We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Two discussion points inspired by Stephen Wolfram

The first one is straightforward. The internet threw me a talk by the computer scientist and businessman Stephen Wolfram today. It lasts three minutes 21 seconds and is called “How humans can communicate with aliens”.The subject is one that has so often been used as the basis for fiction that we sometimes forget that when you look up at night, what you see is real. There is a whole universe out there. It might have intelligences in it. Mr Wolfram contends that we might have been seeing evidence of intelligences all the time without realising it.

Do you think he is right? And assuming we can talk to them, should we?

Alien contact sounds wonderful at first but then becomes terrifying as you think more deeply. The second topic for discussion I want to put forward sounds terrifying at first but then becomes –

Well, you tell me what it becomes. There is a very strange final paragraph to Mr Wolfram’s Wikipedia page:

Personal analytics

The significance data has on the products Wolfram creates transfers into his own life. He has an extensive log of personal analytics, including emails received and sent, keystrokes made, meetings and events attended, phone calls, even physical movement dating back to the 1980s. He has stated “[personal analytics] can give us a whole new dimension to experiencing our lives”.

One of my recurring nightmares is that as spy devices get smaller and the computational power available to analyse what they learn gets bigger someone – or lots of someones – will be able to analyse my life in that sort of detail, down to every keystroke I make. It had never occurred to me to think of it as something I might like to do to myself.

Does anyone reading this do anything similar? Would you like to?

Let’s save time and outlaw humour entirely

This video clip (which has English subtitles once you eliminate the advertisement at the bottom) shows the left wing French politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon behaving unpleasantly.

I know. The jokes write themselves. But I was a little surprised to see a man often called “The French Jeremy Corbyn” display such un-PC (and to be fair to Mr Corbyn, un-JC) contempt for a journalist, particularly a female journalist, merely for speaking with a less prestigious regional accent. Reuters has an account of the exchange here, and this is a slightly longer version of the video with some French subtitles that shows the build up to Mélenchon losing his temper with Veronique Gaurel, the journalist in question. His claim that he does not understand her question does not convince. It looks a lot more like he understood it all too well and was desperately casting around for any excuse not to answer it.

Did you catch how he imitated her? Mr Mélenchon has shown a haughtiness that pokes a hole in his claim to represent the ordinary people of France against the elite. There has been an outpouring of support for Ms Gaurel, with many saying that his outburst was a reaction to her doing her job well and asking him a pointed question that remains unanswered. He will lose votes. That should be punishment enough.

But it never is enough for some people. France 24 reports,

French MP seeks ban on ‘glottophobia’ after Mélanchon mocks journalist’s accent

A French member of parliament has proposed that mockery of accents be outlawed, after an irate politician derided a journalist’s southwestern pronunciation before asking if anyone had a question in “understandable French”.

Laetitia Avia of President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling party said she was proposing a bill that would classify such mockery with other forms of prohibited discrimination such as on grounds of sex or race.

At this point we in the Anglosphere might be tempted to laugh in a smug way and say those Frenchies might submit to the abolition of a tradition of laughing at other people’s funny accents that goes back millennia, but we will never say goodbye to our ‘Allo ‘Allo!

Don’t count on it. How often have you laughed about the latest daft PC proposal from an obscure intellectual, a student union, or a minor politician, home-grown or foreign like Laetitia Avia – only to find five years later that it is a law you must obey?

“A student at the preschool I work at is only being taught a fictional language”

That was the title of a request for legal advice submitted to Reddit by someone with the user name “HelpfulButterscotch2”. Here is the whole post:

[CA] A student at the preschool I work at is only being taught a fictional language

I’m twenty, and I work part-time as an assistant at a small daycare in California.

There is a four year old who speaks very very little and poor English. Knows the most basic of words but is at the level of maybe a two year old English-wise compared to the other kids, including several who are both native Spanish/English speakers. Basically knows “yes”, “no”, “juice”, etc.

He’s only been here for less than a month and I’ve seen his incredibly limited vocab double in that time. I’m embarrassed to say it but I’m very uneducated about this type of thing and I thought he was speaking Portuguese or something similar up until last week. The kids are split into small groups by age and I’m usually not in charge of his group unless it’s at the end of the day, in my defense.

The hosts of the daycare are very into nerd culture and some of the daycare is very decorated with (child friendly) sci-fi and fantasy stuff. I’m not too into it myself but I like listening to them and I (usually) like their passion.

One day I was curious what language the child was speaking so I looked up what Portuguese actually sounded like and realized it wasn’t that. Looked up a lot of languages and for the life of me could not identify it. The single dad who picked him up looked like a nice dude and one day he was one of the last people to pick up that day so I asked him what language his kid spoke.

The bosses of the daycare were there too when I asked and they all suddenly got big smiles on their faces and explained to me in depth that the guy was a linguistics hobbyist who was trying to recreate an experiment where he raises his kid to speak a language from the tv show Star Trek (klingon.)

He explained how at home he only has spoken Klingon (which is apparently a real full language) to the kid and that’s all he knows. My bosses LOVE that he is doing this and he does too, he told me to look up the experiment and read about it. My bosses even learned a small bit of the language themselves so that when they talk to the kid they don’t say it.

It sounded kinda cool at the time but I didn’t really think about it too much. When I looked it up I found out that the guy who did it taught his kid Klingon AND English at the same time. I assumed that this guy was doing the same and I just misunderstood but when I clarified next time he confirmed that the kid was ONLY being taught Klingon on purpose and he was going to try and continue the “experiment” for as long as possible.

He also told me about his blog and I checked it out where he describes this all and he basically states in it that he is fully aware that this will make it “slightly” hard for the kid to speak english later but that the experience is worth it. He even has limited the kids intake of media very severely so far to avoid shows with a lot of speaking/words.

The kid is fairly isolated and generally acts a bit socially “off”, if I can say that without being mean. Not like misbehaving but he clearly has small issues interacting with kids his age who all talk a lot already.

I’ve brought it up casually with my bosses but they basically love this dude and what he is doing and don’t see a problem with it. I feel terrible but I feel like I should report this? Is this child abuse? This guy basically is mispurposely not teaching his kid to how to interact with other people for the level of “it’s just a social experiment bro”, it’s nuts to me.

If I’m wrong and this isn’t dangerous I apologize. It feels awful to me though. I like my job otherwise but if I had to lose it for this i could find another one, have some savings, i feel too bad for this kid.

That is eerily similar to the scenario I imagined a couple of years ago in a post called “The morality of not teaching your child English”. I started by asking whether it would be wrong to raise your child to speak only Welsh. No, I answered. “Welsh has over half a million speakers and a magnificent corpus of poetry, literature and song. Speaking Welsh alone does not remotely count as linguistic imprisonment”. Then I asked the question again for languages with smaller and smaller numbers of speakers. 50,000? 5,000? 500? That last figure is about the number of Cornish speakers. I wrote:

Very recently the Cornish language has been revived. 557 speakers claim it as their main language, 20 young children are native speakers. Let me stress that in real life all of these children are being brought up to be bilingual in Cornish and English. But when you get down to a group of that size and imagine its children being brought up monolingually, the mental walls do begin to close in.

How small would the village be before it became a prison?

The specific example of Klingon was brought up in comments by William H Stoddard. He cited the fairly well-known case (also mentioned by “HelpfulButterscotch2”) of another child who was taught Klingon from babyhood by his father back in the 1990s, but – and this is a crucial distinction – that child’s mother spoke to him in English. As I said,

…when the child began to notice that the people he met outside didn’t speak this language he began to stop talking in it (a common way for attempts to raise bilingual children to break down, as I’m sure you know), and the father did not persist and risk damaging his relationship with the child. It was getting to be a pain for the father too, as Klingon doesn’t have equivalents for a lot of the everyday English words that the boy was meeting as his world expanded. Given that the child also learned English, the only ethical issue, and a much smaller one, was whether one should make one’s child mildly famous as an experiment.

At the time I had reservations about naming the child, but without need. The story of how d’Armond Speers tried to raise his son to be bilingual in Klingon and English is all over the internet. Stephen Fry interviewed him. The son is grown up now, speaks English normally, and has forgotten his Klingon.

But the child described by “HelpfulButterscotch2” has not been raised to speak a conlang alongside English. He has only been exposed to the artificial language and, if the post is to be believed, has been prevented from learning English. Though to be fair that isolation from English has now ceased, given that he now goes to a normal US preschool.

In principle it should make no difference whether the language the child is being raised in is a conlang or a natural language. Esperanto is a constructed language, but it has had quite a few native speakers, usually the children of parents from different countries who met at Esperanto conferences. Apparently Esperanto was the mother tongue of the financier George Soros. It does not seem to have held him back. However one problem with Klingon that d’Armond Speers mentioned in his interview with Stephen Fry is that, compared to Esperanto which has been going for well over a century and has several million speakers, Klingon is the work of one man and has a limited vocabulary. That point was made even by the conlanging enthusiasts who discussed this story when it was cross-posted to the subreddit dealing with constructed languages, /r/conlangs. The general reaction there was disquiet. The top comment is by “chrevs” and reads,

It’d be different if he was being raised as bilingual, but he’s stunting the kid’s ability to to get on where he lives. Not to mention that if things were to be going horribly wrong at home, like his father decides he also needs to be practicing the kind of ritual combat the Klingon do, the kid can’t express that he’s in danger to teachers or other trusted adults. It’s not okay

Another commenter called “Esosorum” says,

I worry that, from a biological perspective, this child’s brain isn’t experiencing language-acquisition the way it was meant to. I just don’t think conlangs have as much to offer as natural languages. I don’t disagree that conlangs can be wonderfully expressive and complex, but natural language is rooted in culture in a way that a conlang can’t be.

It could be that the post by HelpfulButterscotch2 is not to be believed. It was submitted under a pseudonym and the author joined Reddit one day before submitting it. That means that we are not in a position to get a feel for their sincerity (and sanity) by looking at their comment history. I find it curious that there is no link provided to the blog where the father of the boy is claimed to describe what he is doing. Some people do take an odd pleasure in passing off bizarre fictions as truth just for the buzz. On the other hand having joined Reddit one day ago is not inconsistent with a person not knowing who else to turn to for advice about a situation that worries them deeply. Equally, HelpfulButterscotch2 may be sincere but have misunderstood the situation. I hope so.

But assuming that this is really happening as described, it does raise some sharp questions for Libertarians. When do we get on the phone and send the state sweeping in to “save” a child from their parents?

Brexit Britain fails to play the game

But not quite in the sense that the Telegraph‘s Brussels Correspondent, James Crisp, thinks.

He has written a piece entitled “Terrible translations of Brexit White Paper make Britain a laughing stock in Brussels”

British officials botched the translation of Theresa May’s discredited White Paper into European languages, part of a UK strategy to win concessions from Brussels, and failed to translate the document into Irish, despite being locked in fraught Brexit talks over Ireland’s border.

The paper’s executive summary, which Britain hopes to use to help solve the vexed border issue, has been translated, poorly, into 22 languages. The full 100-page document has only been translated into one other language, Welsh, which, unlike Irish, is not an official EU language.

After The Telegraph contacted the British Government, an Irish version was published on Thursday afternoon, two days after the other translations but the damage was already done. A DexEU spokeswoman said the translations were being published as they were finished.

Basic errors and amateurish negligence has not only wasted an opportunity to win hearts and minds on the Continent but will confirm Brussels’ worst suspicions about the government. It exposes, once again, how poorly the Department for Exiting the European Union understands Brussels, its priorities and its culture.

When Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, travelled to Dublin he made a point of addressing reporters in Irish. The gesture was appreciated in Dublin and left some in tears. The EU-27 governments have made it clear they will back Ireland to the hilt with senior figures insisting “we are all Irish”.

In contrast the tin-eared Brits considered the common courtesy of an Irish translation an afterthought.

We saw so many palaces and temples during our visit to Japan that they have merged in my mind. But in one of them, probably the former Imperial Palace at Kyoto, there was a fine recreation of a great daimyo awaiting an audience with the emperor. Etiquette (the sort enforced with swords) forbade him to stroll in and say, “Your Majesty, we need to talk” – even if the emperor needed and wanted to hear what he had to say. No, he had to wait for hours on his knees in a beautiful but austere anteroom, contemplating the painted screens. I thought of that daimyo with his knees aching under his perfectly arranged silk robe when I read Mr Crisp’s line, “It exposes, once again, how poorly the Department for Exiting the European Union understands Brussels, its priorities and its culture.” The priorities and culture of Tokugawa-period Kyoto required that the emperor’s symbolic importance be reinforced by making everyone wait for hours before business could be done. None of the usual reasons or excuses for being kept waiting applied. The wait was the point.

The priorities and culture of European Union-period Brussels require that every document be translated into a couple of dozen languages. I will focus on Irish in particular because for that language the divorce from the usual point of translation, to enable communication, is complete. Not one Irish parliamentarian or official actually needed the White Paper translated into Irish in order to understand it. Probably no more than a handful of them are even capable of reading it in Irish. Like the deference to the emperor in Kyoto when real power lay with the Shogun in Edo, the laborious process of translation into Irish before business can be done is all just a symbolic obeisance, a court ritual, a game.

The UK was never very good at this languages game and will drop it with relief once out of the EU. In contrast Ireland is firmly in the EU and plays the game better than anyone. (Though as I will argue later, this may not be to the advantage of the long term survival of Irish.) Although Irish has been an official language of the EU since 2007, it was only in 2015 that the the decision was taken to upgrade the language to a full working language of the European institutions. By 2022 it is hoped that the “derogation phase” during which the EU was let off the obligation to provide full translation or interpretation services for every document to and from Irish will be over.

The way things are going, the apotheosis of Irish as a full EU working language will coincide neatly with its death as a native language.

Many of the English – and even some of the Irish – shrug their shoulders at the prospect, and talk of “efficiency”. From what I have written so far you might think I was one of them. You would be wrong. I see language death as a tragedy. Quite apart from the loss of beauty, I fear a world unified under one language for the same reasons I fear a world unified under one government. If that last culture falls under the sway of a tyranny, there is nowhere else to flee, no one else to keep the flame alive.

For many reasons I would love to see the apparently inexorable slide towards extinction of more than half the languages spoken on Earth reversed. Alas, that shows no sign of happening. Naturally those who love their threatened language are moved when they hear a visiting foreigner make the effort to speak it. (Really, though, there was no need to burst into tears just because Donald Tusk memorised a few phrases. It was a nice gesture, but if that’s all it takes to get the Irish political class to fall at one’s feet, Theresa May ought to reinstate Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary and get him to do one of his linguistic party pieces.)

Naturally, too, those who love their threatened language want to see it enshrined in an official position of parity with the other languages of Europe. But “enshrined” is the word. Shrines are not raised to the living. The question comes unbidden: who actually reads the endless streams of EU documents translated so dutifully into Irish? I have a horrible suspicion that the answer is no one, no one at all. Lurking on forums discussing the future of the Irish language I have read well-argued claims that the exodus to Brussels of so many of the best-educated native Irish speakers is one of the factors causing the Gaeltachts, the Irish-speaking areas, to decline. It cements the perception – and helps make the perception fact – that for a young person with talent and ambition there is no life to be had in the Gaeltacht. What a strange life these exiles must have. They grow up in one of the few remaining parts of Ireland where the ancient tongue is still spoken in the streets. Presumably inspired by a wish to preserve that inheritance they study for many years to reach the high standards required to be a professional translator or interpreter, and their voices are no longer heard in those streets. Off to Brussels they go (plus a monthly trip to Strasbourg), where they speak beautiful Irish into headphones tuned into another channel and write less beautiful Irish about Section 6, sub-section 13, paragraph 1(a)(iv) of the Directive on This, That and The Other that not one human soul will ever read.

Ça ira toujours

Ah! ça ira, ça ira, ça ira
Les aristocrates à la lanterne!

That is the famous song sung by the female revolutionaries storming the gates of Versailles in this clip from a 1953 film called “Si Versailles M’Etait Conté” (If Versailles Told me its Story).

Neither the voice of Edith Piaf at the head of the mob nor the glorious technicolor in the film can suppress the thought that “Les aristocrates à la lanterne!” (The aristocrats to the lamp-posts!) is a murderous sentiment. If that was the song of the Revolution, it is hardly surprising that it soon became the Terror.

Only those were not the words sung at the time of the Revolution. The film is peddling a myth. Today I learned, first that the words “ça ira, ça ira” do not mean “Thus it will go, thus it will go” as I had thought but “It’ll be fine, it’ll be fine”, secondly that they were originally said by Benjamin Franklin to express his confidence that the American Revolution would work out OK, and thirdly that the original words of the song are revolutionary but not murderous.

Here are a couple of extracts:

According to the precepts of the Gospel
Of the lawmaker everything shall be accomplished
The one who puts on airs shall be brought down
The one who is humble shall be elevated
The true catechism shall instruct us
And the awful fanaticism shall be snuffed out.

and

The aristocrat says, “Mea culpa!”
The clergy regrets its wealth,
The state, with justice, will get it.
Thanks to the careful Lafayette,
Everyone will calm down.

Ah! It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine
By the torches of the august assembly,
Ah ! It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine
An armed people will always take care of themselves.
We’ll know right from wrong,
The citizen will support the Good.

Those were the words as first written by a former soldier turned street singer by the name of Ladré. It was not so much the song of the Revolution as the song of the Fête de la Fédération that took place a year later. This event was meant to be a symbol of national reconciliation. Wikipedia says:

At this relatively calm stage of the Revolution, many people considered the country’s period of political struggle to be over. This thinking was encouraged by counter-revolutionary monarchiens, and the first fête was designed with a role for King Louis XVI that would respect and maintain his royal status. The occasion passed peacefully and provided a powerful, but illusory, image of celebrating national unity after the divisive events of 1789–1790.

As we all know, that did not last. Unlike their American counterparts, the French revolutionaries had no intention of stopping just because they had achieved their ostensible aim. Ladré’s optimistic words about everyone calming down and the state “with justice” taking the wealth from repentant aristocrats and clergy were replaced by a new version of the “Ça ira” propagated by the sans-culottes:

Ah! It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine
aristocrats to the lamp-post
Ah! It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine
the aristocrats, we’ll hang them!
If we don’t hang them
We’ll break them
If we don’t break them
We’ll burn them
Ah! It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine
aristocrats to the lamp-post
Ah! It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine
the aristocrats, we’ll hang them!
We shall have no more nobles nor priests
Ah! It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine
Equality will reign everywhere

The hangings, the breakings and the burnings all came to pass, as they always do when Equality reigns. Thus it did go, but it was not fine.

“All God’s names were slowly deleted from the national memory”

Writing in the Kashmir Monitor, Alia P. Ahmed describes an aspect of Pakistan’s history whose effects still reverberate today:

When “Khuda” became “Allah”

In 1985 a curious thing happened: a prominent Pakistani talk-show host bid her audience farewell with the words Allah Hafiz. It was an awkward substitution. The Urdu word for goodbye was actually Khuda Hafiz (meaning God be with you), using the Persian word for God, Khuda, not the Arabic one, Allah. The new term was pushed on the populace in the midst of military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamization campaign of the late 1970s and 1980s, the extremes of which Pakistani society had never before witnessed. Zia overhauled large swathes of the Pakistan Penal Code to resemble Saudi-style justice, leaving human rights activists and religious minorities aghast. Even the national language, revered for its poetry, would not be spared. And yet, though bars and cabarets shut down overnight and women were told to cover up, it would take two decades for the stubborn Khuda to decisively die off, and let Allah reign.

She continues,

Today, Pakistan’s crisis of identity is chronic. A legacy of top-down cultural strangulation has left the national psyche utterly bewildered and deeply scarred. It has also given Pakistanis an inferiority complex – because we are South Asians and not Arabs, we are lesser Muslims. We must compensate. We must try our hardest to become Bakistanis.

Author Mohamed Hanif, in his celebrated debut novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, says it best: “…All God’s names were slowly deleted from the national memory as if a wind had swept the land and blown them away. Innocuous, intimate names: Persian Khuda which had always been handy for ghazal poets as it rhymed with most of the operative verbs; Rab, which poor people invoked in their hour of distress; Maula, which Sufis shouted in their hashish sessions. Allah had given Himself ninety-nine names. His people had improvised many more. But all these names slowly started to disappear: from official stationary, from Friday sermons, from newspaper editorials, from mothers’ prayers, from greeting cards, from official memos, from the lips of television quiz show hosts, from children’s storybooks, from lovers’ songs, from court orders, from habeas corpus applications, from inter-school debating competitions, from road inauguration speeches, from memorial services, from cricket players’ curses; even from beggars’ begging pleas.”

(Emphasis added – NS.)

Armed neutrality in the gender-neutral pronoun wars

There has been much huffing and puffing recently about gender neutral pronouns. In principle, I rather like the idea. The fact that I dislike some of the other people who like the idea ought not to affect that. Not, I hasten to add, that I feel any animus against anyone purely on the grounds that they prefer to be referred to by one sound rather than another, or that their gender is difficult to specify externally, or that they feel that neither “he” nor “she” describes them, or that they advocate for lexical change. While it is true that the set of people currently talking loudest about gender-neutral pronouns would, if displayed on a Venn diagram, have considerable overlap with the set of people who wish to get others arrested for using the wrong word, that is a symptom of the addiction of our society to the use of force rather than persuasion, not a logical necessity.

The cause of the gender-neutral pronoun is ill-served by many of its current advocates. But in itself, it would be handy. That’s “it” as in “having a third person singular pronoun available to use to describe human beings without specifying gender”, not “it” as in “it”. It (as in the situation, not a person) tends to get an itty-bit hairy when one person refers to another (by which I mean another person, not another situation) as “it”. Thus, if I may reiterate, using “it” (as in “‘it'”) as a gender-neutral pronoun to refer to a person would put the user in a bad situation, even if they (here used in the singular) were not a singularly bad person. Wouldn’t it?

OK, I got drunk on words there. Sobering up, I am not seeking perfect “representation” for every one of Facebook’s 71 gender options. They can represent themselves. I just think it would be nice to have one more option, and to settle on one. That way those prone to being easily offended, and the subset of them that resort to bullying, could be kept from unhappiness and the occasion of sin.

I do think that the traditional use of “he” and “man” to include the female is a little, y’know, presumptuous. I am not one to go through old documents cutting out every offending “he-including-she” with a razor, but I would just as soon have some more inclusive style in new documents. It is tedious have to write “he or she” every time.

Singular “they” sounds all right when the subject is indefinite (e.g. “If anyone wants more details, give them a brochure”) but sounds wrong if the gender is known. At this point someone usually pipes up to say that Shakespeare used it in their plays. Only they don’t say their plays, they say his plays, unless they (gender unspecified here: no problem) are making some sort of claim that Shakespeare was a collective, a Borg or a woman.

The distinction between singular and plural third person is useful. We feel its lack in the second person. The singular/plural distinction keeps trying to creep back in with “youse” and “y’all”. In some dialects spoken in Northern England, “thou” never went away, merely faded a little into “tha”. If making no difference between singular and plural is sometimes confusing when talking to people, it is a swamp when talking about people. Imagine an action scene in a novel where all the characters including the protagonist were referred to as “they”.

This link takes you to a piece called “The Need for a Gender-neutral Pronoun” which lists some of the leading contenders for a new pronoun. By clicking on the suggested pronoun itself (or the title of the set in the case of the Spivak pronouns named after their creator), you can read an extract from Alice in Wonderland using that set of pronouns. The author also rates the proposed words by ease of pronunciation, distinctiveness, and how truly neutral they are. The author prefers the set of pronouns based on “ne” in the nominative case. If you agree that a gender neutral pronoun would be desirable, which option would you like to take hold in the language? If you object to the whole idea, what would you like to see become dominant – strict use of “he” (or “she”), or “they”, or “s/he” and variants?

The thing is, I will not be the first in my circle of acquaintance to start writing “xe” or “ne” in any other context but science fiction for the same reason that I will not be first in my circle to start taking a daily stroll in the nude.

I would if you would, but I know and you know, neither of us will.

A triumph of world culture

A few years back one of my children introduced me to the glory that was Star War The Third Gathers: The Backstroke of the West.

Now I see that Mark Liberman of Language Log has flagged up this piece by Patrick Shanley for the Hollywood Reporter:

‘Revenge of the Sith’ Dubbed With Bootleg Chinese Dialogue Is a Fan-Made Masterpiece

YouTuber GratefulDeadpool has done the unthinkable: He’s made Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith cool.

Using the original Chinese subtitles, which feature multiple lost-in-translation misinterpretations, GratefulDeadpool redubbed the prequel trilogy’s final installment — with hilarious results.

Entitled Backstroke of the West Highlights Part 1 (Star War: The Third Gathers), the recut features such memorable lines as “I has been hating you,” from the villainous Count Dooku, and “The front is a lemon avenue flying straightly,” spoken by Obi-Wan Kenobi while piloting a careening starship.

Dorkly explains the bizarre translations likely “began with a machine translation of the Chinese script to [Revenge of the Sith], which attempted to literally translate from Mandarin to English, despite the multitude of barriers between the two languages.” The end result was great quips, such as “Smelly boy” from General Grievous to Kenobi and “Your dead period arrived, teacher” from a rebellious Anakin Skywalker during his fateful lightsaber duel with his master on Mustafar.

You can view either edited highlights of this semi-accidental masterpiece or the whole thing by following the links in the Hollywood Reporter piece. Back at Language Log, one of the commenters, Jonathan Smith, rightly says that, “This latest editor’s genius was to get voice actors to read it with straight faces.”

However I cannot endorse Mark Liberman’s view when he writes, “I’m skeptical of the machine-translation idea, because I seriously doubt that there has ever been an MT system that rendered “the Jedi Council” as “the Presbyterian Church”.

Doesn’t he know what happens when you say things like that about Star Wars?

“I find your lack of faith disturbing.”

Shocking a language back into life

“WITH THIS SHORT film, director Paul Duane and I are hoping to accomplish the near impossible,” writes Eoin Butler in TheJournal.ie. “That is, to start a conversation about the Irish language that is rational, unswayed by emotion, dogma or any political agenda, and informed by the facts as they are, rather than how we might wish them to be.”

Here’s a link to the article, and click on the video link within to see the film, which is twelve minutes long.

“We spend mind-boggling amounts of public money on the Irish language. Cén fáth?”

The film is well worth a look to libertarians and people interested in revitalising minority languages, and practically compulsory* (OK, not literally compulsory. Libertarian purity police, stand easy!) for anyone like me who is both. It starts off in nostalgic sepia with Butler speaking in subtitled and platitudinous Irish. Thirty seconds in, the colour comes on and he switches to English and says, “Actually everything I just said there is an easily debunked lie.”

I’d like to zoom in to a section near the end of the film. Starting at the ten minute mark, Mr Butler argues that compulsory Irish is a failed policy but a network of vested interests has grown up around it. This network, he says, “does nothing to really promote the language or broaden its appeal. Switching off the life support could shock the language back into life.”

At this point I would imagine that most of those anxious about the future of Irish shrivel a little inside and think, that sounds like a strategy of last resort. To which I would respond, it is. Irish is at the point of last resort. As detailed in the first few minutes of the film, the strategy of compulsory Irish lessons in every state school has failed utterly to stem the decline of Irish as a community language, as have other state measures such as making the Irish rather than the English version into the definitive version of each of Ireland’s laws. Quite soon the legal texts and the schoolbooks may be the only places where Irish lives on. When all else fails, why not try something crazy, like acting as if the Irish language were a good thing that people might choose to have?

And as a matter of fact, Mr Butler does give an example of an aspect of Gaelic culture that turned off the pressure and thrived thereby. He says, “I mean, look at Gaelic games. For seventy years the GAA [Gaelic Athletic Association] had a closed, defensive mentality. Its members were banned not just from playing but even attending rugby and soccer matches Today the ban is long gone […] the GAA, with minimal state subvention and zero compulsion on anyone to participate has never been as popular.”

It is not a perfect analogy. The GAA is a private club, not a state, and I would defend its right to impose whatever rules it wishes on its members who joined it voluntarily. But it is notable that when the GAA changed from a strategy of “push” to one of “pull” its fortunes revived.

A hat tip for the finding of Mr Butler’s film to the Irish Republican site, An Sionnach Fionn (The White Fox) although the writer of that site was not such a fan of the film as I was, describing it as “simply a modern form of “settler racism”, part of the poisonous legacy of several centuries of foreign colonial rule in this country.”

“Green ownership is about having a stake in what matters, because how else are people supposed to care?”

“Green ownership is about having a stake in what matters, because how else are people supposed to care?”

– Caroline Lucas, usually described as Britain’s First but never Britain First’s Green MP, and recently elected along with A Bloke to be Green party co-leader.

You may ask what this means.

“It means democratising the economy, with banks to serve the people not the other way round.

Corporate taxation back under control, and financial structures that answer to you, not to the City of London and its shareholders.

We need an economy of, by and for the people.”

You see now? We need an economy by the people. Because how else are people supposed to matter?

Discussion point: Is the Klingon language copyrightable in US law? Should it be?

As linked to by two different posters at Instapundit and semi-reformed Trekkies everywhere, Paramount Pictures, in the course of a claim against the makers of a film set in the Star Trek universe, are claiming to own the copyright on the Klingon language. Thirty years ago linguist Marc Okrand was hired to take the snatches of made-up Klingon dialogue in the early Star Trek movies and flesh them out into a useable language. This he did. The idea took off and all sorts of people since then have learned Klingon to some degree for fun and intellectual stimulation.

A press release from the Language Creation Society says,

We firmly believe that conlangers should receive credit for their work. Specific works describing a conlang, such as the Klingon Dictionary, Living Language Dothraki, or Ithkuil website are creative works in their own right, entitled to full legal protection. So are works that are in a conlang, such as Klingon Hamlet, Esperanto poetry, Ithkuil music, and Verdurian stories.

However, a constructed language itself is not protected, and should not be. Copyright law is simply too blunt a tool for this.
Allowing copyright claims to a language would create a monopoly on use extending far beyond what is needed to protect the original work or to claim credit for the language’s creation. The potential threat of a lawsuit for merely using a conlang, or creating new works to make it more accessible, has a chilling effect; it makes conlangers, poets, authors, educators, and others less likely to build on and enjoy each others’ work, to the detriment of conlanging in general.

We believe that everyone has the right to use any language — including conlangs — without having to ask anyone’s permission. We hope that our participation in this lawsuit will help to make this belief into legal precedent.

Marc Randazza’s diverting amicus curiae brief on behalf of the Language Creation society is here.

I’m not going to do it. I AM NOT going to do it. I am not going to say “Qapla’!”

Except I just did. You will have deduced that I am sympathetic to one side of the case. But there is another. Property rights matter. Why should a bunch of flakes and dilettantes reap what another sowed? Why shouldn’t they pay a fee, in person or under licence, for the privilege of using Klingon just as they pay, directly or indirectly, to use a computer program? Let’s discuss this like Klingons. Which need not necessarily mean with a bat’leth.

Home truths about why English-speaking students are turning away from foreign languages

Tim Worstall pointed me in the direction of this article by Mark Herbert of the British Council, the 3,934,561st in a series of 79,804,227 about the dire state of foreign language teaching in British schools. Tim Worstall’s post is followed many entertaining comments from people who have learned, taught and forgotten foreign tongues. But I liked my own comment enough to bring it round here, chop it up and add stuffing until it became a post in its own right.

The trouble with Mr Herbert’s article is that, like 95% of articles about the state of foreign language learning in Anglophone countries, it’s saying things that are just not true. He writes, “We need far more of our young people to learn languages in order to boost their own job prospects and to ensure the UK stays competitive on the world stage.”

In real life the job and salary prospects of most native English speaking pupils are almost unaffected by having studied a foreign language. Of course there are exceptions – one of my children is one – but for the vast majority of students a language qualification simply adds to your UCAS points total or local equivalent. A language qualification has some extra value as an unfakeable subject, but no more than a STEM qualification does. As for the objective of ensuring the UK “stays competitive on the world stage”, (a) who gives a damn about UK competitiveness in their personal choices? (b) if bureaucrats do care, that objective is vastly better advanced by getting the brats to study some subject related to an area in which the UK has a comparative advantage. Which, famously, ain’t languages.

A later comment by MyBurningEars describes the major reason for the decline in the study of languages by English speakers succinctly:

“The costs and benefits of learning languages are very asymmetric – it is clearly worthwhile for many Danes to learn English, often to a high level, yet this renders it almost completely futile (from a professional standpoint) for a Brit to learn Danish. London has hundreds of bilingual speakers of every major language, and many minor ones to boot. What would the point be for me to learn Urdu or Mandarin, an exercise which (to reach worthwhile levels at a professional level) would take years of solid study – far higher than GCSE or A level?”

Exactly. The decline that Mr Herbert laments is not happening because Brits and Yanks are becoming more arrogant or more stupid. It is happening because they are consistently making a rational judgement of a changing situation regarding the likely benefits to them, as individuals, of language study. Or as the famously well-travelled Michael Jennings put it in a comment to this post by Brian Micklethwait on the triumph of English,

“What is new, is that lingua francas other than English are in most places dying as lingua francas. In most places on earth, where two people from different cultural groups needs to communicate, they now do this in English.”

Some lingua francas (linguae francae?) other than English are still gaining ground regionally, such as Swahili. But this trend is only likely to continue while East Africa remains relatively isolated from the world economy. Globally, the rise of English has reached and passed a tipping point. English will now be the first world lingua franca, something humanity has never had before. Nothing human lasts forever, but it won’t be easily dislodged from that position, certainly not by a change as minor as China becoming economically dominant. The retooling costs are too great, particularly if Chinese sticks with its current beautiful but impractical writing system. English already gets you the world and there are no more worlds to conquer. What might dislodge it? Worldwide economic collapse, worldwide tyranny, or machine translation (both written and spoken) much better than we have now.

My feelings about the triumph of English are not particularly triumphant. Yes, if there is to be a world language I would prefer it to be mine. That does not mean I rejoice to see the slow strangulation of rival languages. Perhaps I had better pray for translation software – or brain augmentation – to get so good that all this, the rise and fall of “Empires of the Word”, ceases to be a zero-sum game.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the choice of what subject to spend several years of your finite supply of life studying is fairly close to a zero-sum game and the choice between languages even closer to one. It is not entirely a zero-sum game; it is reasonable to suppose that study of all kinds exercises the brain, and learning one foreign language certainly makes learning others easier. But the fact remains: to learn a new language is hard. Most people only do it because they have to. English speakers don’t have to. The monetary return on investment of learning another language is not that great for English speakers. Promises to the contrary are not true. People should stop making them.

I am vastly more sympathetic to apparently airy-fairy justifications for learning foreign languages, like “you will gain an insight into other ways of thinking”, or “you will enjoy your time abroad”, or “when you meet attractive foreign persons your suit will be more likely to prosper”. These promises are quite likely to be true if you apply yourself. The “you will have proved to yourself and others that you can learn something difficult” factor can also be honestly promised.