Sunday, December 27, 2009

oel ngati kameie

In keeping with all the now-vanished merriment, V. & I found ourselves on Xmas eve standing in line a 1830 hours waiting with the rest of the crowd to be let in to see Avatar in IMAX 3D. We usually go see some blockbuster du jour on Xmas morning for matinée prices, but this year, in keeping with our efforts to shore up the Californian economy during the Great Recession, we plunked down over thirty bucks and waited to get our 3D specs and a seat not too far in the back of the theater. I wanted to see it because I had been intrigued by interviews with Paul Frommer, a USC linguist, who had designed the Na'vi conlang used in the movie. Frommer had even guest blogged over at Language Log (link) about it. We had fun. The story is a simple morality tale with kick-ass 3D effects. The best take I’ve seen so far online is by James Kunstler (link). There were some obvious bits retreaded from Aliens, and V. noticed that the pacing was similar to Titanic, a film that I never got around to seeing. When we got home we were not sleepy enough yet to go to bed, so we watched another film, Ein Frau in Berlin. It’s based on a memoir published in 1954 (in English and in the USA) about the events in one neighborhood during the Battle for Berlin during the period from 20 April to 22 June 1945. Its publication caused outcries in Germany about the honor of German women being besmirched.

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Saturday, December 26, 2009

dolorous googling

Yesterday I joined my friends Krishnan and Sandhya in taking their nephew Balaji (and their daughter Subhadra) on a tour of some of San Francisco’s famous landmarks: the Golden Gate Bridge, Fort Point (where we saw a couple of dolphins), the Presidio, Japantown (Peace Plaza), University of San Francisco, and, of course Lombard Street (or the crooked street as K. called it). Our first stop, after they picked me up in front of GGU, was supposed to be Mission Dolores (or more properly Mission San Francisco de Asís). I remembered roughly where it was down in the aptly-named Mission district, but I decided to google it to be on the safe side. The weird thing is, Google maps places the Mission Dolores a little over a block away from its true location at 16th and Dolores streets on a small back-alleyish street called Dearborn (link). I was moderately suspicious and surprised but I figured the almighty URL aggregators knew what-for, and I was in a hurry to get to BART on time to meet my friends.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

learning standard english as second dialect

While enjoying a funny entry on Language Log (link) about a recent story arc thread on the Non Sequitur comic strip, I came across the following in the commentary:

I took a Russian course in the 1980s, and helped out a classmate who was struggling with the material. He had graduated with excellent marks from an American high school, but I quickly discovered that the reason he couldn't make his adjectives agree with his nouns, or choose the correct noun case, was that he did not know what a noun was.

I spent hours in Canadian grade school, circling nouns, underlining verbs and drawing boxes around articles and squiggly lines under adverbs. I had to memorize and parrot on exams lists of relative pronouns and prepositions.

It fascinated me that my classmate could speak coherently and write essays in his native language without knowing what the components are.

It’s that last sentence that struck me as odd. The idea that a person could not speak or write a language without knowing its grammar (in this case defined as being able to identify parts of speech) does not make sense to me. The grammar of a language has many components: phonology, morphology, syntax, etc. To many of my co-Anglophones, grammar instead means usage, orthography, etymology, and punctuation. This latter non-linguistic view of grammar is a holdover from the days when Latin and Greek were the languages being taught in grammar schools. And, pedagogically speaking, when you’re learning a new language (as an adult), it helps to be able to speak about its grammar using some terms, hopefully from the language grammatical tradition itself. (I have been thinking about this because recently I have been slowly learning Japanese linguistic terms in my Japanese class.) Latin these days has been replaced by General American English in US schools. And GAE is for many speakers in this country a different dialect of English than the one they learned on their mother’s lap.

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