Commentary 10

Random thoughts.
  • I've been reading up on Bantu languages, the southernmost of which (e.g. isiZulu) can give Navajo a run for the money in the "our language is designed to hurt foreigners" department. Both have lots of grammatical genders (11 in Navajo, 17 in Zulu) and tone, as well as weird consonants, though I think Zulu's clicks are weirder than Navajo having the same sound-inventory as Klingon. I still think Navajo wins, though; Zulu may be a language I could never pronounce, but Navajo is a split-S alignment polysynthetic head-marking language whose affixes combine into pseudo-inflections. Phonics, schmonics.

    But I like the cut of Bantu's jib. Specifically, the way it forms words off of roots. E.g., take the Arabic loan-word in the coastal trade language, "swahili", which means "coastal" in Arabic. Put that root in the gender for languages and other artifacts (making kiSwahili), and you get "the coastal trade language". Put it in the gender for people, and you get muSwahili, "a coastal person" (plural waSwahili). Yes, Swahili's 14 genders hurt foreigners, and it's difficult to deny that that's the main reason Bantu has them—but it's not the only reason.
  • Study of Bantu languages, since it involved Wikipedia, inevitably led me to reading about the peoples who speak them. And that leads me to think we need to stop translating "rex" as "king" in Medieval Latin. Now, Classical Latin "rex" means simply "chief", and Humanist Latin has it mean "miniature Roman Emperor, whose state is made up largely of one nation", but in Medieval Latin it means something else. See, medieval nobles were each of them, in anthropological terms, chiefs—their system was a complex chiefdom, neither tribal nor a state—and thus, a medieval "rex", rather than a king in the post-Renaissance sense of the term, is properly termed a paramount chief. There was no Kingdom of France; just a Frankish paramountcy.

    Interestingly, once we recognize that what we're dealing with in the Middle Ages is a complex chiefdom, rather than a state, we are forced to recognize the amazing achievement of their culture. See, complex chiefdoms don't last; it's rare for them to stay around more than a few generations. But the typical medieval paramountcy generally came in a generation or two after Charlemagne, and didn't generally collapse until the Black Plague. Plus, most chiefdoms, e.g. in Polynesia, or the aforementioned Bantus, have gross social inequality, with commoners retaining little of their produce and having only basic rights, while the elite have essentially unquestioned rights over them (pygmies are small, for instance, because the cattle-owning elite takes the hunter-gatherers' tallest women off to marry, and has for 3000 years). In Medieval Europe, the serfs retained all of their produce except the relatively small portion that was their lord's customary due, and their lords would suffer religious and social censure for abusing them.
  • Speaking of the Bantus and the Middle Ages, has anyone pointed out to George R. R. Martin that his stories are a hell of a lot closer to the apartheid government's depiction of the Zulu Mfecane (pronounced "mm-feh-*tsk*-ah-ney") than they are even to the Reformation Wars, let alone the War of the Roses, which he claims he based it on? While the Mfecane really was pretty bad, the sort of thing that didn't happen in Europe between Charlemagne and Charles V, a portrayal of every single principal being cartoonishly supervillainous could only come from an ideology with a vested interest in depicting certain groups in the worst light possible.

    Now why on Earth do you suppose that is?
  • I realized, I'm silly, there's no real question how intransitive verbs (absolutive sentences) in ergative languages ought to be translated, they're just translated as intransitive sentences ("I sleep"). While transitive ones (ergative sentences) are translated as the passive, which is why an old name for that grammatical alignment is "passive".

    I found a specific need for the antipassive in my book, while I was making the Zbin-Ãld grammar ergative. Namely, the catapults the zledo launch certain spacecraft from, roughly a cross between aircraft catapults and a Verne gun. Their name translates to "[frequently] thrown by the union of coordinates", i.e. "[stress-energy tensor] metric-patching catapult". The antipassive is used so they don't have to specify what is thrown.
  • One of the Mundane SF people, justifying their ridiculous idea that we'd never colonize another planet (no, not even in the Solar System), was saying we'd never do it because that would take terraforming, which would take tens of thousands of years, and "what have we ever done that lasted that long?"

    Admittedly, the time-frame for terraforming really is an issue, though the main argument against it is actually that station-colonies and habitat-domes are so much easier as to render terraforming a stupid option on the level of, to borrow an image from Scott Adams, tying thousands of butterflies to your body and hoping they all fly the same direction, as a means of transport. There is also the Niven argument for why there's no colony on Mars (aside from the Martians being dangerous)—planets are holes that it's too costly to crawl out of. Yes he seemed to forget that when the holes were Wunderland, Mt. Lookitthat, Jinx, and We Made It, but he also came up with a very implausible programming oversight to justify setting colonies on those planets, so plainly, when it came to them, he was putting story before pure realism—and more power to him.

    Nevertheless, how about, agriculture? We've been breeding wheat so long that two of the varieties are chromosomally incompatible, that is, we caused speciation. Is that not basically the sort of thing involved in such a long-term endeavor? We're colonizing this planet as part of a process that's taken a hundred millennia, the only part of it we're native to is southwestern Ethiopia. (If by "we" one means H. sapiens, and one assumes the oldest known fossils represent our origin.)
  • It occurs to me, thinking of chiefdoms, that the norm for the human race is that the state is worse—at least in terms of social inequality—than the chiefdom. Think about it. The commoner in a chiefdom has few rights and keeps little of his produce. But the slave, who is the foundation of every state (there is slavery in chiefdoms but it's not the foundation of the economy), is basically an appliance. Perhaps the stability that states have over chiefdoms makes up for it (certainly most of mankind has always thought so), but don't we always claim to prefer freedom and equality over stability and slavery? The commoner of a chiefdom is both freer and less unequal than the slave in a state.

    It's only transcendental ideas—again, Buddhism and Christianity—that make the state liveable, in Asia and Christendom respectively. And as I just showed RE: Medieval Europe, they did the same thing to chiefdoms. So...should all of us who, again, claim to prefer freedom and equality to stability and slavery, favor chiefdoms over the state? Certainly, given that feudalism is a better model of the good things about our 'republics' than the classical terms they use (compare "power is held in feudal gift from the people" to how much wordage you have to pour out to say it classically), we seem to try to leaven our states with characteristics of the complex chiefdom.

    I am not here concerned to argue any political theory—again, if your system ensures a reasonable chance at safety and dignity for the determining majority of your people, I have no quarrel with it—but it is an interesting thing to ponder. As is the fact most thinkers nowadays would fear to ponder it, no matter how much they claim to dislike the state.
  • Have I mentioned, by the bye, my answer to Fermi's paradox? The one I use in my fiction I mean, the one I have in real life is "Neither Fermi nor Drake is qualified to discuss probabilities in this matter, as the arising of life is a historical event, like the coronation of Napoleon, and we don't have multiple French Revolutionary Wars to stick Corsican gunners into and see how often they become Emperor of France."

    But in my fiction, I essentially say, firstly, that the period in which a species uses high-power, non-directional radio is brief—since we're already moving away from that. Secondly, that interstellar transmissions prefer 532 nm-wavelength lasers, which you can only see if you're their recipient (well, maybe if the interstellar dust catches the beam just right). And thirdly, both zledo and khàngaì having developed both space-folds and metric-patching engines by the time we were walking on the moon, they switched to "topology communications", i.e. sending their data as waveform distortions in spacetime.
  • Why is it, when people translate the words of Gangnam Style, they don't seem to usually translate "oppa"? Oppa, pronounced "ôpba", is Korean for "older brother of a girl", here used as self-referential fictive kinship. In East Asia, it's common to refer to yourself as the older sibling of the person you're talking to, when you want to imply that you're doing them a favor out of affection ("here, let big brother show you how").

    Examining the translation of the lyrics reveals it to be less creepy than I'd feared (Gangnam is the Jersey Shore of South Korea), but there's still something a little awkward about a dude referring to himself like that in a love song. Think of Ayumu's fantasy-Yû in Kore Zombie, referring to him as "oniichan". This song is the fantasy of our weak-willed protagonist, PSY.

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