Checking on Aleut: kudos to the Times!

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An encouraging sign today: the New York Times reports:

The night Lisa Murkowski announced she would mount a write-in campaign to retain her Senate seat, she acknowledged to a crowd of supporters that her odds were slim. Then she prompted a defiant roar: invoking Native Alaskan culture, she told the crowd that the ancient Aleut language contained no word for "impossible."

This made the crowd roar, but made me put my hand on my wallet, to make sure it was still there, as I always do when someone tells me that language X has no word for concept Y (I have grown used to such claims always being unadulterated bullshit). But then — a surprise! — the Times goes on:

It was a deft play to the state's strong sense of identity and a direct appeal to native communities, whose support could prove crucial. It was also inaccurate. The word in Aleut is haangina-lix.

"It's very clear that you can say ‘impossible,‘ " said Gary Holton, the director of the Alaska Native Language Archive. "Clearly, she wasn't checking her facts."

Fact checking! On a point about language! Kudos to the the New York Times. Champagne will be served in the Senior Writers' Lounge at One Language Log Plaza at 5 this afternoon to celebrate this unusual and praiseworthy sign of interest in linguistic accuracy in the journalistic profession. We are most encouraged, and we salute William Yardley, the reporter who wrote the story.

[Update: An alert commenter below points out that Gary Holton put the remark about Aleut on his blog on September 18, so Yardley might just have picked it up from there initially. He does appear to have called the Alaska Native Language Archive for a quote, however.]

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30 Comments »

  1. Dan T. said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 11:44 am

    Are you sure that that word doesn't actually mean "snow"?

  2. Don said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 11:56 am

    However, he (or Murkowski) did use another of my pet peeves–the "ancient" Aleut language. Aleut is no more ancient than any other language! Ah well, at least it was called a language rather than a "dialect."

  3. Ralph Hickok said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 12:18 pm

    It's more ancient than Esperanto, certainly :)

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

    But when did "haangina-lix" enter the Aleut lexicon? Maybe it post-dates Russian contact (cross-reference to source arguing that gloomy Slavic languages have X words for hopelessness/despondency).

  5. Richard said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 12:54 pm

    I'm also curious about 'haangina-lix'. I don't doubt that it means impossible. Gary Holton is much more capable than I am, as I'm armed only with the United States Department of the Interior handbook to the Aleut language. It states that 'angixtakuqing' is a v. for 'impossible (it is – for me to undertake).'

    And 'hanginaq' means 'difficult, not feasible'. 'Haangina-lix' isn't in this (very old) dictionary. So, my question is: does anyone know enough about Aleut morphology to point out the errors in this dictionary, and whether 'haangina-lix' is the most suitable form?

  6. Matt Pearson said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

    I was also peeved by the description of Aleut as "ancient". It's completely vacuous. What does it even mean to call a living language "ancient"? That it hasn't changed in centuries? That it's best suited for discussing traditional hunter-gatherer society and can't deal with modern concepts? It's patronizing and exoticizing. (When was the last time you heard French referred to as "ancient"?)

    Now that we're making some headway on the "no word for X" trope, Language Log should use its vast media influence to stamp out this bit of ridiculousness.

  7. KevinM said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

    Good enough. But to me, this seemed more like harmless hyperbole, along the lines of "'Can't' isn't in my vocabulary."

    [Oh, groan... Once more unto the breach... KevinM: This is not hyperbole; it is a linguification (a figure of speech that has always puzzled me). I have drawn the distinction very carefully; allow me to direct you to my post "For the millionth time, it's not hyperbole", and after that the large number of other Language Log posts on linguification. And finally (because there is absolutely nothing about your comment that is correct), the remark about Aleut was not a linguification either (though it sort of implied one in the background); it was a straightforward false claim about a living language, made in public to get some kind of rhetorical effect through the familiar myth that if you haven't got a single lexeme for something you can't talk about it. Just like President Reagan saying that Russian has no word for freedom (also false, of course). —GKP]

  8. anon said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

    It's the NYT. I'm sure that the fact that Murkowski is a Republican has nothing at all to do with the fact that they decided to scrutinize her throwaway lines for errors.

  9. George said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

    Kevin M: "Good enough. But to me, this seemed more like harmless hyperbole, along the lines of "'Can't' isn't in my vocabulary."

    Yes, except this type of expression is about one's own language and easily understood as metaphorically. In this case, Murkowski was speaking of Aleut which she and many of her audience do not know.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 2:42 pm

    Normally I would be sympathetic toward anon's skeptical stance toward the NYT, but since the best way for the Democrat to win the general election is for Murkowski to serve as a spoiler drawing off votes from the Republican nominee who beat her in the primary, the cynic should assume that the hypothetical orders from NYT headquarters would have been to build her up, not tear her down. But keep an eye out for the Democratic nominee explaining that the Aleut word for "crisis" is a compound of the morphemes for "danger" and "opportunity."

  11. Acilius said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 3:21 pm

    Perhaps the New York Times stylebook does contain a word for "linguistics," after all.

    @J. W. Brewer: "the cynic should assume that the hypothetical orders from NYT headquarters would have been to build her up, not tear her down." What better way could there be to build Murkowski up in the eyes of Alaska Republicans than for the New York Times, the ultimate symbol of cosmopolitan smarty-pants-ness, to correct a casual remark of hers about Alaska's native peoples? If the senator were as skilled at exploiting populist resentment of educated outsiders as is her old foe Sarah Palin, she'd be leading the race by now.

  12. Karen said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

    @Kevin M: But to me, this seemed more like harmless hyperbole, along the lines of "'Can't' isn't in my vocabulary."

    Beware. GKP doesn't accept that this is "harmless" or even "hyperbole".

  13. sh said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 4:45 pm

    Knut Bergsland. 1994. Aleut Dictionary = Unangam Tunudgusii. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center, p. 88:

    haangina-lix E 1834-, A 1950- vi. to be difficult, impossible [...]

  14. Qov said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 4:53 pm

    I took the claim to be of the ancient Aleut language, as opposed to the modern one. (Like Old Norse or Classical Greek or Chaucerian English). So he's claiming that when their ancestors first crossed the land bridge, nothing was impossible, but leaving open the possibility of a loanword from J.W. Brewer's lugubrious Slavs.

    These days when the media disagree with a politician, they'll check her facts right up the wazoo if it can help them make her look bad.

  15. John said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 6:26 pm

    I suspect that in using 'ancient', she intended 'time-honored'.

  16. dirk alan said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 7:02 pm

    now where did that klingon – esperanto dictionary get off to ?

  17. micah said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 7:13 pm

    In fact the Aleut language has no word for anything between "herring" and "marmalade".

  18. Qov said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 7:17 pm

    I don't know about a klingona vortaro, but it's easy to find Klingonists who speak Esperanto. You can even find Klingon-speaking Lojbanists. I once attended a demonstration of the Rosetta Stone software with a group of about twenty Klingonists. The demonstrator gave up trying to find a sample language that no one present spoke.

  19. tulugaq said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 7:36 pm

    I suspect it has less to do with some industrious NYT writer cooking up something against Murkowski than it has to do with someone noticing Gary Holton's own blog post about this on Sept. 18:

    http://talkingalaska.blogspot.com/2010/09/murkowski-refers-to-aleut-language.html

  20. Mr Punch said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 9:52 pm

    See, people complain about the NYT's politics without actually reading it. The Times pushed Whitewater like mad, covered up for Cheney when he set up Valerie Plame for assassination, etc. It's a vast right-wing conspiracy!

  21. chris said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 10:32 pm

    This story made me laugh out loud, because I instantly thought of this:

    'A witch doesn't know the meaning of the word "failure". Gytha.'

    They shot up into the clear air again. The horizon was a line of golden light as the slow dawn of the Disc sped across the land, bulldozing the suburbs of the night.

    'Esme?' said Nanny Ogg, after a while.

    'What?'

    'It means "lack of success".'

    They flew in chilly silence for several seconds.

    'I was speaking wossname. Figuratively,' said Granny.

    'Oh. Well. You should of said.'

    From Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett.

  22. Nathan Myers said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 12:50 am

    Oh, it's William Yardley. That explains it.

  23. Don Killian said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 1:51 am

    The ancient thing at times really gets to me.. or the variety of other ways in which someone wants to say primitive/impoverished without actually saying so. As someone who's worked with Khoesan languages, I've had to deal with that a bit too often.

    We should collect words in different languages which English can't express appropriately (that really shouldn't be hard) and then try to write an ironic essay bemoaning how primitive English is :)

  24. Theophylact said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 8:55 am

    micah: I wouldn't put anything between herring and marmalade except a lot of distance.

  25. Robert Lindsay said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 9:59 am

    You should coin a word for no-word-for-ism. Is the following the oldest example of it? The quote's from Sir Ronald Syme's Tacitus (1958), p 535. 'The Romans were not tender-hearted. Least of all the governing order. There was no such word in the language. Cornelius Fronto affirms it [philostorgus: cuius rei nomen apud Romanos nullum est].' Marcus Cornelius Fronto lived c.100–170 AD.

  26. Chandra said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

    I happen to know that there is no word for "impossible" in ancient Upper-Indo-Martianic-Taurocrapian. There is also no word for "word". In fact, there's no word for anything, which makes it really easy to learn.

  27. Adrian Bailey said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 5:10 pm

    I find your reply to Kevin to be confusing. You start off by saying it's not hyperbole, it's linguification. Then you say it's not linguification, it's rhetoric. Does this mean it's okay to criticise Gary Holton, William Yardley and your good self by saying "Chill out – it's only rhetoric"?

    [Sigh... None of this is right. I did contrast linguification with hyperbole: as I have pointed out, they are different rhetorical devices, because a hyperbole stretches the truth while a linguification invents what is very often a falsehood. (If a hyperbolic way of putting P were true, P would be true a fortiori.) But I didn't contrast linguification with rhetoric: "rhetorical" means something like "of or pertaining to the art of persuasive use of language", and covers pretty much all of style and composition and argumentation and literary technique, so linguification is one small topic within the domain of rhetoric. —GKP]

  28. C. Jason said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 11:52 pm

    I think the point GKP was trying to make with Kevin is that, "I've told you a million times…" is hyperbole, "'Can't' isn't in my vocabulary" is linguification, and the comment made by Ms. Murkowski was a bold-faced lie; akin to saying that Native Alaskans have no nostrils. Call it rhetoric if you like, but at the very least it's bad rhetoric and deserves to be called out.

  29. Will said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 8:25 am

    I think for something to be a valid rhetorical linguification (as opposed to a deceptive lie) it is to be obviously false to the audience. Unlike GKP, I actually appreciate the linguification used in the linked post (he might not have found it interesting or funny or clever, but I did; I thought it made the writing more interesting and conveyed the point well). But in the case discussed in this post, it's not really linguification so much as inventing a falsehood based on a trope.

  30. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 3:49 pm

    To add onto Jason's comment, if linguification belongs to a rhetorical category, it's that of metaphor, which is clearly separate from hyperbole.

    Basically Pullum complains that linguification are metaphors that are self-defeating because their very factual incorrection makes them virtually meaningless for those who actually know anything about the topic. Not only that, they tend to propagate linguistic myths (usually of the pop-sapir-whorfian type), adding insult to injury.

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