Dear Readers:

Welcome to Awful Avalanche, here is my blog concept and what I do:

I scan online newspapers from Russian-language press, in search of interesting stories and political topics.  These are stories which Russians themselves are reading and commenting upon.

I translate or at least summarize into English the content therein.

My target audience:  Russophiles, or anybody else who is interested.

I pick stories and analysis which interest me, generally from the following categories (this might evolve):

  • Breaking News,
  • Celebrity Gossip
  • True Crime,
  • Cat Fighting,
  • Human Interest Stories,
  • maybe even some Cute Animal Stories too!

Sincerely yours,


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Euronews Service Closes Ukrainian Language Channel – Part VII

Dear Readers:

After some interesting discussions about the Science of Linguistics, it is time to come to a collective decision as to whether Ukrainian is an actual language (as the Ukrainian nationalists insist) or just a dialect of Russian (as the Russian kvass-patriots like Otto insist).   Now, everybody line up in an orderly fashion and cast your vote.  Because Science is all about Democracy.

Hroisman: “We’re popular!”

So, I found a hook on which to hang today’s apotheosis:  This piece from a few days ago, showing Ukrainan Prime Minister Vladimir Hroisman celebrating the “Day of Slavic Culture and Literacy” on May 24.  This day traditionally commemorates Saints Cyril and Methodius, their missionary work among the Slavs, their creation of an alphabet, and their gift of literacy to the common people.  All of this is good stuff; but as a typical snarky Ukrainian official, Hroisman was not able to just say nice things about smart people, without also throwing in some barbs directed against Russia:

Hroisman:  “In spite of centuries of oppression that our language and our culture had to endure during the times of Russian colonization; in spite of all of that, Ukrainians have made a cultural break-through — not only have they stood up for their own national and cultural identity, they have given an impetus to the further development of their culture and language.”  Hroisman went on to express the opinion that “the Ukrainian language and culture are very much in fashion nowadays, are popular, influential, and much in demand all over the world.”  Following which utterance Hroisman was able to muster approximately 400 people for the traditional “Vyshivanka March”, in which Ukrianians don their embroidered blouses as a political protest against Vladimir Putin.

Lomonosov: Wrote about the divergece of the Slavic dialects

Readers, if you are interested in these issues, then I encourage you to bone up on Scientific Linguistics.  There are many popular books out there.  There are also tons of books and articles on the topic of Historical Linguistics and the history of the Slavic languages.  If you’re feeling lazy, you can just skim this piece from wiki, on the history of the Ukrainian language, in the context of the various East Slavic dialects.  These dialects, all closely related, have jelled over the centuries into three “official” literary languages:  Great Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian.

When it comes to distinguishing a dialect from a full-fledged language, the line can be fuzzy.  Rule of thumb:  If you can speak with somebody from the neighboring village and understand most of what they’re saying, then I reckon you’re speaking the same language.  If you can only understand about 50%, then possibly you’re speaking different, but related, languages.  Something like that.

Anyhow, the other definition of “What is a Language” is not always the scientific one, but more like the political one.  If in the course of human events the Ukraine had developed into a mighty empire, then Little Russian would be The Bomb, and Great Russian would just be a regional dialect.  But things sort of went the other way.

“I hereby declare you to be an official Language!”

Be that as it may, in the modern world, you can only be your own language if you have your own news channel.  You need your own TV and Radio stations.  You need a big printing press, and print lots of books and newspapers and magazines.  You need great writers and poets who do you proud.  You also need to have an Academy of Language which regulates such matters as spelling and grammar.  You need to have government employees who curate the language and make sure the unwashed masses don’t turn it into some degenerte jive-talk.  You need to have schools and teachers, who teach the “proper” use of language and literature to the little kiddies.

But most of all, you need to have a recognized Authority Figure who hands you a piece of paper and intones:  “By the Laws of Science and the Laws of Man, I hereby declare that you are an official language!  (Now go and pay your bills…”)


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Euronews Service Closes Ukrainian Language Channel – Part VI

Dear Readers:

The Ukrainian alphabet: Looks a lot like Russian!

Please bear with me just a little longer, we are almost at the point where we can “decide” whether or not Ukrainian is a full-fledged language on its own, or just a dialect of Russian.  But first we had to work our way through some business involving alphabets and phonology.  Ukrainian uses the same Cyrillic alphabet as Russian, well, admittedly, with the addition of a couple of other letters.

But we learned that alphabets do not make a language.  I gave the example of Serbo-Croatian.  “Serbian” and “Croatian” are exactly the same spoken language, but each uses a different alphabet.  Lordy, I could start writing these here English words in Cyrillic letters, but it wouldn’t make them Russian.  Moral of the story:  Don’t look at the alphabet, it’s not a factor in this case.  But do look at other things, such as the actual catalog of phonemes of a given language, regardless of how they are spelled on paper.  And we have a little bit more work to do in this regard, as we tackle the issue of those pesky [allophones].  After we finish with Phonology, then I will leave you in peace, Dear Readers.  For our purposes, it is not necessary to go through all the layers of grammar and morphology, or whether a language is Agglutinative or gluten-free.  We already know that Ukrainian is an inflected language, just like Russian!

Otto boning up on his debating skills.

So, let’s get to work again.  As I curtly informed Otto, “You are entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts.”

“Otto”, as I mentioned before, is one of those Russian “kvass patriots” who denies that “Ukrainian” is either a language or an ethnic group.  Otto also believes that anybody who does not condemn the writing down of Central Asian languages in Turkish letters, is a Trotskyist and a Jew, not to mention a cuck-socking maggot.  I am not sure if Otto believes that Aristotle was born in Belgium, but Otto definitely “believes” that that no European language contains palatal plosive type consonants.  Like that German consonant in the word “Zeit”.

Leaving Otto to his intellectual misery, let us turn to a much more pleasant company, namely our native guide Ishi and his brilliant pale-faced companion, the American Anthropologist.  We’ll call him Kemosabi, which is Indian for “Wrong Brother”.  Where we left off, Ishi was questioning the old doyenne of the tribe, while Kemosabi was busily scribbing down the resulting utterances using pencil and paper and the international phonetics alphabet.  Job #1, using minimal pairs of words, is to catalog the meaningful sounds, or phonemes of the language.  And to weed out the allophones.  Rule #1 of a good alphabet:  No stinking allophone deserves its own letter.

What Is An Allophone?

The best way to explain is with an example.  As the old woman chatters away in her tongue, Kemosabi keep hearing her emitting this buzzing [ZZZZ] sound.  Like there was a bee in her bonnet.  He thinks, maybe this language includes the /Z/ phoneme.  Like the first sound in English “zoo”.  But he isn’t sure yet, until he can find a minimal pair of words that either prove or disprove his hypothesis.

“My barkats are bothering my chikinoz.”

Now, as it so happens (and crafty Ishi already knew the answer, but he wanted Kemosabi to figure it out for himself), this particular made-up language uses the same plural-marker as does English.  Just by sheer coincidence.  For example, their word for “hen” is “chikino“.  When the old lady is talking about her hens, she keeps saying “chikino-z“.  Meanwhile, their word for dog is “barkat“.  When she she talks about her (plural) dogs she says “barkats“.  (I forgot to mention, that in this language, every animal word ends in either the consonant /t/ or the vowel /o/.)

Eventually it dawns on Kemosabi that the allophones [s] and [z] are simply variants of each other.  They are one and the same plural marker, with [s] being pronounced after a consonant, and [z] being pronounced after a vowel.  This is a normal thing that happens in many languages.  Here is how it happens at the lower (physical) layer of acoustic phonetics:  The sound known as [s] is what phoneticians call a “Fricative sibilant dental alveolar” consonant.  The sound known as [z] is exactly the same.  Both sounds are pronounced exactly the same in the human mouth.  Native or bilingual English speakers:  Try this experiment:  Say out loud the /S/ sound of the word “Sue”, stretching it out as much as possible, hissing like a snake.  Now do the same with the /Z/ sound of “zoo”.  Notice that your mouth, teeth, tongue, etc. are in exactly the same position for both.  The sole difference between these two sounds is that your vocal chords vibrate when you say /Z/.  If you don’t believe me, then place your hand on your own throat, like you were going to strangle yourself, and try the experiment again.

This distinction is called “voiceless” vs “voiced”.  There are numerous consonant pairs where one member is voiced, and its twin is voiceless.  Oh, and it goes without saying that ALL vowels engage the voicebox, hence, All Vowels are Voiced.  It’s only consonants that get to make that choice:  They can go quietly, or they can go noisily.

Moral of the story:  It totally makes sense for a supposed “pair” of consonants to actually be one and the same consonantal phoneme, pronounced exactly the same way, except for that one tiny distinction of voiced/voiceless, depending on the context.  For this language, Kemosabi has determined, with some hints from Ishi, that [s] and [z] are one and the same phoneme.  Again, it totally makes sense, from a physical point of view, that the voicebox, fully engaged in the pronunciation of that /o/ vowel in “chikino”, continues to vibrate, like a lost echo, as the plural marker is pasted on, turning the [s] into a [z].  Again, this happens in many languages, it’s just a physical fact, and Kemosabi knows that too, having studied so many other languages.  There is an interesting process going on here, where Kemosabi , in compiling his catalog of phonemes, has to peek upward (at the morphology and vocabulary) as well as downward (at acoustics), while working at the level of pure phonology.  It’s kind of a holistic process.  And he comes to the determination that Ishi’s language has no [z] sound per se, [z] is just a variant — an allophone — of [s].

But wait! ejaculates the discerning reader.  What about the word “zoo”?  Well, “zoo” is an English word, and we’re not talking about English, dummy, we’re talking about Ishi’s language.  I forgot to mention that Ishi and Kemosabi already determined that there is not one single other word in this language that employs the [z] sound.  It only occurs in that one context, as a plural marker after a vowel.  As for the [s] sound, why, there are tons of other words that use this sound, for example, their word for “river” is /sa-wim/.  Proving once and for all, that the the real phoneme here is /s/.  And so, Kemosabi decides that their alphabet, which he is creating for them, will include a symbol for /S/ but not for /Z/.  When he creates their new dictionary and writes down the plural word “chikinos”, he will spell it with an /S/, even though the lady pronounces that final sound as a [z], with her wrinkly old throat vibrating like a musical instrument.

How To Train Your Dragon

I will close today’s installment by putting in another plug for voice-recognition software, such as Dragon Speak and others.   As I noted before, I don’t own any stock in these products, nor do I get paid to advertise them.  I don’t even own one myself!  (I just type words the old-fashioned way.)

Nine out of ten doctors prefer to dictate their medical notes!

My primary point here being to “prove” to Otto and the others that Linguistics is actually a Science.  I may be preaching to the choir here, but you’d be surprised how many people out there in the world don’t believe that Linguistics is a real science.  Yet these products, boasting something like 98% accuracy in transposing speech to text are the proof that it is!  Were these great products not based on scientific principles of phonology, then they could not possibly wrack up such an impressive result.

I’m sure that we have all been in the situation where we are floundering through some telephone menu based on “voice recognition”.  The machine on the other end cannot understand a word that we are saying.  I remember a particularly frustrating experience trying to change a flight out of Nashville, Tennessee.  Where people talk funny to begin with.  The robot on the other end:  “Please say your flight number.”  I speak the words slowly and distinctly.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that,” says the bot.  After several unsuccessful tries and almost an hour later, I am screaming into the phone:  “Can you please just put me through to a human??”

Thus proving that “voice recognition” software is a crock.  Except when it is based on scientific principles of phonology.  As is Dragon.  And here is how it works:  You train the software to recognize your own personal speech patterns, regional accent, whether or not you thpeak with a lisp, etc.   By speaking into a microphone a text which was picked specifically because it contains all the phonemes of the language (in this case, say, English), in the various acoustic contexts.

“And so I say to you, my fellow Americans: Ich bin ein Berliner!”

For example, here is a link to the training manual for Dragon.  If you jump forward to page 3 you see that the vendor gives you a choice of text to use when training your dragon to the sound of your own voice.  You pick one of these texts and read for about 30 minutes.  One of your choices is President Kennedy’s Inaugural Address.  Please resist the temptation to fool around and attempt a Bostonian accent.  This will only confuse your Dragon.

As you blather on, Dragon absorbs all your little quirks.  (This is what is lacking in, say, Airline Voice Recognition phone menus, which don’t know your voice from Charlie Manson’s.)  For example, if you really do hail from Boston and always pronounce the word “car” as “cah”, then Dragon makes a note of the fact that you tend to drop your final /r/’s.

End result:  Dragon has tied your speech patterns to the catalog of phonemes of the English language, taking into account their various allophonic contexts.  Then it gets more complicated, because the software has to maintain a huge database/dictionary of vocabulary and know how words are spelled, etc.  But we have covered enough for now, and I think we are ready to move on to the issue of the Ukrainian language.

[to be continued]

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Euronews Service Closes Ukrainian Language Channel – Part V

Dear Readers:

Where we left off yesterday, in our survey of the history of Scientific Linguistics:  We were talking about the very fruitful American school of Anthropological Linguistics, whose most famous figure was Edward Sapir.  Sapir was born in what was then Prussia, now a part of Poland, but emigrated to the U.S. as a child, and became a student of another great scholar, Franz Boas, whom some call “The Father of American Anthropology”.

A family of Paiute natives who worked with Sapir.

This marriage of Anthropology and Linguistics made sense in the American context, since these scientists had a wealth of native cultures and languages to study.  Right out there on the Indian reservations!  There were literally hundreds of new languages just waiting to be written down.  So many languages, so little time…  Put yourself in a mind experiment:  What would you do if you were placed among people who appear to speak gibberish, and you were asked to quickly learn their language and develop an alphabet for them?

Well, the first thing you need to do is hire a Native Guide.  Somebody who speaks both their language and your language.  This person will translate back and forth for you. Without this bilingual assist, alas, the job simply can’t be done.  Let me explain:  Since my Athabaskan is a tad rusty these days, I am going to be making up some egregious examples from a fake language, but I am not making up the method; this is really how it was done, silly as it all might sound.

Sapir and Ishi

So, you and your native guide, let’s call him Ishi, approach the oldest member of this tribe, she is a nice old lady of some 125 years, she and Ishi are only a handful of people who still know this particular language.  After they die, it’s gone, so you have to act quickly and get it all written down.  You and Ishi are offering this tribe a complete package:  You’ll come up with a way of writing down their language (unlike Saints Cyrill and Methodius, you don’t actually need to invent an alphabet for this, you’ll just use the Latin alphabet, possibly with some diacritical marks) and compile a vocabulary and grammar.  Most of Linguistics is about Words, but in order to get to the Words, you first have to start at a lower physical level, at the level of Sounds.

Step #1 is to compile a catalog of the phonemes of this language.  In other words, the vowels and consonants.  Languages vary, a typical language might have, say, 30 consonants and 10 vowels.  The record for a “consonant-heavy” language is some extinct Caucasian language called Ubykh, which logged a whopping 84 consonants!  It is said that Ubykh only had 2 vowels.  Well, with so many consonants, it only needed two vowels!  On the other side of the ledger, there is a language called Sedang, related to Vietnamese, which is said to have 55 vowels!  But those are extreme examples.  Castilian Spanish, for example, is a much more “normal” language, with only 5 vowels and 20 consonants.

Phonetics vs Phonemics

This distinction is a source of endless confusion and is, in fact, what sparked my internet feud with “Otto”.  Humanoid mouth-parts comprise a complicated apparatus consisting of tongue, teeth, lips, palate, larynx, lungs and even noses.  All together, this apparatus is capable of emitting a huge number of different sound waves on the acoustics spectrum.  But not every sound emitted by a human mouth is meaningful speech.  A burp is not meaningful speech, no matter what your six-year-old tries to tell you.  If a Castilian is talking to you in real words, then, logically speaking, each one of those words must be comprised of the aforementioned set of 25 phonemes that have been catalogued for this language.

Castille: A rich culture based on only 25 phonemes!

It is said that when the ancient Greeks first encountered people speaking a completely unknown tongue, it sounded to them like these guys were just babbling “BA-BA-BA-BA!”  From this, the Greeks called them “BARBARIANS”, which is the origin of that word.  And no, it would not be possible for any human language to be so binary as to have only one consonant and one vowel.  If that were the case, then the language could only possess a very small handful of words, such as “BABA”, “ABBA”, “ABAB”, “BABAB”, etc.  Unless they went in for really long words with many syllables, for example”BA-BA-BA-BA-AB-AB-BA-AB”, which is their word for “Stinky Greek”.

Returning to our friend Ishi, it is time for him to sit down with that little old lady and start writing down her language.  First, recall the 7 layers of Scientific Linguists, starting with the most physical layer and moving on upwards to the most abstract:

  • Acoustic phonetics – the study of raw sounds and sound waves
  • Phonetics – how uttered sounds are produced in the human vocal apparatus
  • Phonemics – the study of meaningful sounds, like those 25 Castilian phonemes
  • Morphophonemics – the study of meaningful sounds in combination
  • Morphology – the study of words and their various parts
  • Grammar – the study of words in phrases and sentences
  • Semantics – the study of language as a component of Symbology

Remember that your and Ishi’s goal is to compile a list of words and phrases of Language X.  Which starts with a catalog of phonemes.  And includes the task of separating out the real phonemes from their acoustic variants (which are called allophones).  But here you are forced to cheat a bit, you have to peek ahead at the higher level – morphology – because you need information from that level in order to catalog the phonemes.  It’s sort of a chicken and egg thing.  The end goal here is to derive a set of what Linguists call “minimal pairs”.  This would be a pair of words with two completely different meanings, but the utterance of them differs by only one sound.  You get bonus points if can find minimal pairs that rhyme.

Some examples in English:  cot, dot, got, hot, jot, lot, not, pot, rot, tot.

From these examples alone, we can safety catalogue at least 11 phonemes in the English language, namely K, D, G, H, J, L, N, P, R, T, plus the vowel O.  We’re not done yet, but it’s a good start.  We know these sounds are phonemes (=meaningful sounds) because each of these sounds helps to distinguish one word from another.  These sounds don’t carry meaning in and of themselves, but in the context of a word, they help to deliver information (as computer scientists say) and semantic meaning.

So, basically, you and Ishi, you need to get going and rack up some words.  So Ishi starts by respectfully addressing the old woman:  “Grandmother, can you say something for me in the old tongue?”

The old woman points at a nearby hen scratching at the ground and utters [made up language]:  “Klaatu barada nikto chikino.”

You scribble this down and turn to Ishi:  “What did she say?”

She say:  ‘The chicken is scratching at the ground.”

[to be continued]

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Euronews Service Closes Ukrainian Language Channel – Part IV

Dear Readers:

Yesterday we talked about Alphabets, and an interesting discussion ensued.  See, carbon-based humanoid units started tinkering around and inventing alphabets LONG before Scientific Linguistics was even a thing.  I guess you could could the invention of alphabets “applied Linguistics”.  People just needed a way to jot things down, even before they had a full grasp of the way language actually works.  It is said that Chinese writing was the very earliest — we’re talking thousands of years ago, it is said that some Chinese guy watched a chicken scratching something into the sand, and thought to himself, “Hey, if chickens can do that, then I can do it too!”  So, he took a stick and scratched a picture of a tree, and it meant the word “tree”.  A distant traveller, seeing his scratch in the dirt, thought to himself:  “Hey, this guy was trying to tell me something about a tree…”

I think it’s trying to say: “The chickens marched into the cooking pot, closely eyed by the chef…”

Egyptian hieroglyphic writing began in a similar way:  With pictures of trees, birds, beetles, gods, and serpents.  When Europeans “discovered” these mysterious images on tombs and reliefs, they initially assumed that the pictures laid out some kind of tableau, or story.  Like a tapestry carved in rock.  Hey, I think this stele is trying to say, “The owl is eyeing the snake…” 

Radames: “Call me Snake…”

Eventually, some very smart professors figured out that the pictures actually represented (mostly) spoken sounds rather than entire words, or trying to tell a cryptic story.  For example, a picture of an owl is the letter /m/, a snake is a /j/ sound, a picture of a little chicken means the sound /w/, etc.  From this, European scholars well versed in the Coptic language, figured out that ancient Egyptian was a Semitic language closely related to the later Coptic.  This clue provided the key to deciphering hieroglyphic writing.  Those steles weren’t really talking about owls and snakes.  They were saying something like:  “Here lies Radames, we were forced to bury him alive because he betrayed our land to his Ethiopian girlfriend.”

The Emergence of Scientific Linguistics

It is generally agreed that the discipline of Scientific Linguistics was born in ancient India, as early as 600 B.C., with the scholar Pāṇini  (not to be confused with the sandwich) credited as the founding father.  As his wiki notes:  “Panini’s theory of morphological analysis was more advanced than any equivalent Western theory before the 20th century.”  Morphology, by the way, is also known as “grammar”, but we’ll get to that eventually.

“I must write this down before I forget it…”

As with many a science, this one began as a religion.  The ancient Indian linguists set out to preserve and analyze the Vedic Sanskrit texts which formed their holy canon.  Sort of like the Bible to Christians.  Over the centuries this priestly Aryan caste was endowed with a single task:  Memorizing the holy Vedic poems.  Which entailed memorizing literally thousands and thousands of verses.  Imagine if you had to memorize the Old Testament!

See, it wasn’t like these Brahmins didn’t know about alphabets and writing — oh, they knew, all right.  People like Phoenicians and Cretans had already developed almost perfect alphabets, even without the benefit of Pāṇini’s genius.  But the Brahmin caste had decided, centuries earlier, that they would not write down their sacred texts.  Instead relying on their own voluminous memories.  It was their job to pass on this oral tradition.  A job for which they were paid handsomely and never had to lift a finger to perform manual labor.  In their opinion, the very act of writing down the verses would entail a blow to their job security an act of sacrilege.

The Greek alphabet: astounding in its perfection and beauty

So what happened?  Why did they eventually cave?  It was inevitable.  This new-fangled alphabet thing was on the rise all over the world.  Plus, the Brahmin memories were simply giving out.  Maybe they had been eating too much ghee.  And what with new verses constantly being added to the canon, ever new stories and tales of Krishna and his pals, eventually it was too much, even for their giant brains.  The Brahmins were forced to admit defeat:  They needed to invent their own alphabet and get this stuff written down!

But even here, the crafty Brahmins threw a wrench into the works:  Okay, so they would invent an alphabet for themselves, and write down the sacred texts.  But here’s the kicker:  They wouldn’t invent a simple and logical alphabet like, say, the Greeks did.  Noooo….  They would invent an alphabet that was difficult to learn, so difficult to read and write, that there would be no danger of the unwashed masses suddenly picking up books and gettin’ theyselves some education!    No!  A writing system so difficult and convoluted, that only full-time scholars (like themselves) would have the time to master!  The goal here being, not to encourage, but to discourage, mass literacy.

The Sanskrit alphabet: Very wiggly, and hard to learn.

Nonetheless, in spite of their class bias, these Indian scholars deserve credit for inventing Scientific Linguistics and its various subspecialties.  And thanks to them, and their preservation of the ancient Sanskrit language, later European scholars were able to make massive strides in the field of comparative Linguistics.  Eventually putting together a family tree of the various Indo-Aryan language branches and proving that languages evolve, just like plants and animals!

In addition to the great European scholars, who made massive strides and practically ruled this science in the 1800’s and 1900’s, American Linguistics also made mighty contributions and was even dominant for a time in the 20th century.  One of the American founding fathers was Edward Sapir.  In the American flavor, Scientific Linguistics was closely allied with Anthropology.  Reason being that the American scholars had a wealth of untapped languages to discover and analyze.  Namely, Native American languages.  A typical day in the life of an American Anthropologist/Linguist, went something like this:  Travel out to the reservation, along with Native Guide.  Find oldest speaker of some obscure Native American tongue.  Start compiling a catalog of utterances, along with the translation into English.  Based on this, start compiling a catalog of the phonemic inventory….

[to be continued]

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Euronews Service Closes Ukrainian Language Channel – Part III

Dear Readers:

I started this series of posts with the breaking news of Euronews Media Conglomerate (Europe’s answer to CNN) cancelling its Ukrainian-language channel. From there we started to discuss the issue of language in general.  Eventually we need to get to the issue of whether or not Ukrainian is an actual language.  But before we even get there, we need to lay some groundwork with basic facts.  Not opinions, of which there are legion, but facts.  I am basically armoring myself in advance and girding my loins against the expected barrage of retorts from the various “kvass patriots” and Ottos of this world.  “Otto” being my pet name for my internet opponent.  In homage to the Kevin Kline character in the movie A Fish Called Wanda, who is notable not just for being a boorish lout, but also a pseudo-intellectual who is always wrong about everything.  Hence, my perceived need, in this debate, to show my credentials, appeal to authority (i.e., professional linguists such as John McWhorter), and to provide some history and background to this thorny issue.

Alphabet Soup: The cause of many a war…

I did not start this war.  It began, as such wars often do, with an innocent remark about Alphabets.

So, Otto, the Russian emigré kvass patriot, took it into what passes for his “head”, that I was dissing the Cyrillic alphabet.  Because some Central Asian country, I forget which, had decided to phrase out Cyrillic writing in favor of the Latin alphabet.  Not knowing a single word or sound of this particular Turkic language, I have no opinion whether Cyrillic was a good or a bad choice in the first place, when it was picked as this language’s alphabet.  It probably seemed like a good idea at the time.  In Soviet times, Cyrillic was often the alphabet of choice for languages which had few speakers and just needed to get themselves written down.  For obvious practical reasons:  All these ethnic groups lived together in a common entity, Russia was the lead nation, the Russian language was written in Cyrillic, the leaders of the smaller nations all knew Russian, there were lots of Cyrillic printing presses…  Again, Cyrillic (with significant modifications for each language) was the obvious choice, even political motives aside.  And no reason necessarily to assume that “Great Russian chauvinism” as Lenin dubbed it, was at work here, in the selection of an alphabet.

From the purely dispassionate point of view of Scientific Linguistics, the Cyrillic alphabet is just one more tool in the toolbox.  As is the Latin alphabet.  Curators of each individual human language should select the best tool which gets the job done.  The job being:   Write your language down.  Get people reading.  Make the alphabet so easy that kids can learn to read quickly.  Like, in months, not years.  In other words, what best serves the cause of education and mass literacy?

Cyrill and Methodius: Scientific Linguists who invented great alphabets.

When I called the Cyrillic alphabet “just a tool”, this sent Otto flying into mad-dog rage.  See, to people like Otto, the Cyrillic alphabet is a holy thing, probably created by God himself.  (Never mind that the original alphabet inventors, holy but mortal men Cyrill and Methodius actually came up with two alphabets, Glagolitic  and Cyrillic, and that both alphabets changed their forms several times over the centuries.)  Anyhow, Otto’s basic opinion is that anybody who disputes the suitability of the Cyrillic alphabet for any of the world’s languages; anybody who calls this alphabet a mere “tool” — is a Russia-hating Jew, a Trotskyite cosmopolitan.   And that anybody who disagrees with Otto on any point, is a “maggot” deserving to be the recipient of acts of sexual violence, such as buggery and forced fellatio!

Otto is particularly upset at the blasphemous notion that the Latin alphabet would be used to write down a Slavic language.  I countered with the examples of Polish and Czech.  These Western Slavic languages most likely picked Latin script for geopolitical reasons (hint:  Catholic), and yet proved in so doing, that Latin letters are able to encode Slavic sounds quite efficiently.  An even better example is the Serbo-Croatian language.  See, Serbs and Croats speak one and the same language.  But the (Orthodox) Serbs write their language down in Cyrillic letters; and the (Catholic) Croats use Latin letters.  Both alphabets (with the additional of diacritic marks) are equally perfect for the job of encoding this particular language.

Jan Hus, inventor of diacritics?

Even further enraged by these examples, Otto then proceeded to develop his own creative theories of “Racist Phonology”.  According to which, only Asian peoples utter such sounds as the [IPA phoneme] /ʒ/ or the phoneme /ts/.  No European language, Otto asserted, contains such sounds, since only the Asiatic mouth is able to contort itself around such palatal sounds.  To this assertion I laconically responded with a couple of counter-examples from two European languages, namely the French word “je” and the German word “Zeit“.  Otto became quite rabid at this point, almost spitting green venom like some kind of sea monster.  See, Otto is confused, as many laypersons are, by the distinction between spoken sounds and the way they are spelled.  Which, by the way, is the litmus test of an effective alphabet:  If there is a good correspondence between letter and sound; if a child can spell out words in just a couple of lessons — then this is an indication that the alphabet is good.  But according to Otto, my “Trotskyist” theories are just more of that politically-correct pap so abhorred by ALT-Righties.  Namely, my “assertion” that all alphabets are equally valid.  Which I never asserted.  I asserted that all human languages are equally valid.  Alphabets?  Different story altogether.  There are some good, some bad, some great, and some terrible alphabets in the world.  Examples of bad alphabets:  Egyptian hieroglyphs; the Sanskrit alphabet (I’ll get to that later, when we discuss the history of linguistics); written Chinese; the way English is written down.  Examples of good alphabets:  Cyrillic, obviously.  Examples of great alphabets:  Classical Greek, for starters.

In today’s world, children need to learn to read at an earlier age.

And please note that this is not just my personal opinion.  Sitting in judgement of alphabets is based on a single metric:  How efficiently does the alphabet encode the phonemes of a particular language.  Which is where we work our way back to products like “Dragon Speak”, how these products succeed in capturing spoken speech and converting it to written text.

After which we will embark on a brief survey of the history of Scientific Linguistics.  One of those European disciplines which began, ironically, in Ancient India, as early as 1200 BC!

I will end today’s installment with just one more personal/biographical anecdote.  This just to illustrate the rank ignorance which surrounds this most basic act of being a human being, namely speaking!

Southerners drawl because they are so full of hot air!

A couple of years ago I entered into a similar debate, this time not with an enemy, but with a friend.  I’ll call him “Bob” (not his real name).  We were chatting.  I forget how we got on the topic of the American Southern dialect and regional accent.  Bob asserted that he “had read somewhere” that Southerners pronounce those broad vowels, because it is a way of keeping their mouths cooler in the hot climate, ’cause, see, you have to open your mouth wider in order to drawl, and that brings more cooling breeze into your mouth.

I curtly informed Bob that his theory was ridiculous.  Regional dialects evolve historically, there were Scottish and Irish influences on American English, blah blah blah.  Bob would have none of it.  He was convinced that his theory of American dialects was the correct one.  And Bob was no dummy otherwise.  He actually had a college degree.  In Economics, if I recall correctly.  But he had never studied formal Linguistics, either in Middle School or college.  He didn’t see the point.  Every human being speaks a language, therefore every human being is a natural Linguist, no?

It goes without saying that Bob and I passed from being friends to enemies.  All on account of this one dispute.  Our friendship could have been saved, if only I weren’t so opinionated Bob had taken a course in Linguistics!

Next:   A Brief History Of Scientific Linguistics

[to be continued] 

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Euronews Service Closes Ukrainian Language Channel – Part II

Dear Readers:

In Part I we discussed the breaking news of the day, namely the Euronews Media Conglomerate (Europe’s answer to CNN) cancelling its Ukrainian-language channel.  Due to the fact that the Ukrainian government, which was the licensee, via its state-owned media, was not able to pay the annual license fee.  Being bankrupt and all.

In today’s installment, I use that bad news story as a springboard to delve deeper into the issue of the Ukrainian language as such.  Is there, in fact, a Ukrainian language?  And if so, then why does it need its own TV channel?

First, some backstory, since much of this discussion started in the usual way, as a blog war.  On somebody else’s blog.  I’ll get around to the gory details, making sure to tell you my side of the story, as concisely as I am able.  In the meantime, always remember this simple rule, as enunciated by that wise woman, Wanda Gershwitz:  Apes do read philosophy, they just don’t understand it.

Is Linguistics A Real Science?

How can I prove that Linguistics is a science?  Do I even need to prove it?  Yes, because my debating opponent — let’s call him “Otto” challenged that concept.  As his fallback position, once his other arguments had all been shot down, like Parsifal’s dead swan.  As in, “Well, Linguistics isn’t even a real science. Not like physics.”

Dragon software: With 99% accuracy, proves that Linguistics is a science.

Yes it is, Otto. Yes, Linguistics is a real science. How do we know that quantum physics is for real? Because it produces actual results, like, um, transistor circuits and wireless technology. By the same token, we know that Linguistics is an actual science, because it produces concrete products which actually work. Like, for example, this product called “Dragon Speaking“, which is a voice recognition software built upon the solid foundations of Scientific Linguistics. (And no, I don’t receive any fees for advertising Dragon, I’m just using this one product as an example because I am familiar with it.) Dragon is built upon the scientific theories of acoustic phonetics, phonemics, phonology, morphophonemics, morphology, and syntax.  Its results are 99% accurate in rendering human speech into text.   Hey, 99% is good enough for me, and proves that yes, Otto, Linguistics IS a science. Just because apes can neither speak languages, nor understand the concepts of Linguistics, does not mean that these things don’t exist.

My Side Of the Story

So, like I was saying, this “Otto” fellow, on somebody else’s blog, drew me into a “debate” (more like a polemic) about Alphabets vs Phonology.  First, my own credentials, do I even have the right to participate in such a debate?  For example, that same anonymous commenter, “Otto” sometimes blathers on about quantum physics, and I keep my mouth zipped shut.  Because I know zilcho about quantum physics.  I am simply not qualified to debate quantum physics.  On the other hand, I do know something about Linguistics.  Even though I am not a practicing Linguist, I have some educational background in that area, I even own a piece of paper hanging on my wall attesting that I know more about it than the average ape.

John McWhorter is passionate about the English language.

Not that a college degree should be the litmus test.  Ordinary people, even ones who didn’t go to college but know how to read, have access to popularizing books such as those writte by American Linguist John McWhorter, his books are really good, and he explains the science of Linguistics in a way that is accessible to the masses.  McWhorter specialized in, and wrote his thesis on, English Creoles, but that matters not a whit.  When it comes to human language, they all operate by the same basic principles.  And here is the other mantra of Scientific Linguistics:  All languages are not the same, but all languages are equally good, and equally valid.

Beethoven: His stuff is better than a guy banging on a tin can.

That sounds like politically-correct pap designed to console inferior minds.  But it is not.  It is literally true.  In this regard, human languages are different from other cultural artifacts, where one truly can say:  “This is better than this.”  Language is a strange thing, because it is both an artifact, and also a biological behavior.  All at the same time.  When discussing matters such as, say, painting or music, it truly is possible, and necessary, to state:  “European art of the 16th century is superior to some guy in Neolithic times just finger-painting stick figures on a cave wall.”  Like, if you look at pictures of pots dug up by archaeologists:  Some of the earlier pots weren’t that good.  And then they got really good.  Or:  “European classical music is vastly superior to some guy just banging on a tin pipe.”  With such things as art or music, one can state, generally, that the more sophisticated cultures tend to produce better products.

People who don’t know much about human language may assume (incorrectly) that the same thing that is true of representational art or music, is also true of human language.  For example, materially/culturally primitive African bushmen probably speak a language that is crude and unsophisticated, not anything like the magnificent European languages.  Right?  Wrong.

African Bushmen: Live primitive lives but speak complex languages.

This is where common sense doesn’t work.  Language is different from other forms of material culture.  The Bushman language is not only the equal of the European languages, but is actually superior in certain ways.  If one ranks languages by such factors as, say, complexities of grammar, inflections, syntax, etc.  Again, read McWhorter’s books.  He explains this paradox, why the languages of materially superior cultures are often “simpler” than the languages of primitive peoples.  Hint:  The languages become simplified as part of the Creolization process when the languages expand and recruit new, adult, speakers.

For now, though, just remember this one fact:  All languages, be it the languages of materially sophisticated peoples or the languages of primitive tribes living in squalor, are equally valid, equally beautiful, and all could be capable (given some additional vocabulary) of expressing any concept or thought, even the highest-level political analysis.  Just as Linguistics Professor Henry Higgins turned Cockney Eliza Doolittle into a lady, so any one of the some 6,500 languages existing on our planet, with just a bit of polish, could have become THE language of international discourse.

Now, when it comes to ALPHABETS, well, that is an entirely different story.  Some alphabets are good, some are bad, some are better than others, some are simply terrible.  Ignorant apes like Otto don’t know the difference between spoken and written speech, this is why they get hopelessly confused when opining about alphabets and phonemics.  As we shall see…

And please trust me, this is all leading back, eventually, to Ukrainian language and alphabet!  By a sideways route…

[to be continued]

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Euronews Service Closes Ukrainian Language Channel – Part I

Dear Readers:

I saw this piece by analyst Irina Alksnis, which I use as my starting point.  Today we just be talking about the breaking news (=Ukrainian-language channel goes kaput), and some backstory about the Euronews media network, and so on.  In the following installment I want to get down into some Scientific Linguistics and discuss the issue objectively, without political veneer:  Is Ukrainian an actual language, or not?

Euronews was created in 1993 as an alternative to CNN.  Reason being, lots of European people didn’t like the way that Wolf Blitzer was covering the Iraq War, and they wanted their very own 24-hour propaganda saturation.  Euronews is currently majority-owned by an Egyptian media tycoon named Naguib Sawiris.  He’s sort of like the Arab version of Citizen Kane.  The venture has been wildly popular; according to wiki:  “The channel is available in 428 million households in 156 countries worldwide. It reaches more than 170 million European households by cable, satellite and terrestrial.”

Euronews, like CNN, has its own editorial standards and political slant.  The individual language channels have to follow the party line, on the whole.  When it came to key Ukrainian issues like Crimea, the Donbass, etc., both the Ukrainian filial and their Euronews Overlords were in complete agreement with the policies of the Ukrainian government; and completely hostile to the Russian point of view.  Nonetheless, the Ukrainian government claimed to be unenthralled with its channel, on the grounds that the editorial staff (hired back in Yanukovych times) were too independent of (Ukrainian) government influence.  But the real reason they withdrew their support, according to Alksnis, was a more mundane one:  They couldn’t and wouldn’t pay the license fees which Mr. Sawiris was demanding from them.

Hence, today’s breaking news (and the lede) is that the Euronews Media Service (radio and TV) closed its Ukrainian channel just yesterday, on May 21.  The Ukrainian journalists sighed “Goodbye Cruel World!” on their Facebook“Ukrainian Euronews service is saying goodbye… We will cease broadcasting in Ukrainian after almost 6 years of work, on Sunday, May 21. Thank you for watching and reading us. All the best! Glory to Ukraine!” the message reads.  To which the world responds canonically, mechanically, “Glory to …. yeah, whatever.”

The license to operate the Ukrainian-language channel was purchased by the government-run National Public Broadcasting Company of Ukraine (NPBCU) back in October 2010.  Broadcasts in the Ukrainian language started almost a year later, in August 2011.  Everything was great, except that, over the years, the NPBCU was not able to pay its bills for the annual licensing fee.  By January 2015 it owed Euronews 11 million Euros.

des Acris: “Sorry, Ukies, you didn’t make the cut!”

Ukrainians being Ukrainians, instead of just shrugging their shoulders and murmuring modestly, apologetically, “Sorry, folks, we can’t pay our bill, so we’ll just leave quietly….”  No, they get belligerent, they get on their high horse, they declare that it is their MORAL DUTY to not pay, and the moral duty of the other side to give them a free ride.  Why?  Because they’re Ukrainians, that’s why.  Glory to the Ukraine!

By December of 2016 the Ukrainian journalist staff of Euronews were becoming desperate – they didn’t want to leave their cushy jobs and their terrific lives in beautiful Lyon, France.  Which is where Euronews is headquartered.  So they went on strike.  When nobody seemed to notice, they actually approached their equivalent colleagues working down the hall in the Russian-language channel at Euronews (yeah, Russia has a channel too, and they always pay their bills).  With resumes in hand.  And the Russians might have actually taken them in.  Unfortunately, this potential act of mercy was vetoed by old meany Christophe des Arcis, Head of Human Resources for Euronews.  Des Arcis twisted the knife in, telling the striking Ukrainians that they didn’t possess the educational qualifications, and that their Russian was just not good enough for TV work.  (I’m sure their Russian was perfectly fine, he was just being cruel.)

Ukrainian journalists at Euronews: “Do we and our giant friend really have to leave?”

These media moguls are not sentimental people, that’s for sure.  But, just as it takes months and sometimes even years for a landlord to evict a deadbeat tenant, so too it took Euronews quite a long time to get rid of these Ukrainian loafers.  Just last month, in April, the NPBCU was still disputing the bill in court; and the Ukrainian journalists were engaged in still another ineffectual sit-down strike.  When ordered to pack their bags and leave, they responded, like Bartleby the Scrivener:  “We prefer not to.  Glory to Ukraine!”

But anyhow, yesterday the Ukrainian staff did finally pack their bags and leave the premises.  “You don’t fire us!”  they shot back, over their shoulders.  “We quit!  Glory to Ukraine!”

Next:  I ask the controversial question:  “Why a Ukrainian news channel?  Is Ukrainian an actual language?”  You might be surprised to hear the answer!

[to be continued]

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