on July 1st, and I’ll finish it sitting in the plane on the way to Guatemala on the 30th.  If I screw up and miss a day?  Not the end of the world–I’ll make it up.  If I just can’t stand anesthesia vocabulary on July 11th?  No problem–I’ll just switch a couple days around.  Is the list intimidating?  No–the opposite.  I know that if I prepare, everything will probably go fine, and I know that if I work my list, I’ll be prepared–so, it’s actually reassuring, not intimidating.

Why no days for working on oral comprehension?  Because that’s what listening to the news on the way to work, podcasts while I stretch, etc., are for.  That really has to be part of your daily life–you can’t partition that off into specific days.  Gotta work, work, work your oral comprehension.  On the good side: not one second of the time that you spend doing it will be wasted.

English notes

a couple versus a couple of: this is controversial amongst English speakers.  People who prefer a couple of are likely to complain about those of us who say a couple.  Je les emmerde.  How I used it in the post: If I just can’t stand anesthesia vocabulary on July 11th?  No problem–I’ll just switch a couple days around. 

ilk: maybe acabit in French?  How I used it in the post: My phonology really, really wants it to be tun abuelita, or something of that ilk, which does not exist in Spanish… I think in French something of that ilk would be quelque chose du même acabit, or words to that effect.  Phil d’Ange?

The picture at the top of this post is from  I picked it because in the post I carped about sequences of sounds, and the meme is about sequences of sounds (one in particular–the sound of the ch in English chat, but more on that another time, perhaps).  You don’t get it?  No worries–that just means that you’re cool, not nerdy like some stupid linguist.

Nightmare after nightmare: How to run a polyglot terrorist organisation

…nightmare after nightmare from which I woke up screaming only inarticulate sounds because I couldn’t come up with the words that I needed in ANY of my languages

In my daily life, I speak English (my native language) six months out of the year.  The rest of the time, I live my life in French, except for one week in August that I spend doing volunteer work in Guatemala.  In preparation for that week, I stop using French July 1st and spend the entire month trying to push French down and wake Spanish back up.  This morning I laid down for a nap after a couple hours of studying Spanish anatomy vocabulary, and had nightmare after nightmare from which I woke up screaming only inarticulate sounds because in the nightmares, I couldn’t come up with the words that I needed in any of my three languages.

If you read this blog, you’re probably more than a little bit interested in language, its powers–and its complications.  If so: you could do worse than to read Michael Erard.

Erard is a UTexas-Austin-trained linguist and writer who has been especially active in the area of polyglottism.  Besides being an excellent narrative writer, he also has some ideas that are outside of the linguistic conventional wisdom, which is why I find him interesting–in particular, he has made me think a lot about what it means to “speak” a language.  I have always had the standard linguist’s attitude about that–you “speak” the language(s) that you learned natively; anything else… you don’t speak, exactly.  So, ask me whether or not I speak French, and I will say no, despite the fact that it’s the only language that I speak comes out of my mouth 6 months out of the year.  That’s the same thing that I’ll say if you ask me if I speak Spanish, despite the fact that I spend one week a year doing interpreting for a bunch of surgeons in Guatemala.  (You should donate some money–it’s a great group.)  Erard argues that in the global world in which we live today, where many people live their lives in languages that aren’t native to them, the definition of “to speak” a language would more usefully be broadened.  Erard is a smart guy who got his PhD at a hell of a lot better school than I did–he’s worth listening to.  (If you can figure out a way to end that sentence without a preposition: go for it.)

This 2016 article by Erard, currently writer-in-residence at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, is a good example of how he thinks.  The first in a 3-part series, it addresses the question of how the Islamic State manages to function on the battlefield in the absence of a shared language.  The French Foreign Legion and the Israeli Army have always been (and remain) forces with large numbers of members who don’t speak the national language.  They have historically dealt with the problem via formal instruction.  ISIS has gone a different way–as Erard shows, one that is not without precedent.

Erard’s native language is English, and he writes nicely in it.  Let’s start with some of the more-obscure words and phrases that he uses:

As everyone knows by now, ISIL has attracted new and seasoned jihadis from all over the world. But many of its 30,000 recruits (a typical estimate) don’t speak Arabic. So without a common language, how do they fight?

  • seasoned: experienced.
  • common: shared; the same for everyone.

This question has become particularly interesting in light of a fairly recent change to ISIL’s fighting structure. The change was revealed, in passing, in “Confessions of an ISIS Spy,” a series of Daily Beast articles last November by Michael Weiss, based on his interviews with a supposed ex-ISIL intelligence officer named Abu Khaled.

  • particularly: especially; more than some other things.
  • fairly: somewhat; not entirely, but not just a little bit, either.
  • in passing: from CollinsIf you mention something in passing, you mention it briefly while you are talking or writing about something else.
  • supposed: claimed to be.

(In passing, I will note that right at this moment, I can hear my cat snoring from the next room.  I didn’t even know that cats snored at all, let alone at high volume!)

Abu Khaled told Weiss that many of the ISIL battle groups, called katibas, were originally organized by language or ethnicity. But in mid to late 2015, ISIL began reorganizing fighters into mixed katibas, either combining muhajireen (foreign fighters) with ansar (local fighters) or mixing muhajireen from different places.

  • battle group is actually a technical term, referring to different sizes of units of organization depending on whether you’re talking about the Army or the Navy, but they’re typically probably a lot bigger than what Erard is referring to here, although I couldn’t swear to that as he doesn’t specify what he means.

Because I write about language, languages, and the people who use them, this piqued my interest. To confirm it I contacted Amarnath Amarasingam, a Canadian sociologist who studies foreign ISIL fighters. He told me he had heard from his contacts that linguistically heterogeneous katibas were indeed being assembled on a trial basis.

  • to pique (someone’s) interest: piquer la curiosité de quelqu’unsusciter l’intérêt de quelqu’un (  I’m a little nervous about that second translation–intérêt in French rarely seems to correspond to interest in English, based on the odd looks that I get when I apparently misuse it constantly where I would have used interest in English…

It seems that the operational simplicity of having everyone in a katiba speak the same language also had a downside: It created an insularity among some fighters, who were perceived as running their own agenda. Abu Khaled, who also speaks French, told Weiss he had put together a proposal for a francophone katiba, but that it wasn’t approved. Previous problems were cited with an all-Libyan katiba that had proven more loyal to its own emir (leader) than to ISIL, and also with Russian-speaking katibas that had a tendency to go rogue. To avoid rifts and create a coherent army, ISIL now seemed to feel, it was better to get people to exchange cultures and languages.

  • downside: disadvantage.  Often used when you’re comparing the disadvantage to an/some advantage(s), which would then probably be referred to as upside(s).  

But how, in that case, does ISIL turn a gaggle of immigrants with no common language into an effective fighting force?

  • gaggle: the term for a group of geese.  You can use it metaphorically for any group that lacks organization.

…and for the answer to Erard’s question, I’ll refer you to his article.  One little point that I’ll mention in there is the appearance in a quote of the word strategic: 

You don’t need to understand the strategic objectives to blow up a school bus. At that level, it’s easy: go there, kill everybody, end of discussion.”

Objectives here are goals.  Strategic, from strategy, is being opposed to tactical, from tactics.  See this post where we talked about that distinction, which is quite important in the quote that Erard gives, from the perspective of its use in Henry Reed’s poem Movement of bodies:

Those of you that have got through the rest, I am going to rapidly
Devote a little time to showing you, those that can master it,
A few ideas about tactics, which must not be confused
With what we call strategy. Tactics is merely
The mechanical movement of bodies, and that is what we mean by it.
Or perhaps I should say: by them.

Strategy, to be quite frank, you will have no hand in.
It is done by those up above, and it merely refers to,
The larger movements over which we have no control.
But tactics are also important, together or single.
You must never forget that, suddenly, in an engagement,
You may find yourself alone.

…and I’ll tell you this: in the American military, we are not allowed to refuse illegal orders (say, to blow up a school bus)–we are required to refuse illegal orders.  Think about that if you would like to understand how outraged my fellow veterans and myself were by Trump’s comment, in response to an interviewer’s question about how he could possibly support Putin, a killer: There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers.  You think our country’s so innocent?”  Fuck you: the American military is not the moral equivalent of the Russian military.

The graphic showing the distribution of languages in ISIS comes from the blog.






What’s making me happy today: Inuktitut mining terminology

The big issues in the news in the US at the moment:

  • The shame of the Trump administration’s treatment of migrant children from Central America
  • Why reporters don’t use the word “lie” to describe the things that come frequently out of the mouth of the current president of our country

Depressing.  So depressing that the New York Times, the best-known newspaper in the United States and one of the most well-known newspapers in the world, has taken to publishing (to take to +present participle explained in the English notes below) a page of good news on Sundays.

I took a look at said good news this morning, and was underwhelmed–there’s just nothing there to remotely match the tragedy that I see unfolding around me here in the United States.  But, that doesn’t mean that I can’t find things to feel grateful for.  Other than my cat, the fact that my kid isn’t in a refugee camp in Syria, and the fact that I will have food available to eat for breakfast today (lots of people won’t), what’s making me happy this morning is this vocabulary of mining terminology in Inuktitut.

Inuktitut is an Inuit language spoken by a bit under 40,000 people in the north of Canada.  It is a polysynthetic language, meaning that words have many parts, to the point that it’s not clear whether you would want to say that they actually have words, versus sentences.  Here’s an Inuktitut word/sentence (from Wikipedia, citing an article on developing a screening tool for Inuktitut-language speech pathologists):

  • ᖃᖓᑕᓲᒃᑯᕕᒻᒨᕆᐊᖃᓛᖅᑐᖓ (in Inuktitut orthography)
  • qangatasuukkuvimmuuriaqalaaqtunga (transliteration)
  • “I’ll have to go to the airport” (English translation)

Illuminating points about Inuktitut: the language has three vowels–in the International Phonetic Alphabet, [i], [u], and [a].  Spoken languages have a minimum of three vowels (yes, my fellow linguists, I am leaving out one controversial case here–don’t hate on me), and if a language only has three vowels, they are [i], [u], and [a].  (Languages with four vowels add [e] or [o].  Languages with five vowels have [i], [u], [a], [e], or [o].)

How do you come up with new terminology for a language that doesn’t have it?  A workshop brought together a group consisting of:

  • Tribal elders
  • Inuktitut language specialists
  • A mining expert

…who spent three days hashing it all out.

So, what does mining terminology look like in Inuktitut?  Here are some examples from the glossary, maintained by the Department of Indigenous and Northern affairs:

imaginary lines that cross the surface of the Earth parallel to the equator used to determine location with longitude
(ᓄᓇᙳᐊᕐᒥ ᓴᓂᒧᐊᖓᓂᖓ)

the process by which a mineral is introduced into a rock, resulting in a valuable or potentially valuable deposit

a deposit of sand or gravel that contains particles of gold, gemstones, or other heavy minerals of value
(ᐃᒪᕐᒧᑦ ᓴᖅᑭᑕᐅᓂᑯ)

a layer or bed of rock

…and that’s what’s making me happy today.  Does seeking happiness in les bizarreries of human linguistic, social, and technological behavior that mean that I will ignore my citizenly duty to stay on top of the daily crimes of the crooks that are currently running my country?  No.  Does it mean that I actively and daily seek things to be grateful for?  Yes–and I recommend that you try it.  Can’t hurt, right?

Source of the picture at the top of the page:

English notes

to take to + present participle: to start a routine practice of doing something.  Examples:

How I used it in the post: The New York Times has taken to publishing a page of good news on Sundays.

to take to + noun or present particple: to become good at some activity, especially quickly. You can often differentiate this from the previous usage by the presence of an analogy along with it: like a…

to take to can also be used with a person as its object, or with a location, either physical (he took to the podium) or metaphorical (he took to Twitter to…) The meanings are different here–I’m too lazy to find a bunch of examples on this Sunday morning…

underwhelmed: not at all impressed. Note that underwhelmed is not the opposite of overwhelmed. (Lesson: do not look for “logic” in language.) Some examples:

(Love this one!)

How I used it in the post: I took a look at said good news this morning, and was underwhelmed–there’s just nothing there to remotely match the tragedy that I see unfolding around me here in the United States.