The Chinese all look the same

I doubt it. The Chinese have no difficulty in recognising other Chinese. But perhaps it is true that they all sound the same. For Agent Gombrich reminds us that Chinese speakers are often bedevilled by homophony. Chinese is so full of homophones that you will often see a Chinese tracing a character on the palm to dispel a (homophonic) ambiguity.

Phone calls must be a nightmare. Indeed, could this be why the videophone industry has absolutely taken off in China? What Agent Gombrich does not know is whether this crippling problem applies equally to all forms of Chinese. Can anyone enlighten us?

The phenomenon should certainly remind us that our blithe dismissal of homophony as a potential source of damaging inefficiency in a code was perhaps a trifle parochial.

But the fact remains that the Native English Speaker is not so bedevilled. We almost always hear the right (i.e. intended) homophone. Indeed, we so rarely even notice that a word we understood perfectly well was a homophone. For my own part, I can only recall being seriously fooled once in a lifetime.

When I was 6, my sister and I were devoted listeners to Children’s Hour, Sundays at 2pm on the BBC Home Service. Why? Because there was a magical, surreal moment to savour, week in, week out. When the introductory music stopped, Eileen Fowler would begin:

“Are you sitting comfortably, children? I have a tale to unfold.”

Of course, it doesn’t work once written down. No ambiguity. You have to say it aloud to appreciate the potential effect on an impressionable child. We were absolutely entranced.

One last thought. Did you by any chance notice, in the very first paragraph of this post, a use of English modal ‘will’ which has nothing to do with futurity? Let me lay down a rule. Every time someone posts a blog with a modal ‘will’ which cannot be about the future, they are to append the tag Achtung! in bold italics. Thus:

Nowadays, Her Majesty will Achtung! often pop in to Balliol for coffee.

The message thus encoded tells us of the present habits, propensities, what you will, of our Revered Majesty. It is not a prediction about Her future behaviour. And it is parallel to

Back in those days, Her Majesty would often pop in to Balliol for coffee.

Which sentence encodes a parallel message concerning Her past habits. Even as our Theory dictates: ‘will’, being the aboriginal form, encodes for presentness; ‘would’ being the transported form, encodes for pastness.

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The Ten Commandments (2)

It turns out that what we might call El Decálogo Infantil (see: The Ten Commandments) is rather more straightforward evidence for our thesis than other versions.  My investigations proceed. Meanwhile, an initial look at Latin, French, Portuguese and Italian produces suggestive but inconclusive data.  Let me explain. 

The Latin of the Biblia Sacra iuxta Vulgatam Clementinam, itself hardly Classical Latin, gives us:

Honora patrem tuum et matrem tuam, ut sis longaevus super terram, quam Dominus Deus tuus dabit tibi.

Non occides.
Non moechaberis.
Non furtum facies.
Non loqueris contra proximum tuum falsum testimonium.
Non concupisces domum proximi tui: nec desiderabis uxorem eius, non servum, non ancillam, non bovem, non asinum, nec omnia quae illius sunt.

And notice:  the injunction concerning fathers and mothers uses an imperatival form, but the rest use the Latin Future. Now we turn to the French of La Bible en français courant:

Respecte ton père et ta mère, afin de jouir d’une longue vie dans le pays que moi, le Seigneur ton Dieu, je te donne.

Tu ne commettras pas de meurtre.
Tu ne commettras pas d’adultère.
Tu ne commettras pas de vol.
Tu ne prononceras pas de faux témoignage contre ton prochain.
Tu ne convoiteras rien de ce qui appartient à ton prochain, ni sa maison, ni sa femme, ni son serviteur, ni sa servante, ni son boeuf, ni son âne.

Where we observe the same phenomenon. Imperative for fathers and mothers, Future Tense for the rest. And now Portuguese, from the Brazilian Biblia Sagrada:

Honra a teu pai e a tua mãe, para que se prologuem os teus dias na terra que o Senhor, teu Deus, te dá.

Não matarás.
Não adulterarás.
Não furtarás.
Não dirás falso testemunho contra o teu próximo.
Não cobiçaras a casa do teu próximo; não cobiçaras a mulher do teu próximo, nem o seu servo, nem a sua serva, nem o seu boi, nem o seu jumento, nem coisa alguma do teu próximo.

Same again.  Odd, that, the same weird admixture of styles, part imperative, part future. What can explain such a departure from the rhythmic elegance of El Decálogo Infantil? And across languages?

Agent Kelly makes an important point. When studying the grammar of Classical Languages, there is always the possibility that a Latin translation of a Greek original may well pervert the natural syntax of Latin just to preserve – for whatever reason – a kind of parity with the syntax of the original Greek. The Latin syntax is ‘bent’.  And so such examples are untrustworthy as part of the evidential base for grammarians of Latin. (But see comment below)

It looks as though that may well be the case here.  The formulations in French and Portuguese are very close to the Latin of the Clementine Vulgate, prompting the thought that the Vulgate is their source, so it could well be, for all we yet know to the contrary, that the natural syntax of French and Portuguese is here systematically ‘bent’ in deference to the Clementine Vulgate.  Which in it’s turn may be deferential to the Greek, which in its turn may be deferential to the original Hebrew.  Bugger.  That’s going to add layers of complexity on to many of our investigations.  But I have two reasons to be cheerful.  One is that the Spanish of El Decálogo Infantil, not being a translation of anything, is certainly kosher.  The other is that various agents are on the case.  Soon we will have the Greek, and we will have the Hebrew.

I bow out with an observation about Italian.  Or perhaps about Italians.  My source, La Bibbia concordata, offers two versions.  An earlier one:

Onora tuo padre e tua madre, affinché siano prolungati i tuoi giorni nella terra che il Signore tuo Dio, ti dà.

Non uccidere.
Non fornicare.
Non rubare.
Non attestare il falso contro il tuo prossimo, non desiderare la roba d’altri.

And a later one:

Onora tuo padre e tua madre, affinché siano prolungati i tuoi giorni nella terra che il Signore tuo Dio, ti dà.

Non uccidere.
Non commettere adulterio.
Non rubare.
Non attestare il falso contro il tuo prossimo, non desiderare la casa del tuo prossimo, non desiderare la donna del tuo prossimo, né il suo servo, né la sua serva, né il suo bue, né il suo asino, né cosa alcuna che sia del tuo prossimo.

Looks as though generic fornication is nowadays off the hook, and the modern sinner clearly needs No. 10 spelling out in detail.

In both we have the familiar stylistic oddity, but here it is different. Imperative for fathers and mothers, but infinitives for the rest. What is it about the Italians? What does it all mean?

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The Ten Commandments

Those of us who think of the alleged Spanish Future Tense as not a tense at all, but a mood or mode in disguise, will be heartened to hear of its modal uses.  Here is just one:  the Ten Commandments standardly use the ‘Future’.  Spanish schoolchildren learn to recite El Decálogo thus:

Amarás a Dios sobre todas las cosas.
No tomarás el nombre de Dios en vano.
Santificarás el día del Señor.
Honrarás a tu padre y a tu madre.
No matarás.
No cometerás actos impuros.
No robarás.
No levantarás falsos testimonios ni mentirás.
No consentirás pensamientos ni deseos impuros.
No codiciarás los bienes ajenos.

Actually, I am rather in favour of these – especially the  schoolchild’s version of el mandamiento sexto.  Much better than condemning adultery, which has a lot to be said for it on the plus side.   Likewise el noveno.  But on, on ….

Other versions abound: El futuro is not mandatory.  One style uses the infinitive, yielding not the Command itself, but its content, as in:

Adorar únicamente a Dios,  y a ningún otro.

Yet another relies on the imperative, as in:

Honre a tu padre y a tu madre.

And therefore the subjunctive for negative commands:

No robes.

And it is common for presentations of Los Diez Mandamientos to switch blithely from one style to the other. Indeed, I came across a website in Texas which used all three styles in the one Decalogue:

Adorar únicamente a Dios, y a ningún otro.
No matarás.
No robes.

¡ay de mí! Los gringos. 

All this, of course, is grist to our mill.  For such uses of el futuro are clearly modal.  And are incomprehensible on the story that what el futuro encodes is simply future time. Later posts will present more evidence of the essentially modal nature of  the alleged tense.

But now, estimados colegas:  do we find the same phenomenon, or perhaps similar phenomena in French, Italian, and so on?  My other languages are not good enough, and I am having difficulty getting anywhere with Google, where all I find is hundreds of thousands of sites trying to sell me versions of the utterly dreadful Cecil B. de Mille film.  Can anyone enlighten me?


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A Google search today for English Tenses proffered 1,310,000 sites.   I  visited some 50 of them.  All offering tuition and training in the understanding and use of ‘the basic English tenses’.  My first port of call descried 8 ‘basic tenses’, the second 12, the third 14.  Of course, these were only the ‘basic’ tenses, and the next site offered more: 17.  Hopes raised, I turned to the next site on the list.  Alas!  A mere 16.  And it never got any higher.  We can do better.

There wasn’t anything you might call a consensus, or even a majority view, and there was no agreement on a stripped-down core of basic tenses, agreed by all.  The 12-site included variants that the 14-site did not, and the 14-site included variants that the 17 did not.  The mode number across the 50 sites surveyed was 12, but there were plenty of votes for other numbers.

So it looks as though there is money to be made here.  The more tenses you can distinguish, the more sophisticated your product.  And I think we could be in business.  Following the kind of thinking about the English tense system that these sites are presumably using, I can certainly beat 17.  Indeed, I think I can find at least 27 without trying too hard.  For there are many exotica out there, and there is room for more exotica still.  Never mind such commonplaces as The Future Perfect Tense (The Chaplain will have perfected his Spanish accent by the time he gets to the Mexican border), and The Future Pluperfect Tense (He will have had his hair dyed before he reaches Durango).  We have also The Future Conditional Tense (A showdown between Chaplain and Master would be a fitting finale to the forthcoming election) which clearly deserves more widespread acknowledgement.  Likewise The Future Perfect Conditional Tense (A Chaplain-Master showdown would have been a fitting finale to the forthcoming election).  

Some tenses have an Einsteinian flavour, as The Present in The Future (The Chaplain makes his run tonight).  And in that relativistic vein I was quite particularly charmed by The Future in The Present (The Chaplain and his accomplice will be miles away by now), and its companion The Future in the Past (The fugitives will have been miles away by the time the alarm was sounded).   But wait!  What can then be wrong with The Future in The Past in The Present in The Future (The Chapel silver will have already been sold on E-bay hours before the alarm is sounded)? Or The Future  Progressive in The Past in The Present (training exercise: invent your own example).

So with an eye to the burgeoning TEFL market, perhaps we should abandon our present research project, with its hopelessly unappealing two tenses, and go for broke.

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