Articles by Asya Pereltsvaig
A recent report in India Today mentions a fatwa (Muslim religious decree) issued by a cleric associated with the Muslim Brotherhood to prohibit women from swimming in the sea. The declared reason is that the word for ‘sea’ is grammatically masculine in Arabic, and so when a woman goes swimming and “the water touches the woman’s private parts, she becomes an ‘adulteress’ and should be punished”. An earlier fatwa issued in Iraq in 2007 “warned street vendors not to place tomatoes beside cucumbers because the vegetables are different genders”. But are authors of these fatwas driven by grammar or by culture? And how do literary translators grapple with gender issues?
It is not very often that my attention is captured by a title of an academic journal, but the newly established Journal of Linguistic Geography did just that. Published by Cambridge University Press, this journal “focuses on dialect geography and the spatial distribution of language relative to questions of variation and change”, according to the publisher’s description. Submissions in the areas of dialectology, sociolinguistics, historical linguistics, language in its sociocultural environment, and linguistic typology are expected to appear in the journal. The most important feature of this new journal is not its content—numerous academic journals in sociolinguistics, historical linguistics, and typology are already being published worldwide—but rather its format.
According to a recent article by Mike Vuolo in Slate.com, Pirahã is among “only a few documented cases” of languages that almost completely lack of numbers. Dan Everett, a renowned expert in the Pirahã language, further claims that the lack of numeracy is just one of many linguistic deficiencies of this language, which he relates to gaps in the Pirahã culture. In an earlier GeoCurrents post, I argued against the idea that Pirahã is a primitive language lacking grammatical complexity, for example, recursion. But just how rare is the absence or severe limitation of numerals cross-linguistically?
The previous GeoCurrents post examined the alleged lack of numbers in Pirahã. But the uniqueness of this language has been claimed to extend far beyond the lack of counting. Dan Everett, the preeminent expert in Pirahã, has made four claims about both the language and the culture of the Pirahã that would make them unique. First, Everett argues that the …
A recent article by Mike Vuolo in Slate.com rekindled the Pirahã number controversy (see also the article in The Economist and this one in The Chronicle of Higher Education). The Pirahã language is spoken by an estimated 360 people in the Brazilian state Amazonas along the Maici and Autaces rivers. According to many accounts, the Piraha cannot count. But in actuality, the situation is not that simple.
As the international community continues to put pressure on Iran in order to curb its nuclear program, numerous questions arise: Is Iran’s nuclear development program designed for peaceful energy uses or for military purposes? Just how close is Iran to producing a nuclear bomb? If Iran’s nuclear program presents an existential threat to Israel, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview on November 17, 2013, why does he and others in his government, such as Naftali Bennett of the right-wing The Jewish Home party, continue to support of a diplomatic solution rather than a military strike on Iran’s nuclear installations, despite disagreeing with the US about the specific content of a deal? Is a military solution even feasible?
As long-term readers of GeoCurrents know, the site’s two authors (Martin Lewis and Asya Pereltsvaig) are currently working on a book on the origins of the Indo-European language family and the controversy that surrounds it (see the GeoCurrents “focused series” on this issue). In the meantime, Martin Lewis gave a guest lecture on “The Promise of Historical Linguistics and …
Last week I was contacted by the producers of the AirTalk radio based in Los Angeles and asked to discuss the article on the universality of “Huh?” recently published by Mark Dingemanse, et al. in PLOS One. I was specifically told that the producers were looking for “someone to support the work”. I made it clear to the producers that I could explain the research and indicate some of the pitfalls, but I was promptly turned down. In this GeoCurrents post I will do what the AirTalk producers did not want me to do: explain the article and indicate what I see as problems with this research. I will also overview some of the media reports that mushroomed after the PLOS publication came out.
I am often asked by my students why countries receive masculine or feminine names in languages that make a grammatical gender distinction. For example, why is Portugal masculine in French but feminine in Russian? Conversely, why is China feminine in French but masculine in Russian? Is there a geographical pattern to the gender assignment? The answer is “not really”. On first glance, it does seem that Russian and French, at least, place many countries in the same categories. As can be seen on the maps posted here, countries in in central and western Asia and northern Africa tend to be coded as masculine in both Russian and French, while most European nations fall in the feminine category. The pattern, however, is deceptive.
The special role of Moscow and Saint Petersburg is highlighted by a consideration of the space between them. A recent photo diary in The New York Times documented a trip taken by Ellen Barry and Dmitry Kostyukov between the two principal Russian cities. This trip was inspired by an imaginary journey described by liberal-minded bureaucrat Alexander Radishchev in his book A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow, written in 1790. In this post we revisit the cities and towns visited by Radishchev.
As GeoCurrents commentator D. Schwartz figured out, the quiz map posted last Friday shows countries that do not have primate cities in red and those that do have primate cities in grey.
Here is another one-map GeoCurrents quiz: What does the Wikipedia map, reproduced on the left, show? Hint: the countries shown in red do not have something that the countries shown in grey do have. The answer will be posted on Monday.
Honesty, like other personality traits, is notoriously difficult to test, let alone map. A rather ingenious new study attempted to measure honesty in an unusual way. Instead of using questionnaires that ask respondents whether they (or their behaviors) fall under a certain rubric, this study examined the behavior directly. The study, conducted by the makers of Honest Tea, involved setting up an unmanned booth with bottles of their product on display. Customers were asked to use the honor system and leave $1 for each bottle of tea they took. The percentage of people who paid for their drink in each state could easily be calculated.
To follow up on the previous GeoCurrents post on the geography of first names, this post will examine that of surnames. The first map on the left shows the most common European surnames by country. Some interesting patterns emerge here. The geography of surnames in the US is considered as well.
As a university lecturer, I noticed that certain first names are common in different cohorts of students. A few years ago, I would often have two or three Jessicas in my classes, then it was Ashleys, then Jessicas made a come-back. This personal hunch is confirmed by a series of maps, published recently by Jezebel.com and reproduced at the bottom of this post. Based on data from the Social Security Administration, these maps show the most popular names for girls by state, for babies born from 1960 through 2012. While some parents select unusual names for their kids, most opt for safe or fashionable choices. As with clothing, certain names sweep the country, stay popular for a while, and then fall out of fashion, rarely to return.