Thursday, February 16, 2012

Alex, I'm disappointed

So, I was just watching "Jeopardy."  One of the categories for Double Jeopardy was "homophones."  And one of the expected responses was the pair of "homophones" Don and dawn.

Problem is, these are not homophones for me. Nor are they for a good many speakers of North American English. For those like me, these words are:

Don = [dɑn]
dawn = [dɔn]

The vowels are different.  The vowel in Don is low, back, and unrounded.  The vowel in dawn is mid, back, and rounded.  Two different vowels, two different words, not homophones.  I and those like me also distinguish the pairs cot - caught, knot - nought, bot - bought, rot - wrought, and others.

The [ɑ] - [ɔ] merger is a regional feature of American English, as shown in this map*:

So, Alex Trebeck, be careful about what you claim are "homophones."

*The map is from the University of Pennsylvania's Phonology Atlas.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

How to write a book review...

... or at least, how to start one.  Robert Lawless, whose passing is reported in a previous post was a prolific, take-no-prisoners book reviewer.  The morning of the day I learned he had died, Robert sent me an email containing just the beginning of a book review he was working on. He often sent me these reviews asking for help with proofing, but this time I think he just wanted to share his thoughts on what he obviously thought was a pretty important and yet poorly-written book:
This fascinating and necessary book is unfortunately almost destroyed by an abrading, agitating, annoying, bedeviling, beleaguering, boring, bugging, chafing, disturbing, exasperating, galling, irksome, irritating, maddening, peeving, provoking, turn-offing writing style. The author is unable to state his ideas in a straight-forward fashion but instead either uses a completely unnecessary list and an artificial word created with a slash, such as in this headache-producing sentence: "Both theorized, developed, and made popular (in academic as well as in nonacademic/community spaces) the notion that gender (i.e., notions, constructions, and embodiments of femininities and masculinities) are socially, historically, and culturally created, performed, repeated, reinforced, and policed through discourse, institutions, and material practices such as clothing, fashion, or 'drag'" (p. 6). (Notice that this sentence begins nowhere and goes nowhere.) One more example to make my point: "Masculinities, for me, refer to a heterogeneous spectrum of differently situated masculine relocated and situated sex/gender formations and performances, largely in Philippine and diasporic contexts, which were important sites in my study, but also in other overlapping Asian, indigenous/Pacific, African American and European/white contexts, which were also relevant to my fieldwork but not central to the project" (p. 6). And, my last example: "While I agree with Halberstam that female masculinity can be a 'masculinity without men' (a central premise of his book), in chapter 4, I engage and analyze Filipino examples in which (Filipino) tomboy masculinities and manhoods (which I argue can be interpreted as an indigenous/Filipino formation of fe/male masculinity and manhood) are created precisely through proximities and social intimacies with Filipino males/men, specifically alongside working class Filipino seamen" (p. 6). "Males/men"? Give me a break! All three of these sentences are taken from page six where I got my first headache, and in fact I could not read more than five or six pages a day for fear of having to go on sick leave. I will not produce any more examples but will assure the reader that such sentences appear several times on every page of this 183-page volume--many of them far more headache-producing than these three examples. (Does the Press have editors?)
Many of Robert's complete reviews can be found at the Anthropology Review Database.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Robert Lawless

One of my favorite anthropology professors and friends, Robert Lawless, passed away yesterday.    I first encountered Robert when he was at the University of Florida.  In the fall of 1980 I was his teaching assistant for Anthropology and Modern Life (ANT 2410 as I recall).  As an assistant in that course, I learned most of what I needed to know to pass the masters-level comprehensive exams.  I also learned two really important concepts for the study of culture that I have continued to use and teach for over 30 years now: the distinction between folk and analytic models, and the concept of cynical knowledge.  More about these in a later post.  Right now, a story Robert posted on the Anthro-L listserve from field-notes of his research among the Kalinga, former headhunters of Luzon, The Philippines.

Usually a group of young men would decide that they needed a late afternoon or early evening snack. They would then surreptitiously grab a dog (black preferred) and sneak it out of the village into some wooded area, kill it, roast it, and eat it along with some alcoholic beverage (made from rice or sugarcane).  This event was usually done with a strong sense of camaraderie.  After several months in a Middle Pasil, I had the honor of being invited to one of these events.  Of course, between bites of dog meat and sweetbreads I asked them what they called this event.  They replied (much to my anthropological satisfaction) that it had no name.  Then they asked me (much to my disconcertedness) what it was called in my culture when a group of guys grabbed a dog and went off to roast and eat it.  Trying to think fast, since I knew that I already had a growing reputation for being stupid about things in my culture [you are all invited to read an article on this issue by me published in Anthropology Vol. 10, No. 1 (May 1986), pp. 55-74, and titled "Ethnoethnographers and the Anthropologist"], I replied that we called it "picnic" (using the English word). 
A few months later I was in another village quite a distance from the aforementioned one when after several weeks a group of young guys that I had been establishing rapport with came to me and whispered in my ear (in Kalinga), "Would you like to come with us on a piknik," using a word that clearly sounded like the English work picnic.  I responded (in Kalinga), "Sure, but what's a piknik?"  They said, "You know, that's where we grab a dog, take it out in the woods, roast it, and eat it." "Where did you get the word 'piknik'?" "Oh, that an old Kalinga word for this event." "But have you always used that word." "I guess so." "Did you know that word last season?" "Oh, no, just a few weeks ago, some guy from the village over the mountain came here, we took him out for a dog feast, and he told us that 'piknik' was the ancient Kalinga word for what we were doing."
RIP, Robert. You will be missed by many.