Sunday, October 29, 2017

Word of the Day: "branquignol"

French politicians have  of late  been coming up with choice epithets for their opponents.   It’s fun, plus it guarantees headlines.  The latest:  Today’s JDD reports that premier ministre Edouard Philippe has mocked Les Républicains (the current cover-name for the disgraced UMP) as branquignols.  That means they’re barmy.
As for the etymology, the word is likely a blend of branlant ‘unstable’ and croquignole ‘a mild insult’.

As for politicians employing tasty-crunchy insult words  on our own side of the Atlantic, savor this:

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Simulated Annealing and the Art of Detection

“My way of learning  is to heave a wild & unpredictable monkey-wrench  into the machinery.”
-- shamus Sam Spade, in The Maltese Falcon (1929)

Dashiel Hammett’s P.I.’s find themselves in large, chaotic situations, in which the methodical self-discipline of, say, Dragnet, won’t get you anywhere.   Joe Friday is scrupulous, professional, polite;  Hammett’s guys  are none of those things.
Nor do they follow the cool, cold-blooded approach of what we might dub “Newton’s method “of successive triangulations and approximations.  Instead it’s: stir up the pot. Stir and observe, stir and observe;  add bullets to taste, p.r.n.

cf. Newton’s method of repeatedly refining an initial guess.


The police want to grill a man they suspect of having abused and murdered his step-daughter, but have no tangible evidence.

“I don’t know.  What are we going to ask him?”
“If he reads the Evening News. … Christ, Tommy, we can ask him what his favourite colour is.  I just want him in here, under pressure, so we can see what happens.”
-- Val McDermid, A Place of Execution (1999), p. 205


And thus it is with Murphy, Private Eye.  He is no master of empirics nor of ratiocination, like Holmes;  nor of intuition into souls, like Father Brown;  but he’s got heart, and he can take a punch, and he’s got a gun;  plus what’s a fella to do?  He’s got a Mission.

So Murphy has what starts out as yet another hopeless case:  His so-called “client” is a ditsy dame with no simoleons to pay him;  plus she gets bumped off practically at the outset;  but he soldiers on.  Because that’s what soldiers do, when they’re on a Mission.
And so it looks hopeless but, he stirs the pot a little, tries this and that, and the next thing you know …

To follow this sobering  yet inspiriting  adventure, simply click here.

For more from Murphy -- philosopher and P.I. -- check out his blog:



In sum:   Jiggle the system, let it settle into a local equilibrium;  then jiggle again.  Repeat (with decreasing strength of perturbations as the ideal is neared).

Related to this is an epistemological principle, valid for scientists and detectives alike:   Don’t jump to conclusions.   Or, in a quantum-computing metaphor, don’t provoke a premature collapse of the wave-function.  Keep the various possibilities  juggling in the air, until one or more can be definitively ruled out.

Rorschach Morphology

In a classic cartoon, two psychiatrists are depicted in the first panel  as approaching each other, each saying “Good morning.”
In the second panel, as they walk away from either other, each has a thought-balloon, thinking:  “I wonder what he meant by that?”
It’s supposed to be a joke on psychiatrists;  though indeed, anyone familiar with psychology and linguistics recognizes that to be a quite valid, indeed deep, question.


So this morning, we have a “Good morning” scandal.   It has been reasonably widely (though not well) reported in the mainstream world press, though so far not the American.  E.g. a high-circulation popular Parisian daily:

La police israélienne a arrêté par erreur la semaine dernière un Palestinien qui avait publié sur Facebook une photo de lui accompagnée des mots «bonne journée ». Selon le quotidien israélien «Haaretz», pour une raison encore inexpliquée, le logiciel de traduction du réseau social a converti cette phrase en «attaquez-les » en hébreu et «faites leur du mal » en anglais.

The BBC’s brief note on the matter  is sociolinguistically useless for readers who wish to figure things out for themselves, since it shows neither the photo nor the Arabic:
Israeli police arrested a Palestinian man last week after a Facebook post he made saying "good morning" in Arabic was mistranslated to read "attack them" in Hebrew, local media have reported.

Police confirmed that the construction worker was briefly held under suspicion of incitement but was released as soon as the mistake was realised.

The post showed a photo of the worker next to a bulldozer in the West Bank.

Such vehicles have been used to attack Israelis in the past.

There is only one difference in lettering between the colloquial Arabic phrase for "good morning to you all" and "hurt them", pointed out The Times of Israel.

Actually the Times of Israel doesn’t “point out” any such thing.  It merely piggybacks off an earlier Haaretz report, and does not give either the original Arabic nor the purported “one difference in lettering” that would give the meaning “hurt them”.  -- Indeed, to anyone familiar with printed Arabic, that proviso is a cop-out anyway:  The (usual) unvoweled Arabic ductus is so low in redundancy  that, “merely” by changing “one letter”,  you can radically change the meaning of just about any short message.   -- More anon.

Here is the beginning of the original article in Haaretz:
No Arabic-speaking police officer read the post before arresting the man, who works at a construction site in a West Bank settlement

That detail provides an innocent explanation of why the fellow would take a selfie with a bulldozer.  He probably drives the thing.

It continues:

The Israel Police mistakenly arrested a Palestinian worker last week because they relied on automatic translation software to translate a post he wrote on his Facebook page. The Palestinian was arrested after writing “good morning,” which was misinterpreted; no Arabic-speaking police officer read the post before the man’s arrest.

That bit about the dreadful consequences of not having an Arabist on your payroll is a pleasing one (to Arabists).   Compare this:


Back to the psycholinguistic intricacies of “Good morning”.

The linguistically naïve reader (here in the hands of linguistically naïve journalists, so no help) will assume that “Good morning” in Arabic  is completely straightforward, and that any translator -- human or machine -- that couldn’t translate that simple phrase, would be utterly incompetent.

Now, there is in fact  a straightforward, MSA phrase for ‘Good morning’ in Arabic,
صباح الخير
Phonetically (and we’ll stick to phonetics from here on, since Microsoft often mangles Arabic script): ṣabāḥ al-xayr.  Literally, ‘morning of goodness’ (syntactically, an idafa), to which the usual Arabic morphosemantic rules apply.
But that is not what he wrote.

Einführung in die vergleichende “Guten Morgen”-Morphosemantik

Of the languages with which I am familiar, German comes closest to having a word-for-word equivalent to “Good morning”:  Guten Morgen.  Yet even that is not linguistically straightforward:  the idiom involves not guter, but guten -- grammatically an accusative.   So, you understand the way the phrase is used, but you probably have never reflected on its grammar, and perhaps could not explain it if you did.
Further, in parts of Germany (e.g. Schweinfurt, where I lived for a summer with a German family), people don’t usually say Guten Morgen anyway, they say Grüß Gott -- a phrase I am fond of, and frequently use, but whose syntax is obscure;  I suppose it’s a sort of iāfa.

In French, a word-for-word equivalent to the greeting is not current.  You don’t say “bon matin”, you say bonjour, literally ‘good day’, or (as in the Le Parisien version) bonne journée (the nuance of difference being untranslatable).  (There does, however, exist in French  an early-morning greeting  which we lack in English:  bon réveil.  I’ve never myself heard that, not being an early riser.)
In Spanish, you must go even further afield, using a plural, buenos días, lit. ‘good days’.

As to what such phrases are used for, there are subtle distinctions.  Thus, in current American English, Good morning! is simply a greeting -- a pure illocution, like hi or hello, with no descriptive content.  Good night!, by contrast, cannot be used as a greeting:  it is a formula of leave-taking -- a valediction.   Good day!, the word-for-word equivalent of the French greeting bonjour, is no longer used in everyday American English, though it survives as a breezy greeting in Australia -- the iconic G’dye!  Good afternoon and Good evening can still be used in the U.S., though they sound a bit formal.  And at least the latter has also been used (at one time, primarily perhaps in England) as a valediction.

As mentioned, French doesn’t normally use “Bon matin”, at least not the variety of French I’m familiar with.  Bonne matinée might be used but, like bonne journée, my hunch is that it is not so much a pure greeting as an optative, relating to what might follow the encounter, like the trademarked American “Have a nice day!”  (I first heard that one in Berkeley, California, decades ago;  since then it has spread like kudzu  throughout the English-speaking lands.) 

As for Guten Tag, there’s that accusative, a fossilized echo of its likely origin in such a phrase as “Ich wünsche Ihnen einen guten Tag”, which is an optative.  Do contemporary speakers feel this influence, in which case Guten Morgen is not after all an exact equivalent of Good morning ?  Hard to say.

In Modern Standard Arabic (and in most dialects), ṣabāḥ al-xayr corresponds pretty closely to “Good morning”, but things get colorful from there.  Although you may respond in kind, usually (in line with the Koranic injunction, “When you are greeted, respond with the same greeting, or a better one”) you say something like abā al-nūr (‘morning of light’),  or ṣabāḥ al-full or ṣabāḥ al-yāsimīn (both meaning ‘morning of jasmine’).

In the dialects, things get wilder.  Thus, in Yemeni, a very characteristic morning greeting is kaṣbaḥtu, to which the standard reply is  baḥḥakum Allah bi-xeir (sic; the initial ṣ has been dropped).   And -- save the mark! -- there even exist untranslatable Yemeni expressions involving the ṣ-b-ḥ root, which my Sanaani teacher explained as “a morning warning” -- thus potentially, in line with the interpretation of the Israeli police, a threat.

However, what the Palestinian really wrote was:


And in view of what has gone before, you will no longer be inclined to jump to conclusions that you understand all the nuances of that.

First, we cannot  without further analysis  give a phonetic transcription of that, since it is a script sans diacritics.   Morphologically, it’s a third-person-masculine-singular transitive verb, with third-person-masculine-plural direct object.   The verb could be either Form I, II, or IV, all of which have transitive uses. 

So, how did the translator the Israelis relied on  parse it?

The “automatic translation software” is not identified, though its digital facepage is doubtless blushing magenta.    I just tried it in Google Translate, and (taking the verb as form-IV) it renders the Arabic phrase  as “become them”, so the mystery remains.

The most straightforward assumption is that we are here dealing simply with the MSA verb, form II (syntactically transitive, semantically delocutive), in which case  the expression means “He says ‘Good morning’ to them.” 

That is actually a somewhat strange thing to say.  You’d expect more like “(I say) “Good morning” (to you(-all))”.   “He” makes sense as referring to the fellow in the photograph; but who are ‘they’?   The object-pronoun is definitely third person (and thus, the BBC rendering as "good morning to you all" is incorrect).
Whether there is some further nuance in Palestinian, I do not know offhand.  And as for a translation as “attack”, with the information we have been given so far, it is inexplicable.


For another cautionary-tale  about the perils of interpreting  brief swatches of Arabic, try this:

[Appendix]  The article that prompted this post  was of the “Mistranslation Howlers” motif;  my reply was partly out of annoyance with that complacent genre, which often finds linguistic illiterates gloating  over anecdotes that turn out  either to be more gray-area than appears at first blush (such as the one above), or to be urban legends.  A likely example of the latter is the hardy perennial about the Chevy Nova being marketed among hispanophones under that name.   Laymen observe triumphally that, in Spanish, “No va” means ‘it doesn’t go’; epic fail !!  Actually, nova is a perfectly normal word of Spanish astronomical terminology ( );  it is neither spelled like “no va” (being one word, not two), nor pronounced the same (being forestressed).

The “Good morning” article was at the expense of the Israeli counter-terrorist authorities.  There seems indeed to have been a misstep in the software, though one more subtle than most accounts suggested.  The article first appeared in Haaretz, itself an Israeli publication;  its appearance may have been unmotivated other than by the universal Schadenfreude over (alleged) mistranslations (some of which pass into legend, like “Ich bin ein Berliner”, whether or not the interpretation is linguistically well-founded), or there might have been a little Israel-internal scalpel to grind -- nescio.  But I would like to add a further observation, of respect for those who must work the intricate and dangerous CT mission.

Notoriously, terrorists (and criminals) use cover-terms.  The IC took a beating over a now-celebrated message intercepted (we are told) from Afghanistan on September 10, 2001: “The match begins tomorrow.”  The post-hoc Besserwisser wagged their fingers and berated the Agency for not getting that message translated until September 12 (which, given the exotic language of the message, and the skeleton crew left in CT after the relentless whittling-down of the Clinton and Bush years, is only too understandable.)  More to the point than the timeliness, is the interpretation:  Was it really obvious, or should it have been obvious, that this particular message, among a mass of similar things, foretold the 9/11 attacks?  I personally have no idea (though a later news story did aver that the message was eventually determined to have referred, in fact, to an upcoming soccer-match).

Now, as mentioned, the message in the current case  is rather cryptic:


It is not (according to a Comment to this post, below, from a colleague with significant language experience in Palestine) a particularly usual way to wish someone (or some third parties, in this case) top o’ the morning.   Might it have been an allusion, a wink-wink, or at least contextually suggested one, to the Israel CT team?  In other words, we need not assume that the team just blindly-blandly took the Hebrew mistranslation as the final word on the subject.  They might (given their special knowledge of the folkways of their target-set) actually have known what they were doing.

But surely (objects the straw-man, less savvy than yourself), something as simple as a verb meaning ‘to offer a morning greeting’  could not be re-interpreted to mean anything nefarious.  Yet as present company has learned, language has more tricks up its sleeve  than most folks give it credit for.  Consider the following famous phrase of German, which contains a verb meaning ‘greet’:

Und täglich grüßt das Murmeltier

Now, I know German reasonably well;  but when I first encountered that expression, my hair did stand on end (like quills upon ye fretful Murmeltier).   It has the d’outre-tombe knell of those mystery radio-phrases that Cocteau (with a wry nod to maquisard comsec during WWII) stuck into his 1950 movie Orphée ("L'oiseau chante  avec ses doigts").   What could it possibly mean?  Were it my day-job to interpret such things, if it came up in traffic  my first instinct would be to shut down all our embassies instanter.   Yet it is merely the German version of the movie-title “Groundhog Day”.

Inghimasi Murmeltier ... greets you


Sunday, October 15, 2017

Rorschach Philology

Six years ago, Fox News (and imitators) ran a most ill-founded story in a genre that we may term Allah-sightings.

The underbelly of a plane was streaked, thus:

Mene, mene, tekel  upharsin

Omigosh!  Arabic writing!  Terrorists on the tarmac!  How did they get access to the airplane!!  At whom shall we point the finger of blame!!!
BLUF:  Bogus.  The streaks on the airplane are not writing of any sort, let alone a terrorist message in Arabic.  (Our post on the matter, and on the underlying problem of the semiotic ambiguity of abstract images, can be viewed  here.)

Later, someone imagined that, by tilting your head a certain way, a decorative swipe on a certain brand of sneakers looked rather like … you guessed it,  “Allah”.  Only this time, it hadn’t been placed there by jihadis;  rather, by Islamophobes, since shoes are well-known to be held in low esteem in circum-Mediterranean Islamic lands.  Hullabaloo on social media.  Fortunately that story died before it could become a staple of the jihadi media, else we might have faced further killings such as those that followed the Danish-cartoons scandal.
Here you can read about that episode:

Again:  Bogus. Judge for yourself:

And now we are being told, by such gullible outlets as the BBC and the New York Times, that (in the words of the headline in National Geographic),

    Viking Funeral Clothes Reveal Surprising Arabic Lettering

Namely, once again, that ubiquitous "Allah".  Along with (as a bonus) "Ali", another simple graph that is little more than an extended swoop.
The proper response to such a claim (by a Swedish “textile archaeologist”, not a linguist) is to present the evidence, and weigh it.  But that would be merely one step in the arduous progress of empirical science.  Instead, to pump up their headlines, the media assume the truth of that unproven assertion, reporting the claims in factive mood, as “Why Are These Viking Burial Clothes Inscribed with Arabic Script? “(History) and “Why did Vikings have 'Allah' embroidered into funeral clothes?” (BBC).   At the same level:  Has Eric the Red stopped beating his wife?

What is really going on this that the clothing is decorated with an abstract geometrical blocky design, part of which reminded the textile specialist of something she’d seen somewhere in Arabic script -- specifically, the early variety known as Kufic script -- or rather, a decorative blocky variant of Kufic. 

Now, it is unquestionably the case that Arabic scripts have been used for calligraphy, typically depicting brief Koranic quotations.   Great ingenuity was devoted to some of these, so that the results  in some cases  resembled those Hispanic-American “tags” which only the initiated could make any sense of, or the similarly cryptic Hippie-era posters for San Francisco rock concerts.

Poster for a SF Shiite mosque
known as the “Fillmore West”.
Notice the “Allah” hidden in the picture.

The fabric pattern in question, however, is extremely simple, and likely merely generic.  Thus:

For an example of genuine Kufic-block-script-(influenced) design, cf. this:

And sure, if you select a bit here and a bit there, there is a sort of resemblance -- as there could hardly fail to be  in sketches so schematic.  Actually, even at that, the match is not close, so that the Swedes conceded that, to read the thing as “Allah”, you had to read it in a mirror.   Which would seem to be a sort of Black-Mass version of the holy name, like Satanists chanting the Credo backwards.  Hardly evidence of Islamic influence.

(For many examples of  subjectively-similar or suggestive designs, simply google-image "fret motifs".  You will find  to your surprise  that Islamic influence extended even to the Aztecs and the ancient Greeks!)

[Note btw, that that serious-looking graphic with the mirror and all, is by no means a photo of any part of the actual tattered garments.  Rather, it is an idealization of a piece of the garment, which then in turn is given subjective interpretation.  Thus, there are actually two layers of "Rorschach" here.]

Medieval Islamic abstract decorative designs, whether linguistic-influenced or not, are quite lovely, and have been influential in many sister cultures.    As to whether these Viking funeral garments were directly or indirectly influenced by these, I can have no opinion, not being an art historian.   
Certainly it is within the bounds of historical possibility that there was contact, since the Vikings were great seafarers, and the Arabs  great wayfarers; they intersected, in particular, during the time of the Moors in Spain.  (Raid on Seville, 844 A.D.)
But as a student of linguistic sociology, I detect a few clues as to why, despite but a slender stalk of empirical support, this story has legs.  By the same NY Times reporter  (though in this case, she is rather more guarded, having run her rough-draft past some skeptics)  came this recent article:

[Note:  In the PC Guardian's  article,

in a picture purporting to show a "re-enactment" of Viking combat, the only warrior with face visible is ... a woman.]

And, even more telling, this spin

(Someone bring Steve Bannon his smelling-salts.)

The pattern of journalistic dots, though as sketchy as those on the Viking garments, at least suggests why so empirically underbuttressed a claim  would be embraced for a comforting narrative.

[Footnote for the Arabic-literate]  Even with that mirror-image sleight of hand, there isn’t really a match.  The Viking design shows three horizontal strokes, all of them connected; whereas in Arabic, the initial alif is non-connecting.  And the blob that struck the Swedes as resembling the final hā’  of Allāh  would be upside-down.  So, if the design had been intended to spell Allah, it was a (double) misspelling, and thus blasphemous.

Seeing Allāh in that clothing  is like spotting Orion in a skyful of stars.   And from there to such gormless headlines as “Were some Vikings Muslim?” (National Post), and even speculations as to whether they were indeed Shiites (based upon another supposed sighting of the simple design for "Ali"), is like concluding that the skies proclaim the truth of the Olympic religion.

For a wide-ranging survey of Arabic language and stylistics, check out this:

[Footnote 19 October 2017]  A day or so after this post went up, another Arabist went up on Twitter to scoff at the Swedish claims, making some of the same points (e.g. about non-connecting alif), but adding a new one based on timelines.  For, whereas Kufic script is ancient, the subvariety of ‘square’ or blocky Kufic, supposedly postdates the Vikings’ floruit by centuries.
A nice idea, but there’s a hitch.  For, the design was constrained by medium in which it was worked (whether made by Vikings, or merely captured by them), a thin strip of stiff fabric:  the weave imposes its own rectilinear preferences.   Just as Babylonian clay tablets virtually dictated the geometry of cuneiform, so this hem would itself bring forth or invent `square Kufic’, pour les besoins de la cause, independent of any prior existence of the style  or imitation thereof.

[Sociopolitical footnote:  It is perhaps no accident that this fond fantasy was emitted out of Sweden.  As is well known, that nation has, in recent years, been wondering whether it has perhaps bitten off rather more than it can chew, so far as imported demographics.  However, it has long been politically impermissible in Sweden to remark publically on the elephant in the room.  So the sparring goes on  in code  and behind cover.] 

Who knew that Vikings were so controversial?  For a quite aggrieved-sounding feminist article from that same drearily reliable Guardian, try this:

That article's headline is conclusively proven by a passage in the Protocols of the Elders of Patriarchy, where historians of old were caught bwa-ha-ha'ing as they inked out all such records.


Appendix on Steganography

A genuine case of a name hidden in designs, is that of the stellar cartoonist Al Hirschfeld, who used to work-in the name of his daughter  NINA (all-caps), in drawing after drawing.  Here is one with the hidden items highlighted:

Notice that, as was the case with the Arabic spelling of Allah and `Ali, the ease with which the name Nina can be secreted away as part of a larger design, is dependent on its simple form;  if his daughter’s name had been Murgatroyd, Hirschfeld would have been out of luck.

After signing his name in a lower corner, he would usually append a small Arabic (Arabic!) numeral, showing the number of times the name was hidden in that particular drawing.  Here, for example, in a (rather cruel) portrait of Katherine Hepburn, we are challenged to find three occurrences:


And in this tour de force, the name “NINA” appears no fewer than thirteen thousand times.:


Can you spot them all?  Set aside the rest of your life, full-time, to accomplish this necessary task.


An earlier instance  of steganographic eisegesis:

Ancillary to the great Hollywood witch-hunt, a satellite inquisition in 1951  was mounted against ‘subversive modern art’ at the (old) County Museum in Exposition Park.

A group called Sanity in art  swore they detected maps of secret defense fortifications  sequestered in abstract paintings, and one painter … was accused … of incorporating propaganda in the form of a thinly disguised hammer-and-sickle within a seascape.

-- Mike Davis, City of Quartz (1990), p. 63

NORAD installation, Cheyenne Mountain (artist’s impression)

For more along these lines, try
=> Rorschach Morphology
[Update] XXX-clusive!
 [Update 25 II 2018] The latest example   of seeing something that isn't there, and getting the world spun-up: