Book Review: An Introduction to Japanese Linguistics


A common prorblem for linguists is that there are many more languages we are interested in than can be reasonably mastered. When I retire and/or win the Megabucks lottery, I will spend my summers taking intensive language courses in exotic locations...but until then, I sometimes have to rely on a linguistic description so I can begin to understand how different languages work, even if I can't speak a darned word.

One book I have in my collection to do that is Natsuko Tsujimura's An Introduction to Japanese Linguistics. It fulfills all the requirements I have for this genre.

Reasonable Linguistic Descriptions

The goal of this book is to introduce English-only linguists and linguistic buffs to Japanese data. I will state up front that this book is best appreciated if you have learned the equivalent of LING 101, particularly generative syntax. Having a common framework is important for understanding how the data compares to other languages

Having said that, you don't need much beyond an introductory level of linguistics. And the coverage of different linguistic field is good. It covers theoretical linguistics (morpho-syntax, semantis and phonology), but also language acquisition and sociolinguistics in terms of dialectal issues, language differences by gender and honorifics. One section I would have liked to see is the history of Japanese, especially since the origin of Japanese is an ongoing debate, but maybe in the third edition.

No Japanese Needed

Tsujimura does an excellent job of introducing Japanese morpho-syntax to people who have had minimal exposure to Japanese. All concepts are explained, and all Japanese examples are translated into English. It was enough for me to explain some Japanese data to my linguistics students, and that's a good thing. Having sat through some linguistic discussions of languages I don't know, I know making data comprehensible to someone unfamiliar with the language is not easy, so that's one reason I like this book a lot.

One aspect that a purist might object to is that only Romaji (English transliteration) is used. On the other hand, not knowing Japanese means it's likely we don't know the script (unless we happen to know Chinese, which is more commonly taught these days).


Since this is an introductory book, no topic can be fully covered. Fortunately, there is a bibliography and plenty of references that will help get you started learning more.

I still haven't taken a Japanese class, but I will say that books like these help me learn more about Japanese...which intrigues me to learn more.

Semi-Rehabilitation of "Queer"


As noted in my last post on Paula Deen, the use of the N-word has been debated recently, particularly because some members of the African-American community are trying to "reclaim" the term or at least make public use possible. So far, I would say this has had limited success although Jamie Foxx and Samuel L. Jackson sure used it a lot in Django Unchained.

On the other hand, the term queer when used to refer to someone in the LGBT community HAS become semi-respectable. This was always a negative, but then groups like Queer Nation began to appropriate the term for their own usage chanting "We're here. We're Here....Get Used to it".

Next came shows like Bravo's Queer Eye (for the Straight Guy) . In this case, being a flamboyantly fashionable gay male was considered a positive because they were able to give fashion and cooking advice (for the record, not all straight men are unfashionable and not all gay men can dress).

But lately I've noticed that the term queer and Queer Studies (or LGBT Studies) is a serious academic term used by such notably enlightened indivduals as danah boyd . It's even a major in places such as the University of Oregon.

This is truly an amazing turnaround, but maybe not fully complete. I notice that Yale and University of Maryland are more conservative in preferring the term "LGBT Studies" in their programs. So I don't think I will be commenting that "Bill is part of the queer community" anytime soon.

Considering Paula Deen


Paula Deen is the latest celebrity to be caught by the N-word bomb and she is paying a price although many argue that she shouldn't be penalized for a single use over 30 years ago. But she may be paying a price for some unsavory thoughts much beyond any usage of a derogatory

I've written my opinion about N-word controversies with Dr Laura and John Mayer, but Paula Deen's situation is different in some interesting respects.

Should the One Use Be Penalized?

During a 2013 deposition, Deen admitted to using the N-word once over 30 years ago (ca 1983) right after a criminal encounter with someone who happened to be African-American. Some people have argued that a single use decades ago should be pardoned. (BTW, the lawsuit filed by employee Lisa Jackson alleges that Deen used the N-word again (see below), but since Deen has denied this it's somewhat of a he said/she said situation.))

Based on her testimony and multiple apologies, Deen clearly does know how offensive the word, and the scenario is one in which she was in extreme emotional distress. Although I would not use the N-word in that situation (I truly know that) and wouldn't recommend it, I can see how that situation would bring out the worst thoughts in Deen. I believe even the most racially tolerant amongst us would have been calling the criminal nasty names.

And to be honest, I believe that all of us have thought or said things in a politically incorrect direction. For instance, when I hear a rural white American saying something blatantly racist, I can't help it that the word "red neck" comes into my head. Do we want to be judged for every thought or action we did? I think that can lead into dangerous areas of "thought policing" which is not always fair or even helpful for true understanding of diverse points of view (Anne Rice agrees).

I'll also say that I have used phrases in the past that I don't now because I have rethought the context. One I still hear a lot is "he went off the reservation." But if you think about it, it is probably referring to the forced relocation and control of Native Americans - kind of a sore subject. I'm trying not to use it and this might also be considered pretty bad form some day...but not this day.

And yet, the Paula Deen situation is not that simple

Uncle Ben Gone Bad

One of the topics of the deposition is an overheard discussion in which Deen speaks fondly of a restaurant in which the wait staff were all African-American men. She then expressed a desire for her brother to have an authentic "southern plantation wedding" with exactly this type of wait staff. This is where she lost me and perhaps a few of her corporate sponsors.

The whole entire wait staff was [made up of] middle-aged black men, and they had on beautiful white jackets with a black bow tie. I mean, it was really impressive. And I remember saying I would love to have servers like that, I said, but I would be afraid that somebody would misinterpret.


The lawsuit alleges that Deen uses the N-word to refer to the waiters, but she denies it because she admired their professionalism. I personally wonder if the word "Negro" was used (which was once the proper word for African-American not so long ago).

But that's aside the point. The entire line of thought is just addled. Some might say flaky, but I say it's unconsciously racist. She can't see that 1) an African-American might not want a white woman to have THIS kind of plantation wedding or 2) you really shouldn't try to mix and match employees anymore based on skin tone and that 3) it would be breaking all sorts of non-discrimination laws. Imagine if her dream wedding staff were all white!

I think it's important to respect Southern tradition (and the tourist dollars it can bring), and equally important that African-Americans be able to have the opportunity to find a decent-paying job such as working in a high-end restaurant (yes, that kind of job can pay well).

But there is that fine line between participating in a fuzzy plantation fantasy and making it so literal that we also bring in references to slavery. I'd like to think that persons of all backgrounds are capable of filling the "Uncle Ben" fantasy or at least serving a really good mint julep. Oy. This does remind me of the a friend's mother who purportedly didn't see anything wrong with those statues of the little black boy holding a lantern. Ahhhh!

Is Deen a racist? This is not easy to answer. It's clear that she is sensitive to the topic, and at least one of her African American colleagues, Aaron McCargo Jr, came to her defense saying how supportive she was of his cooking career. I've also seen her on shows interacting very respectfully with African-American guests of all sorts. She knows good cooking when she sees it.

But her comments on the plantation wedding represent the kind of addled cultural baggage that can be carried around. And it's a problem that can't be fixed with a simple change in vocabulary. I hope Americans can find room in their hearts again for Deen, but I think Deen and everyone else really needs to realize that avoiding racism goes beyond avoiding the N-word.

Postscript 1: Who Should Use the N-Word? No One!

Fox News had one of those recurring discussions about whether an African-American using the N-word is different than a white person using it (YES!!!). Gloria Allred argued that an African American using it was different from a non-African American using it, but her co-panelist Ted Williams (an African American) disagreed! He felt that NO ONE should use it, not even African Americans. This word is really a long way from getting reformed.

Code Switching on YouTube


A topic that comes up in sociolinguistics is code switching in which bilingual communities switch between languages. A famous example in the U.S. is Spanglish, as seen in the movie Selena (where it ends up being a potential P.R. problem for the singer in BOTH the U.S. and Mexico).

Unfortunately, code switching is usually perceived up as being sloppy language, heavily frowned upon by monolinguals from all languages. Finding samples of authentic code switching (vs an inaccurate parody) can be tricky.

It turns the true king (raja) of code switching is probably India where code switching is completely acceptable because, as one woman explains "Hindi is a very friendly language." You can find code switching in almost any modern mode or TV show from India, including the Indian version of Who Wants to be A Millionaire (i.e. Kaun Banega Crorepati/KBC). I bet that even if you don't know a single word of Hindi you'll understand this KBC clip.

P.S. I don't want to slight other codeswitchers like the Chinglish speakers of Singapore (with this authentic sample from the subway). You all rock!

Dollars vs Sodapop Map


A colleague in another department mentioned a "Where's George" map which shows regions where dollar bills tend to circulate together. That is the blue lines on the U.S. map indicate places where bills tend NOT to cross.

Not surprisingly, not all currency boundaries correspond with state boundaries. There's a fairly large boundary running through the center of Pennsylvania and another through the western part of Wisconsin.

From a linguistic perspective though it appears that some currency boundaries correspond to certain dialect boundaries. For instance, the PA line is almost exactly where the "pop" vs. "soda" line is in PA. Looking at the Pop vs Soda map, you can also see that there are multiple places where the currency line matches a dialect line (e.g. N. California/Nevada/Arizona lines, the Ohio river valley stood out).

When you think about it, there is some logic because both currency and dialectal forms are something shared within communities (specifically community networks). But I was amazed that there was as much overlap as there was.

Bilingual Signage in State College


Despite being in the middle of Pennsylvania in a mostly rural area, State College does have some bilingual signage.

One location is in our Lowe's department store where all signs are both in English and Spanish. However, this is really part of a national policy of Lowe's stores having Spanish language materials on a national level. Even to me it does seem odd in Central PA but I also don't want anyone getting hurt because they couldn't follow the instructions correctly. Plus places like Hazleton as well as Lancaster, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Harrisburg do have significant numbers of Latino immigrants, so the linguistic landscape continues to evolve.

The one sign that really surprised me was a bus ad for a Nationwide agent that included some Chinese on the sign. But when I thought about it, Penn State does have a have over 6,000 international students and scholars, and many bring their families to State College. There apparently is now a need that some business people are beginning to fill.

In case you're wondering though, English is still the dominant language in State College. Local Anglophones have no need to panic....yet.

Is the "D" silent in Django?


A scene from the recent Tarantino movie Django Unchained has Django spelling his name then commenting "The D is silent". But is it really? While not as explosive a question as the use of the N-word in the movie, this statement is surprisingly complicated in terms of phonological theory...and therefore worth a blog post.

Etymology and French Spelling

The most famous bearer of the name is Django Reinhardt, a jazz guitarist NOT of African-American or African heritage, but of Franco-Romany ("Gypsy") heritage. Specifically, he was a Romany living in France (and that will influence how the name is spelled).

According to a New Yorker profile, the name "Django" (apparently meaning "I rise") was the secret Romany name given to him for use among his tribe. His official name of "Jean Reinhardt" was his official name for the French government. The use of the two names made tracking individual Romany men that much trickier....

Note that the etter combination of "Dj" is the French way of spelling the English "J" sound. If Reinhardt had been from a group of Romany living outside of France, his name may have been spelled as "Jango" (no D). But that doesn't mean that the "D" is silent.

Modern French happens to be missing both the "J" (/ǰ/ in Americanist transcription) and the "CH" (/č/) sounds. Their "J" is actually "ZH" or (/ž/ or /ʒ/), while "CH" is now "SH" or (/š/ or /ʃ/). When then need to spell the English versions, they add a /d/ to the J or /t/ to the CH. Hence French maps include the country of TCHAD (Chad) and the Indonesian capital of DJAKARTA (Jakarta).

Why? Because English CH,J are actually affricates transcribed as /tʃ, dʒ/ in IPA (or sometimes (/tš, dž/) signifying that they are complex sounds. The English "J" is said to be a /d/, but with a "zh" /ʒ/ release.

Try pronouncing both a "D" /d/ and a "J" /dʒ/ and you will find that your tongue is in the same position for both. Only the release of the tongue tip is different. The same is true for "T" /t/ and "CH" /tʃ/.

So, in conclusion: In French, the D is NOT silent.

Is the D silent in English?

Interestingly, though most English speakers do not realize the similarity of D and J until they learn phonetics. For English speakers the sound D /d/ and J /dʒ/ are distinct sounds. Further, the sound "J" is seen as a single sound (hence the Americanist transcription /ǰ/ as one symbol instead of two.

The same is also true in many languages of India, most of which write "D/J" and "T/CH" as four distinct consonants. For instance, Sanskrit "D" is द (more or less) and "J" is ज (while "T" is त and "CH" is च). There are even aspirated versions for all four sounds. From a phonological point of view, the affricates in Sanskrit act as if they were plain single stops, not complex sounds.

This is an example of an interesting phenomenon in which a phonetic signal can be interpreted in multiple ways depending on the language of the listener. For languages in which "CH,J" are phonemes , I suspect that the intuition is that they are single sounds as in the Americanist /ǰ,č/ and NOT as complex sounds. The stop component is there phonetically for sure, but the mental interpretation is different.

So, in conclusion: In English, the D MAY BE silent.

Pope Benedict's Resignation in Latin


When Pope Benedict XVI resigned today, the announcement (Declaratio) actually happened in Latin.

The Latin announcement text has been posted on the Rorate Cæli blog.

The actual speech in Latin was posted at the Vatican news site (scroll to bottom).

Miriam Makeba Sings "Click Song"


This is a fabulous video of Miriam Makeba explaining Xhosa clicks sounds before singing a song featuring clicks. She comments "[A click] isn't a noise, it's my language."

All hail YouTube.

Údarás na Gaeltachta (History of the Irish Language)


In one of those random You Tube searches, I found this short video about the Irish language and the Gaeltachts.