Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Sokal revisited

(Those who are visiting from Facebook should know that the previous post, the one on AhfPæk, is the one I was talking about on Facebook.)

Back in 1996, in an early part of my dotage, I loved the Lingua Franca article in which Alan Sokal exposed his own hoax; I got many a laugh from it. Now Michael Bérubé provides an interesting mixed review of that article. I think it's worth a read.

This blog has no opinion on Alan Sokal, Michael Bérubé, Social Text, science studies, science, Andrew Ross, E. O. Wilson, sociobiology, Steve Fuller (whom I don't think highly of--that's a statement of fact about me, not an opinion about him), intelligent design, or the objective reality, nonobjective reality, objective nonreality, and/or nonobjective nonreality of gravity.

The blog is unable to miss Lingua Franca, not having existed when LF was around.


Before I get into the main topic, let me tell you about my favorite source of white noise (it will tie in later). It's SBS Radio, an Australian network that broadcasts in some sixty-six languages (not counting English). I listen to languages that I have no clue in. It's pleasant background sound, and occasionally there's some very good music (and also some boring music). If you don't want to pay attention to it, you probably shouldn't listen to any languages that are closely related to languages you know. "Did they just say that four amoebae are playing hockey? It sounded just like 'four amoebae are playing hockey' in that cognate language I studied for a year in junior high." I listen to a bunch of the languages (nothing Romance or Germanic; too many words similar to English); sometimes I tend to gravitate to Amharic and Cook Island Maori. It's incredibly cool to me that Maori and Cook Island Maori are on SBS's list as two separate languages. The Cantonese broadcast is annoying. It includes a long feature in which a man and a woman are talking and laughing, with a recorded instrumental badoomp-clang every once in a while. Sounds like a lot of annoying American anglophone radio.

Anyhow, be that as it may.

It used to strike me as odd that some of us Midwesterners refer to Pakistan as "Pahkistahn"; odder still that they talk about "Pahkistahn" in the same breath as "Æfghænistæn." This never struck me as incorrect, just unusual; now it strikes me as both nonincorrect and nonunusual (languages change), but still odd.

Odder than the pronunciation is the reaction of some Republicans to it (President Obama appears to be the main popularizer of it), and odd and downright incorrect is the reaction of some Democrats to the Republican reaction. For example, here's Steve Benen of Washington Monthly, back in 2008, quoting some conservatives bellyaching about Obama's pronunciation:

The National Review's Mark Stein, for example, said that Obama prefers the "exotic pronunciation." He added, "[O]ne thing I like about Sarah Palin is the way she says 'Eye-raq'."

This came after the National Review's Kathryn Jean Lopez posted an email that argued, "[N]o one in flyover country says Pock-i-stahn. It's annoying."

This is truly a stupid thing to make into a campaign issue. Here's Benen's response to this nonsense:
The inanity of what the right decides to whine about never ceases to amaze me. That Obama's pronunciation is accurate is irrelevant. Mispronunciation apparently makes some conservatives feel better about themselves, and raises doubts about candidates who care to get this right. "Elites" care about country names; real Americans don't.
So "Pækistæn" is incorrect? How so? If something is commonplace enough for people to complain that it's wrong, then it's idiomatic in some speech community; if you're going to be cheeky enough to claim that idiom is incorrect, you have a serious burden of proof. How do we know that "Pækistæn" is incorrect? The usual answer is that that's not how Pakistanis pronounce it.

This isn't a convincing argument. The problem is that we're speaking English. In my listening to SBS (I told you I'd come back to it), I've heard non-English radio reports in which the announcer refers to something that sounds to my non-IPA ears like "Ámrika." But English- and Spanish-speaking Americans accent the vowel between the em and the ar; French-speaking Americans have a long but unaccented vowel there. (Can't comment on Portuguese or indigenous languages.) In "Ámrika," that vowel completely disappears. Would anyone be brazen enough to say that those who say "Ámrika" in their native language are mispronouncing their own native language? No? But that's not how Americans pronounce it. If "Pækistæn" is incorrect English because that isn't the Pakistani pronunciation, then "Ámrika" should be incorrect in other languages because that's not how Americans pronounce it in their languages (as far as I know).

By the way, Steve Benen, the opponent of what he takes to be mispronunciation, misspelled the name of the National Review's Mark Steyn in the excerpt quoted above. I don't consider this a big deal in itself; this isn't one of those "nyah nyah nyah, I found a typo" blogs. But if you're going to complain about other people's errors, you should try to get stuff right.

More ridiculous, but this is a matter of opinion, and this blog avoids opinion, is Benen's use of "argued" when he said Lopez "argued, '[N]o one in flyover country says Pock-i-stahn. It's annoying.'"

It should go without saying that this blog has no opinion on President Obama, Steve Benen, Mark Steyn, Kathryn Jean Lopez, Pakistan, or Afghanistan.