This is not a linguistics post

Whilst I am sat here at the computer, I cannot resist but to comment upon the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt. It is a great shame of hyperbolistic and hysterical modern journalism that, when we are truly confronted with events that merit concepts such as momentous and world-changing, we find that these words have been bleached of all strength by their constant and repeated application to trivia and gossip.

That Tunisians and Egyptians have, in an assured and largely peaceable manner, risen up against two of the many dictators that have been imposed or are supported by the hypocritical West throughout the Islamic world rather magnificently puts the lie to the unspoken agenda that the Arabs and their co-religionists deserve not democracy, or cannot be trusted with with it due to the supposed inherent violence of their religion. Even purported humanists reinforce this racism, such as Richard Dawkins’s repeated talk of an “evil religion” — a phrase no doubt deliberately intended to rile the religious by using their own concept against them, but which also carries the implication that individual adherents are responsible for the norms of their culture.

As the moral cesspit that is Tony Blair took a break from his multi-million dollar sycophancy-and-tea tours to remember his sinecure as a “peace envoy” and lecture us on how Mubarak was immensely courageous and a force for good — Tony Blair! he who so despises dictators that he breaks international law to usurp one! — and watching Robert Gibbs and his masters squirm their way through press conferences, unable to overtly deny the obvious will of Egypt, but unwilling to withdraw support from this corrupt but convenient autocrat, one could not help but confirm that hypocrisy and “our son-of-a-bitch” still form central tenets of the foreign policy of much of the Western world.

All this, I cannot deny, has rather moved me, and though this is just one voice of many I feel impelled to extend my support and gratitude to the people of Egypt and Tunisia, for showing that dignified, peaceful and principled political mass action is not only possible, but that it can change the world.

I could try to justify this post with the thin language comments on journalism and Dawkins above but really, as the title says, this is not a linguistics post. It’s a “Humanity! Fuck yeah!” post, and proud of it.

A quick update, and the problems of gendered language

Are you still on edge, waiting for my part three of my tales of pain and peril? Well I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait a touch longer, because this is by way of being an ordinary update.

Since the events narrated in part two of the pain-themed posts, things have taken a remarkable turn for the better here. Largely through Swedish Mike and his wife and their barmaid Paulinha (who, also happens to be the still un-recorded Chilly Willy’s daughter), I have been rapidly included into three quite related and vibrant circles: the bar itself, a group of youngish teachers, and a group of musicians. An additional, and as yet untapped, circle consists of Ana’s friends — who may well supply me with many informants for the tricky 60+ group. Informants, finally, are coming through at a something close to a reasonable pace although, ironically, having a sudden increase in offers of involvement, I have been more thoroughly exposed to Brazilian timekeeping (see the previous post), have spent a substantial portion of the last week just waiting for people to turn up, and there remains a high offer:actuality ratio. I have, in fact, taken to carrying the equipment needed for an interview around with me and if I am introduced to someone who expresses an interest in taking part my immediate question is, “Can you do it now?” Nevertheless, I am feeling considerably more positive, having previously started to stress a little about the chances of completing this on time.

Now, do I hear a cry for a photo and a lame excuse to talk linguistics? Well, OK then, but just a short one as the final pain post is still only half-written. But here’s a picture for you of the back wall of the gated carpark of my apartment block. This appeared a few days ago, and this morning I was chatting with Jebediah — the old mineiro in the block — about it. I assumed that it was either a thief trying to unsubtly break in, or a drunk parking the other side of the wall (which is also a carpark). So, having raised it as a topic, I asked “Era um ladrão ou um bêbado?” (“Was it a burglar or a drunk?”). And Jebediah replied “Era uma mulher.” (“It was a woman.) It is this final comment that is the topic of the post — was Jebediah being sexist, or merely correct?

In the absence of knowing the identity of the perpetrator, I used the masculine forms um ladrão and um bêbado. These are what linguists call the UNMARKED FORMS. This is because, were I to have used the feminine uma ladrona/uma bêbeda this would have implied a definite assertion that the individual concerned was female — these forms are MARKED as female. But in using the masculine form I was making no such equivalent assumption. The two are distributionally asymmetric — with one form used in generic cases and the other only in specific.

English has no gender marking on nouns, but comes across this asymmetry when using pronouns. For instance, if in an equivalent situation in England I had asked “Was he drunk?” then — historically — this would have been taken in the same manner: an unmarked form, not actively asserting masculinity, just not asserting femininity. However, this use of masculine pronouns in English has come to be critiqued as “gendered language,” and potentially considered to be a sexist assumption of masculinity. As a result many English speakers use alternative locutions: the slightly verbose and clumsy “he or she” (or vice versa), the deliberate use of “she,” or the so-called “singular they.” Alternatively, some choose to phrase their language such that the question of gender does not arise, as I did above in using a dummy pronoun.  This is not an essay on style — but suffice to say, paraliptically, that I do not even consider it worth mentioning the ugly and unpronounceable written “s/he.”

The debate as to which form one should use rages through discussion boards — both linguistic and feminist — on the internet, with conservatives of the ilk that are wont to use expressions such as when I was at school …, political correctness gone mad…, and the like claiming that as it is an issue of grammatical markedness there is no need to alter the traditional use, and feminists (a term which I use to mean simply “people who are concerned with women’s equality,” please take your pejorative interpretations elsewhere) arguing that this asymmetrical gendering of language reflects a wider social asymmetry and should therefore be addressed.

The point of this post is not to set out my position on this matter[1] but rather to contrast English with Portuguese. Portuguese marks gender on nouns (or, more correctly, on noun phrases — more on this will probably crop up in a later post) and does so in a similar manner, whereby masculine gender is the unmarked form. Now I have no idea whether or not this has received in the Lusophone world the same critique — that it represents a form of grammatically-encoded sexism — as the English pronominal system has. It is worth noting that in Portuguese subject pronouns are often dropped (as in the statement Era uma mulher — more on this in another post too), so the situation is quite different. It would, unlike English, take a radical restructuring of Portuguese grammar to remove this feature. I know of no way — short of actually enumerating um ladrão, uma ladrona, um bêbado ou uma bêbeda that I could have raised the question without using the unmarked masculine. It is also worth noting that masculine and feminine grammatical genders abound throughout Portuguese, as all nouns have them, even where the referent of the noun is inanimate. In English the only times we use words with gender marking the referent of that word does have a sex (with the exception of the odd convention such as referring to a ship as she). So it may well be that this simply fails to register as an issue in Lusophone countries as the vast majority of the time, it is not a person that is being (hypothetically) affronted by being (possibly) incorrectly referred to with the masculine.

And what of Jebediah? When he said Era um mulher was he merely making an empirical correction in light of some additional knowledge he had? Or was he, in equating my hypothesized causes (theft, drunkenness) with the simple statement that it was a woman, additionally making a silly comment based on fatuous stereotypes of women drivers? Obviously, the latter. But if I’d admitted that up front, I’d have had no excuse to fascinate you all with a quick précis of gender and markedness.[2]

[1] For the record: I am inclined to agree with the view that, historically, this represents a grammatically-encoded sexism; but do not go as far as to consider individual users of unmarked he/him sexist. In written materials I avoid it, usually by rephrasing or the use of the singular they — arguments against which I consider to be entrenched in a world-view in which grammar is prescriptive, inviolable and inalterable and that by extension would have us all theeing and thouing and marry-nuncleing. In speech, I suspect I am less attentive, and it may well occur. [Back up]

[2] I may soon have to quit this stylistic technique of overtly commenting upon my own rhetorical sleights of hand; not least because I run the risk of starting to comment upon the stylistic technique of commenting upon my stylistic technique of overtly commenting upon my own rhetorical sleights of hand; which could well be the start of some exponential and out-of-control cycle of meta-ness. This may have already started. [Back up]

The perils of fieldwork, part two (now of three)

Well, the promised tale of a scrape with death is going to have to wait a day or so, as I have an intervening update to make. Fortunately, it stays within the theme of poison and pain; but this time the poison is self-administered and the pain well-deserved: I got drunk.

Since getting here — with the exception of a weekend visit to the coast — I have been the model of moderation, taking no alcohol and generally behaving myself. To what extent this has been due to the slowness with which my contacts network has developed, and to what extent due to my own wisdom and careful living, I leave the reader to judge. But an additional factor certainly is locality: on my block there are three bars, and two of them are, well, probably a little too scuzzy for a nice, well-turned-out boy like me. The third just never seemed to be open until the last couple of weeks when, in walking past, I noticed that not only was it open, but the floor seemed to be unsticky, the tables to be clean and a general smell of stale cachaça to be absent from the place. Additionally, and highly temptingly, the guy running it seemed to regularly sport the previously-mentioned mineiro-style hat.

So on Saturday afternoon I popped in for a quick beer and a chat. And on Sunday morning, I gently staggered out [+beers], [+amigos] and [+informants].

Mike, the hat-wearer — I think it is safe to name him as the chances of him being an informant are zero — is Swedish, married to a Brazilian, and has just taken over running the bar. I got on extremely well with both of them and both were very interested in my research. Ana has lived here on and off most of her life (her father is a politician) and though unsuitable herself as an informant took down detailed notes of my selection criteria, and promised to work her way through her address book. Mike is a musician, meaning that the bar has a lot of regulars who are musicians and apparently many are mineiro as well. Of course, telling me this could simply be a ploy to encourage my custom.

But promisingly, I have three potential informants from the evening itself — all of whom are regulars at the bar, and so will be easy to pin down. One of them, whom we shall call “Chilly Willy,” moved here at the age of nine almost in the first days of the Brasília project, and is now 64. We had quite a long chat about language attitudes and the like and he had some interesting opinions. He is there most days from fairly early, as he generally gives a hand with the opening of the place, and Mike has told me that if I have any interviews around opening time, he is happy for me to turn the music off and let me use the back room of the bar for recording. Catching at least two of the new potentials early is the day is going to be essential, unless I want to have to factor in the effect of three or four glasses of cachaça to my analysis.

I should stress now that, of course, one boozy night does not necessarily great and lasting friendships make. So like a good scientist I popped back in again yesterday for lunch (a very strange fist-size dwarf chicken) to take a second observation, and all the readings seemed pretty much the same. So, tomorrow I shall be trying to catch Chilly Willy, before he gets stuck into the cachaça, and record him.

In general, having a friendly local bar-owner could be extremely useful, particularly for recruiting from the lower socio-economic sections of the populace. I am aware that this is, of course, Brazil; and there is something of a divide between the middle and working classes. A slightly down-at-heel bar stuck between two very down-at-heel ones actually — to be aggressively realistic — strikes me as a perfect place to meet and get to know a much wider range of people whilst minimizing the very real risk in urban Brazil of getting myself targetted by banditos.

So, a highly productive — not to mention fun — weekend was had, and after a slow initial few months, I feel much refreshed and more optimistic about completing all of this on time.

Next up, the delayed tale of a brush with death, which is what I know you all wanted to hear about anyway, instead of my minor inebriate jaunts.