The Life of Languages

Inscription On The Old Theodosian Walls, IstanbulSkiv posted an excellent response to my post about languages. I thought I would share it and my response.

It’s one thing to say that “the life and death of languages is much like the change of the seasons: timeless and irrevocable.” I don’t think that makes a good case for letting it happen, however. Letting some languages die because they don’t fit our present framework denies that there may be some future framework in which they are more relevant.

I don’t know if there is a good case or a bad case for letting it happen. I’ve pondered the nature of languages and know one ancient language, speak two modern languages fluently and have dabbled in others. I’ve tried to learn agglutinative languages, Turkish and Korean. I’ve tried to learn at least one analytical language, as well: Chinese. I do hope to one day learn Chinese and also Turkish. But that’s by the by.

The languages I have been most successful with are obviously declensional, Russian, Latin and English, although English has very, very little in the way of declensions any longer. Clearly my mind is ordered such that a languages of declensions is easier for me to ‘get.’ Alas, my attempt at Sanskrit was, well, the synonymity inbuilt in the language is just too difficult for me. At least at the current time. Although I may try again. I think there is something to be said for an educated person to understand the basics of the ancient trifecta of languages. But then, I’m a classicist in that sense.

I suppose that’s my current framework. As for future frameworks where such languages may be more relevant? I can’t speak to that, although there is a clear analogy to be made with preserving all of the species of animals on the planet. But I’m not really sure that analogy is applicable.

At the same time, I can agree that a language never exists in a vacuum; those who speak it, as with the use of any tool of any sort, do so because it serves a need. Even a completely constructed language, as Esperanto, Elvish or Klingon, does things for its speakers that another language does not. Obviate the need and the tool becomes obsolete to all but the antiquarian and the hobbyist.

I can’t really say the need is obviated, even when a language is dead. I’ll give you an example. Nat has written many times about how the decline in learning the classics, Roman (Latin) and Greek, has led to the decline in civics in America. I agree. If a language is the window into the soul of a culture, then a dead language can teach us things, help us to plot the path of success and avoid the potholes that other cultures lost wheels and axels to.

What’s pivotal to me is the cultural context of the language. Not just how we order a double-shot half-caff skinny dry vente in Urdu, but the shape and depth of the culture from which any language grows. Languages contain and express the subject positions of their speakers. The old saws about the Inuit having 44 words for “snow” and the Hawai’ians having 20 words for “lava” are illustrative. They fill a need to differentiate.

I couldn’t agree more with the larger point. I guess that is why I find linguistics—at least the comparative version of it, so fascinating. And it’s also why I always make it a point to learn the rudiments of the local language when I travel.

The writer and traveler Richard Burton reportedly spoke and read a great number of languages, including Sanskrit and Babylonian. The historian and Masonic philosopher Albert Pike read and integrated many ancient source documents into his text “Morals and Dogma.” At one time, being at least moderately familiar with ancient languages — at least Latin and Greek — as well as more than one modern language, was the mark of an educated person. Books from the turn of the last century often cite aphorisms and quotations in their original languages, the assumption being that even if the reader does not speak that language, they are at least educated enough to recognize the meaning of a famous phrase. Learn and understand the phrase, down to the subatomic level of understanding the subject position from which it was spoken, and you have the culture in the palm of your hand.

Again, this is an excellent point. It’s also why I learned Latin. Now, when I attended a private, parochial elementary school I studied Latin. But that was required. After receiving my bachelors I took to studying Latin and Ancient Greek, post-bacc. I made it through Latin and can functionally read it—and most of the Latin inscriptions I have come across in Europe and the Levant. Greek? Not so much. The aorist was terrible. And the third declension, what my professor kindly called, ‘the garbage dump of ancient Greek,’ was just as dreadful. I personally love seeing old Greek and Latin quotes in books and scholarly papers. I love translating them literally. I think my favorite it ‘sine qua non.’ It literally translates as “without which nothing.” Of course that’s the spirit of the modern translation: an essential condition or element; an indispensable thing. And yet, the literal is quite a bit more powerful in my book.

And yet we applaud the “diffusion” of English. It’s a useful tool, but I wonder that maybe we’re reshaping all our problems to fit the tool, instead of honouring the diversity of tools to address unique problems. “When you have a hammer, suddenly everything looks like a nail.” Not so many years ago, the Northern High Plains of the U.S. became a mecca for “call centres.” There’s a mixed cultural metaphor for you!

A cultural catachresis? I like it!

I’ve lately been turning this over in idle moments. The ability to travel anywhere at will has diffused English very widely. Cultures in isolation develop their own languages, from New Guinea to the Appalachians. As our globalized oil-and-debt-supported infrastructure contracts, I think we’ll see increasing divergence of local dialects again. Which leads me around full-circle to the realization that the diffusion of English also carries the markers of a culture and a worldview that may need to adapt to changing circumstances.


Though that means ultimately that communication across regions will require learning more languages (or at least allowing for regionalisms), I also think it restores the flexibility of language diversity to reflect and facilitate the development of robust localized cultures.

And this, in turn, I might add, will hasten the decline of some languages and speed up the growth of others. Timeless, and irrevocable, indeed.

Currency Win!

Best Use Of Currency, Evah!

Passed along without comment.

Random Notes For The Holidays

I like zombies. I also like zombie stories. From Shaun of the Dead to 28 Days Later to reading ‘World War Z,’ I find thew whole zombie genre humorous, to say the least.

But I also dig aliens. Of course, they have to be somewhat anthropomorphic aliens like this, please and certainly not aliens like this, which gave me nightmares as a child.

Of course, I recall also those weird silicon based aliens that Captain Kirk and Spock faced in an early episode of Star Trek. If you recall, the alien, which was rather grotesque, found Spock more attractive than Kirk. I imagine Spock was pleased. Regardless, those would be okay, but I really prefer the friendly, ET like visitors.

My friend George has an interesting podcast about aliens today. Give it a listen. I wonder if the abductors use anal probes, a la Eric Cartman?

As for whether aliens exist or not? “We do,” as a friend of mine wrote.

“Oh, so you’re an alien? Please do elaborate,” I replied.

“No, I meant, we exist in the universe, so what’s so hard about others existing?” And he’s right. It’s not that hard to imagine a universe populated by strange creatures, teeming with life. He then quoted Jodie Foster to good effect, “It’d be a waste of space otherwise.”

Can you imagine what it would be like to come back as a travel writer 500 or 1,000 years from now and bounce around the galaxy trying strange new foods, meeting strange new races, learning new ways to communicate. And learning the histories of a thousand different cultures?

Wow! I’d vote for some kind of limited immortality in that case. So much to learn and so little time. Of course, immortality brings to mind thoughts of ‘the almighty.’ As a Buddhist, I’m very comfortable with the idea that there is no afterlife. My biggest problem with it has always been that at some point eternity, be it in heaven or hell, is going to really get boring.

Eternity is a long time.

The snuffing out of the ego, or nirvana, as we Buddhist’s call it, well, solves that problem. There are other problems when it comes to aliens and our primarily Western conception of ‘God.’ Such as, if aliens races do really exists, well, what does that say about God creating us in her image? Who created the aliens then? Granted this is a bit metaphysical.

Obviously I have way too much time on my hands as I prepare for the holidays. I should probably stick to reading science fiction, instead of commenting on it.

Migration, Infiltration Or Diffusion

I’m a linguistics geek. I fully confess that the comparative study of languages, that baseline to which we understand and perceive our worlds fascinates me. It’s led me down a lot of odd paths, one of which has been a rather dilettante-esque study of the Indo-Europeans. Yesterday, after languishing on my bookshelf for ages I finally completed J.P. Mallory’s “In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology, and Myth.” It was an excellent book—but the archaeology made my eyes water over at times. It’s an summation of the available information up to 1989 and a rough hypothesis of where the proto Indo-European homeland was. And Mallory makes a strong case for the Pontic Steppe, which is also my preference. Of course, after the fall of the Soviet Union a lot more information—and archaeological sites—became available. Sadly the money was not commensurate with the opportunity. Regardless, I am looking forward to reading David W. Anthony’s, “The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World,” in the very near future.

I’m not going to review the book, as there are plenty of those out there in the scholarly literature. I’m simply going to comment on one sentence in the book. Mallory writes, “As Ernst Pulgram observed thirty years ago, there are three ways by which we might imagine a language to expand: the migration of complete populations, infiltration of an area by small groups; or diffusion. . . The last hypothesis has never been encountered.”

That got me to thinking about the definition of the word ‘diffusion: the spread of linguistic or cultural practices or innovations within a community or from one community to another.”

I think we might very well be witnessing the global diffusion of English. Now, I’m not a language supremacist, or an absolutist, by any means. Languages die. Languages change. New languages are thus born out of old ones. It’s a story almost as old as human evolution, and possibly as older. I’m also very ambivalent about preserving languages on the brink of dying. If they die, they die. Certainly, I applaud the work of people who seek to document the literature of said languages, verbal and written, but the life and death of languages is much like the change of the seasons: timeless and irrevocable.

What I find fascinating about the idea of language diffusion is that it wasn’t possible fifty years ago when Pulgram made his comment. The technology wasn’t in place. But now with the internet? After visiting 54 separate nations on this planet and hearing at least that many different languages it always blows me away that so many people in the world speak English. And many people who speak English have little exposure to English speakers. In some places there is infiltration, like Korea or Japan where American soldiers are based. In others there is some small scale immigration, but none of it is wholesale. At least not anymore. Not after Australia and North America were populated by English-speakers, that is.

And so we live in an age where English has diffused across the globe, into the farthest nooks and crannies of China, into the jungles of Sumatra and the wilds of Anatolia. And there English is, breaking into the thought patterns of foreign tongues, sometimes like an unwanted guest, but always there. It’s fascinating to consider what the languages of the world will look like in two or three hundred years. Will they have become homogenized, or will they have broken up into so many news ones?

A Timeless Question, Finally Answered

Why Did The Chicken Cross The RoadIt is a question which has haunted mankind since the first road was built and poultry was domesticated: why did the chicken cross the road?

This morning at approximately 9:53 am, central daylight savings time Bernadette, a Central Austin Rhode Island Red, crossed from her coop on the north side of North Loop Road to Highland Plaza. Frenzied text messages and cell phone calls bounced off towers and clogged communication networks all over Austin this morning. But our intrepid reporter, Sean Paul Kelley, was on the scene first for this unprecedented opportunity. Finally “the” question would be answered.

“Bernadette, millions and billions of humans want to know, ‘why did you do it?’”

“Why, the coffee, of course! Especially the Sumatran dark blend here at Epoch,” she replied.

“Coffee,” asked Mr. Kelley, a bit perplexed. “Such a prosaic answer.”

“What do I look like,” she said, “a chicken from one of those fancy New York City salons? Do I look like an Ayn Rand acolyte? Or a philosopher? I may be a Rhode Island Red,” she added, “but I got shipped down here when I was just an egg. It was an accident I even managed to peck my way out of the shell. And besides, have you seen the size of a chicken’s brain? Come to think of it,” she said, pecking at a small bug in the asphalt, “my brain’s probably a bit larger than Rand’s but still, after worrying about foraging, laying eggs and running away from the local cats, coffee is about all the mental bandwidth I have left for.

“Bernadette,” Mr. Kelley shouted through the crowd of star struck onlookers and well wishers, “care to comment about which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

“No one likes a smart-ass,” she clucked.

A Contrarian Take On The Demise Of The News Industry In America

Call me a contrarian on this one. But I don’t buy all the hype that the internet is even the primary culprit of the demise of journalism. The primary culprit is the same as it is all over the country, in every industry and in government: equity extraction.

Let me explain, in short: when executives expect unrealistic profits of 20% and higher per annum on businesses something has got to give. It’s an unnatural and unsustainable growth rate. For the first ten or so years of a small to medium size company’s life? Sure. But when you are 3M, or GE? Unrealistic and ultimately impossible.

So, when such rates cannot be achieved by organic growth in the business, executives start shaving off perceived fat and before they know it they’re cutting off the muscle and then shaving off bone chips. And when they’ve gotten to the bone chips they borrow other people’s money to buy new companies, load up those companies with debt and extract equity form them and then because it looks like the parent is still growing award themselves huge bonuses. It’s a shell game.

That is what has happened to the news industry in America. The excessive obsession with unnaturally high profits has led to a vicious circle of cutting budgets, providing less services, which is then followed by even more drastic cuts. The local San Antonio paper is a great example of this. Twenty years ago there were two large dailies in my hometown. Both competed with each other for real scoops. Both had book reviews by local writers, providing local jobs. Both covered the local arts and sports scene. Both covered local politics in depth and local and state news in depth. Both had vigorous investigative teams. Both had bureaus in Mexico and both had offices and reporters on the ground in DC.

And then corner offices of Gannet and Harte-Hanks were populated with Kinsey-esque managers and the rout was on. Gone are the bureaus in Mexico. Today book reviews are now outsourced !for free! to bloggers via syndication. (And while it is well and good to have one’s name in print, I’d submit most would like some earnings off their intellectual property, as well.) Local arts? The office in DC? Well, that’s the AP, now. So, today, San Antonio has one daily that is as flimsy and tiny as the local alternative. The only real strength left with the local daily is the City Hall coverage. Everything else has been outsourced to the wire services or people writing for free. It’s hardly more than thirty pages. That’s a lot of wealth destruction and job loss in twenty years.  And 80% of this happened before Al Gore even invented the internet. All in the name of higher industry profits–not some overwhelming fear of the world wide inter-tubes. So, who’s profiting? Certainly not the intellectual vigor of the locals? And certainly not the writers who are all now ‘journalism entreprenuers.’ The only people who profited are the executives who obsessed over profits, to lard up their own bonus pool.

And while I agree with the overall thrust of Massig’s argument here, mostly because I think we are too far gone to get back to where we started, I think the overly obsessive focus on large profits, or the free market in general, when it comes to journalism is wrong.

The question that journalists inevitably ask Google, Schmidt went on, “is, okay then, why don’t you just write us a large check?” The problem, he said,

is that just transferring money from an area where we’re making a lot of money to an area where we’re making little money does not solve the problem for the long term. You’re fundamentally better off building the new product that is profitable and growing – again with the news, with magazines and so forth. It’s better for everyone. Because ultimately a subsidy model is a temporary solution. It’s not a long-term solution.

On that point, I think Schmidt is right.

No, Schmidt is wrong. It’s not about subsidies. It’s about money. And it’s about profits. And it is all about collecting obscene bonuses. When you run a public service it’s reasonable to expect reasonable rates of return. But not obscene ones. Same with the banks. Same with the cable news programs. Same with network news and newspapers. Reasonable profits are sustainable. The Google model is not.

You can provide a public service with small profits for a long, long time, but if you demand large ones you will destroy it. Just ask the big banks.

Writing Texas, Writing Home

Rebecca Creek, First Time Ever DryFor those of you you who don’t know Texas or have never visited or traveled in Texas, my latest story is up at Texas Monthly Online.

I hope, in the coming months, to spend some more time visiting portions of the state I have not seen in recent years, notably Big Bend, the more isolated parts of the Hill Country, the North Texas Plains and Canyon Lands and so much more.

Texas is a curious place. Some of it isn’t very pretty, as I was reminded on my recent trip south to the Coastal Plains. Parts of the state have been devastated by drought, or even worse, the modern plague of locusts known as Wal-Mart. Even in some of the most remote portions of the state, industrial blight remains in the form of oil derricks, some of them seventy, eighty years old languishing in the fields, surrounded by grasses and stickers and thistles. All empty. Smote down by an inexorable economic god.

But, after traveling the world for the last year I’ve learned that there is an element of beauty in everything. It’s all about where I am standing and whether I am willing enough to take the time to see what’s in front of me.

To say I have a complicated relationship with home is an understatement. The people, the sounds, the smells and the memories. All of it.

And yet, there is a bond, one that will never disappear no matter if I make my home in Istanbul or Iowa.

Question Answered

Some unknown denizen of the world wide intertubes queried in a google seach with the following keywords: “popoyo without a car.”

No, I wouldn’t recommend it.

But I do recommend the rum.

The Economic Challenges of India

And People Wonder Why The Lights Go Out In Delhi So Often?“Your hypotheses, sir, have been exposed as deeply flawed. And tragic. And super-human in their stupidity,” the Indian gentleman told me when I explained that the economic miracle in India was mostly ephemeral.

Indians, it seems, aren’t lacking in the hyper-patriotic, and India certainly doesn’t lack its boosters in the West. Alas, some folks are beginning to see the light:

BANGALORE, India — In the United States and Europe, people worry that their well-paying, high-skill jobs will be, in a word, “Bangalored” — shipped off to India.

People here are also worried about the future. They fret that Bangalore, and India more broadly, will remain a low-cost satellite office of the West for the foreseeable future — more Scranton, Pa., in the American television series “The Office,” than Silicon Valley.

Stephen Roach of Morgan Stanley-Asia has called this wage arbitrage (Roach happens to be one of the few American economists that gets it right on India). And Americans are right to worry about this. It’s put downward pressure on services as varied as call-centers and tech support, to financial news reporting, X-ray and MRI interpretation and accounting. I would be especially worried if I were an accountant. But then again, many of the big firm accountants need not be worried, as their shilling game for Wall Street will protect them. For a time.

Even as the rest of the world has come to admire, envy and fear India’s outsourcing business and its technological prowess, many Indians are disappointed that the country has not quickly moved up to more ambitious and lucrative work from answering phones or writing software. Why, they worry, hasn’t India produced a Google or an Apple?

Wait a second. India does not have any technological prowess in the true sense of the word. After all, if they did, why would the Ambassador, a car model over fifty years old, made of the heaviest steel imaginable, and horribly inefficient be the best selling domestically produced car in India, still. The Nano notwithstanding.

Innovation is hard to measure, but academics who study it say India has the potential to create trend-setting products but is not yet doing so. Indians are granted about half as many American patents for inventions as people and firms in Israel and China. The country’s corporate and government spending on research and development significantly lags behind that of other nations. And venture capitalists finance far fewer companies here than they do elsewhere.

Re-read that graph closely and you’ll begin to get an idea of the hurdles India faces. And hurdles it is doing nothing, absolutely nothing to overcome. Instead of using its domestic capital for something like infrastructure building, local elites continue to siphon it all off and live behind huge fenced in compounds paying dalits pituful, barely life-sustaining wages.

Delhi RubbishMoreover, the next graph gives a decent idea of what, exactly is holding India back:

Mr. Raghavan and others say India is held back by a financial system that is reluctant to invest in unproven ideas, an education system that emphasizes rote learning over problem solving, and a culture that looks down on failure and unconventional career choices.

While I was in India I read an hysterical book about one young Indian’s experience in America as a college student. Anurag Mathura’s “The Inscrutable Americans,” is an hilarious Occidentalist send-up but more important a sly shot at the Indian educational system and its weaknesses. One could review the book thusly, pilfering this Times article without a hint of irony: “a financial system that is reluctant to invest in unproven ideas, an education system that emphasizes rote learning over problem solving, and a culture that looks down on failure and unconventional career choices.

Sujai Karampuri is an Indian entrepreneur who has struggled against many of these constraints.

His Bangalore-based company, Sloka Telecom, has developed award-winning radio systems that are more flexible, smaller and less expensive than equipment used by phone companies today. Mobile phone companies and larger telecommunications equipment suppliers are buying and testing his products, but he has not been able to interest Indian venture capitalists. For the last five years he has run his firm on $1 million he raised from acquaintances.

One of the reasons companies like this don’t make it in India is simple: “you can’t eat cell phones.” Now, this is a common criticism progressive Indians make. To put it another way, “who wants to buy a cheap cell phone when they are worried about where their next meal is coming from?” In a country that is buying farmland in places like Ethiopia now, food security is much more a thing of the future, than of the past.

Companies like Sloka Telecom are important, analysts say, because they are more likely to create the next wave of jobs than large, established Indian technology companies, many of which are experiencing slower growth. These companies could also help offset some of the outsourcing jobs the country will likely lose because of greater automation and competition from countries where costs are even lower.

Right. And wrong. What analysts fail to realize, mostly because they don’t travel to India, or when they do, they travel a la Friedman, is that India has no infrastructure. You simply cannot build a modern economy if you do not have the basics: good roads, good ports, good telecommunications—it still takes almost six months to get a landline in India and at least a week to get a wireless modem, unless you bribe the salesman and the manager at the store where you buy it.

There are historical reasons that starting a business in India is difficult. During British rule, imperial interests dictated economic activity; after independence in 1947, central planning stifled entrepreneurship through burdensome licensing and direct state ownership of companies and banks.

Businesses found that currying favor with policy makers was more important than innovating. And import restrictions made it hard to acquire machinery, parts or technology. Inventors came up with ingenious ways to overcome obstacles and scarcity — a talent Indians used the Hindi word “jugaad” (pronounced jewgard) to describe. But the products that resulted from such improvisation were often inferior to those available outside India.

I have no quibble at all with these two paragraphs. The are accurate and up to the minute in their accuracy.

“We were in an economy where, forget innovation, expansion was discouraged, creating wealth was frowned upon, there was no competition to speak of,” said Anand G. Mahindra, who heads the Mahindra & Mahindra business group and has spoken about the need for more innovation.

Indian leaders began embracing the free market in the 1980s and stepped up the pace of change in 1991 when the country faced a financial crisis. Those changes increased economic growth and made possible the rise of technology companies like Infosys and Wipro, which focused on providing services for American and European corporations.

Again, the real problem here isn’t with ‘opening to the world,’ it was that India did it the wrong way. Do you know how many people use the Indian rail system every day? 50,000,000. Yes, fifty fucking million people. And India has not spent any money in the last decade—outside of the main tourist line from Delhi to Agra (home of the Taj Mahal)—on expanding, much less upgrading their rail system. And have only poured in a bare minimum for maintenance. Again, how are you supposed to grow your economy if you don’t have a way to move goods efficiently and cheaply from producer to marketplace?

Yet, the government still exerts significant control, especially in manufacturing, said Rishikesha T. Krishnan, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore.

“To start a services company it really takes you just two or three days to get going,” said Mr. Krishnan, whose book, “From Jugaad to Systematic Innovation: The Challenge for India,” is to be published next year. “The moment you are looking at manufacturing, there are hundreds of inspectors and regulations.”

Read between the lines here: bribery and graft is huge. And it is another of India’s very real impediments.

Another change may augur well. Until early this decade, the Indian market was too small and isolated to make it very lucrative for businesses to develop products here, so most technology companies focused on selling services to the West, said Girish S. Paranjpe, joint chief executive of Wipro’s information technology business. “That will change dramatically because the Indian market has become bigger,” he said.

The only reason the Indian market has become bigger is that the population continues to spiral out of control. It hasn’t grown productivity, or efficiency to speak of. Nothing will change dramatically to the upside in India until the basics of economic growth are dealt with. Graft and corruption must be rooted out. Dalits must be given fair opportunities. There must be a multi-decade buildout of the Indian infrastructure upwards of probably a trillion dollars. And Westerners have to get a grip with reality: India will not be, on its present course a new China. Not in my lifetime, at least.

Cogito Ero Sum

Sean Paul conducted a once in a lifetime interview with Jesus Reyes this afternoon at a local Austin coffee shop to determine whether he really exists:

“Reyes, my friends all want to know, do you really exist? They believe you are simply a manifestation of my Id.”

“Don’t you just wish I were said manifestation!” Reyes replied, bleary eyed and tequila sodden. He really needed the coffee.

“Reyes, to the point: do you exist or not?” Sean Paul asked.

“Well, we’re talking right now, aren’t we. Isn’t that proof enough?”