In praise of Sihem

I’d hate to think that I’ll get her in trouble by writing this. But.

Sihem Soibinet-Fekih is the International Writer Relations—French staff from Quora. Meaning, she’s the Jonathan Brill of French Quora.

I don’t spend a lot of time on the non-English Quoras, because my non-English languages are not that good (there isn’t going to be a Greek Quora), and because my backlog is ongoing and is on English Quora. But I have been consistently impressed with how Sihem has done her job.

I posed on Quora French, a few days back, the question:

Quelle a été la réaction de la communauté de Quora française à la suppression des détails des questions ?

(What was the French Quora community’s reaction to the removal of question details?)

And then went away. It’s been a busy week on the Insurgency, after all.

Pretty promptly after that, Sihem followed the question.

… Can you imagine Brill following that question?

I expect no response from Sihem. And I’m not writing this to get one.

But, Sihem, merci infiniment. Vous avez confirmée le raison de mon respect envers vous.

Why was Laura Hale’s Quora account deactivated?

Because she no longer wishes to be on Quora.

Yes, I know this from her. Several Quora users are in touch with her on Facebook.

No, I am not going to elaborate.

InB4 some shmuck reports this question and it gets deleted…

Why doesn’t Quora allow me to display my default credential?

The Quora Credentials bot is very inflexible, and it’s been difficult to work out how to get it to shut up.

And the credential is being rejected because the Credentials bot doesn’t think it’s helpful; not because it necessarily isn’t helpful.

In the absence of Quora publishing a Guide to getting the Credentials bot to shut the hell up consisting of useful credentials templates (because that would require Quora Inc to actually care about its users), I suggest offering an academic-looking credential. OP has tried the following phrases:

Student, Aspiring Psychologist, Aspiring scientist, Psychologist student

I’d suggest something like

BSc (Psychology), So-And-So University (year of graduation)

Or, at a minimum, a phrase longer than two words, such as

Studying developmental psychology, aiming to practice in clinical psychology

or in fact your existing other bio, OP,

Polymath, Reads a lot, science fan, student

And whatever you do, don’t use the phrase

Question Details

Empirical research by Zeibura S. Kathau and myself confirms that phrase gets deprecated. 🙂

Why doesn’t Dryden’s Imitation of Horace follow the 10-syllable rule for iambic pentameter?

The stanza OP is querying, from Dryden’s imitation of the Second Epode of Horace (The Hymn of Gentry Contentment) is:

How happy in his low degree,
How rich in humble poverty, is he,
Who leads a quiet country life;
Discharg’d of business, void of strife,

This almost scans as iambic tetrameter: 8–9 syllables, not 10–11 syllables (which the rest of the poem does, outside its final stanza), and it scans better than OP thought it did:

1. In modern times, is two syllables, not one, although past spellings reveal that it used to be both. From OED 3rd edition:

ME quit, ME quyeet, ME quyte, ME qwiet, ME qwiete, ME qwyete, ME–15 quiete, ME–15 quyete, ME–16 quyet, ME– quiet, 15 quiate, 15–16 quiett, 15–16 quyett, 16 queat, 16 queit, 18– quate (south-west midl. and Irish English (lnorth.)), 18– quite (Lancs.), 19– quait (Irish English (north.)), 19– quayit (Eng. regional (Devon)), 19– quient (U.S. regional); Sc. pre-17 quayt, pre-17 queat, pre-17 queet, pre-17 queyt, pre-17 queytt, pre-17 quiatt, pre-17 quiete, pre-17 quiett, pre-17 quiette, pre-17 quiit, pre-17 quit, pre-17 quoyet, pre-17 quoyit, pre-17 quyat, pre-17 quyatt, pre-17 quyet, pre-17 quyete, pre-17 quyett, pre-17 quyiat, pre-17 quyiet, pre-17 quyit, pre-17 quyt, pre-17 qwiet, pre-17 qwiette, pre-17 qwyet, pre-17 qwyete, pre-17 qwyett, pre-17 qwyette, pre-17 qyett, pre-17 17– quait, pre-17 17– quiet, pre-17 19– queyet, 18 quaete, 18 quaiet, 18 quayet, 18– quaite, 18– quate, 19– quaeit, 19– quaet, 19– quaiat, 19– quet, 19– queyit, 19– qui’t, 19– quite.

2. In modern times, business is two syllables (bɪznəs). To quote OED again:

Disyllabic pronunciation, reflecting syncope of the unstressed second syllable of trisyllabic forms, is indicated by spellings without a medial vowel from the 16th cent. and is noted by orthoepists from the early 17th cent. (see further E. J. Dobson Eng. Pronunc. 1500–1700 (ed. 2, 1968) II. §306).

3. However, poverty is a problem. For this to scan, it would have to be one of:

  • pov’rty’s he (with pov’rty two syllables, and not <r> acting as its own syllable). But that’s unpronouncable, unless the <v> was actually a /w/. OED provides a pre-17th century spelling powerte, powertie, and pow’rty’s he is slightly more pronounceable; but that was supposed to have been ancient history by Dryden’s time.
  • povert’s he, with the final -y not pronounced; OED indicated that that did actually occur in places in Middle English and Modern dialect—Middle English has spellings like “ME pouerd, ME pouerert (transmission error), ME pouerte, ME pouertt, ME pouertte, ME povert, ME poverte, ME powaret, ME–15 pouert; Sc. pre-17 powert.” Again, that was supposed to have been ancient history by Dryden’s time.

… There is of course a simpler explanation: that Dryden is allowing himself one initial pentameter, before ploughing on in tetrameters; just as he puts a couple of trimeters at the very end of the poem—

This Morecraft said within himself,
Resolved to leave the wicked town,
And live retired upon his own.
He called his money in;
But the prevailing love of pelf
Soon split him on the former shelf,
And put it out again.

I don’t know enough about English verse to know whether such licence was commonplace at the start of long poems.

Why do many people say that Koine Greek is close to Modern Greek and distant from Attic, while grammatically it seems to be very close to Attic and still some significant distance away from Modern Greek?

Well has Dimitra Triantafyllidou’s answer put it:

Is the glass half-full or half-empty?

Here’s some ways in which Koine is closer to Modern Greek:

  • Phonetics: there’s lots of disagreement about precise dates, but in lower-class Koine, potentially as few as two sounds were left to change over between Koine and Modern Greek, ɛ > i (η) and y > i (υ, οι). Accent was already likely stress- and not pitch-based, and vowel length was lost.
  • Morphology: No dual, moribund optative. No Attic declension.
  • Syntax: At the very start of hína replacing infinitive
  • Lexicon: Substantial move forwards in both meanings of words, and Latin loans. Some of it straightforwardly legible by Modern Greek speakers.

Here’s some ways in which Koine is closer to Classical Greek:

  • Phonology: Gemination was still present.
  • Morphology: Still has dative, perfect, future, infinitive, third declension, athematic conjugation
  • Syntax: Still has clause-chaining strategies using participles
  • Lexicon: Still basically legible for someone reading ancient Greek

Phonetically, it’s almost Modern Greek. Morphologically, it’s identifiably Ancient, though there has already been some simplification. Syntax and lexicon are in between.

Why do I not appear to have a regional accent?

Without knowing anything whatsoever of your circumstances, OP, I’ll guess you’ve picked up some supraregional dialect koine somehow.

Like, I dunno, RP, or whatever has replaced RP in England these days.

It’ll have a lot to do with your upbringing and your socialisation, as others have said. This kind of accent mixup is very commonplace in children of military personnel, who move around a country frequently; hence the term “army brat”. And of course prestige variants of a language are produced all over a language community, unified by ideology or class rather than regional identification—even if their origin is often regional.

Why are there ancient, long extinct scripts (e.g. cuneiform) in Unicode?

I’m going to put in a less popular answer:

Because they can.

Yes, there is research ongoing on extinct scripts, and scholars should be able to exchange texts in those scripts. The thing is, scholars usually exchange Sumerian, Old Egyptian, Mayan etc texts not in the original scripts, but in transliteration. The scholars are consulted in putting together the Unicode representations of their scripts, but they are not, from what I have seen, desperate to see them adopted because their absence was blocking them doing their work.

You can’t rule out that someone will want to use them, even if just in illustratory text, and you do occasionally see old scripts used as plaintext by scholars (Egyptian hieroglyphics more than cuneiform, cuneiform more than Mayan hieroglyphics). And Unicode is intended to be the definitive encoding of all scripts that could ever be digitised. So their presence in Unicode is legitimate; but it was never pressing even within specialised fields. That’s why they got bumped to the “Astral Plane” (the Supplementary Multilingual Plane, U+10000 to U+1FFFF.)

Who faces more difficulty, a Greek who reads the original Koine New Testament or an English speaker who reads the works of Shakespeare?

How on earth do we quantify this? Especially given (a) we read Shakespeare in modernised orthography; (b) we ignore the pronunciation differences, unless we’re tuning in to Ben Crystal for Reconstructed Shakesperian, and Randall Buth for Reconstructed Koine; (c) there is huge stylistic disparity in the New Testament: Mark is much easier to read than Paul.

  • Pronunciation: Koine slightly harder: the vowels sound like a pirate in English, but we have heard pirates before in the movies. Greeks are going to be really taken aback by eta as /ɛ/ and omicron iota, upsilon as /y/; but they’re getting off easy. Those are the only real differences.
  • Morphology: A lot of Koine grammar got reintroduced to modern ears via Puristic (I’m saying that deliberately: Puristic never really used pre-Koine Attic grammar). Still, that’s an alien though familiar grammar for Koine, vs only minor grammatical differences for Shakespeare.
  • Syntax: Same as morphology, although Shakespeare’s syntax can at times be convoluted for modern ears. I’d call it a wash.
  • Lexicon: This can be quantified, but I don’t know of any studies. Both are contaminated, because of how canonical both are in the contemporary cultures: the vocabulary of the New Testament and of Shakespeare are more familiar to modern readers than they should be, because both are taught (and because of Puristic). And you’ll need to be “edified by the margin” for both. Especially if you used an edition of Shakespeare that uses the word margent instead of margin. I’m calling it a wash, but more out of frustration than conviction.

Koine somewhat harder than Shakespeare, but I say that with little conviction. Koine maybe as easy as Chaucer. But certainly easier than Early Middle English, from what little I’ve seen of it.

What would a living natural language that couldn’t change or evolve look like?

Well, what drives language change? Whatever needs drive language change would not be met by such a language. And speakers of such a language would get very frustrated.

  • They’d be bored to death with each other. A major driver is the pursuit for novel and vivid ways of expressing a concept. You would not have them. You would have heard all the ways of expressing excitement a millionfold, and nothing in language would surprise you any more.
  • Their facial muscles would be twitching. A major driver is ease of enunciation; that’s how words get slurred together, syllable structures get simplified, phonemes assimilate to each other. That capability would be frozen.
  • They would be constantly asking each other “huh?”. A major and contrary driver is ease of comprehension; expressions that become too indistinct, semantically or phonetically, are remodelled so that they can be understood more readily. The easy pathways for doing so would all be blocked off; any attempt to make themselves understood would be trapped in ponderous circumlocution.
  • They would yell at each other a lot. Language is a major vehicle of conveying what in-group you belong to, and what out-group you don’t belong to; people unconsciously, and at times consciously, change their language to mark themselves off from others. Without that subtle vehicle, they would have to resort more often to more overt signals of their group identity. Which would probably manifest themselves more aggressively.

Expanding answer promoted by OP.

This was a good, interesting answer. Thanks.

However, there are a few things I’d like to point out/ask, if you don’t mind.

  • It seems your answer focused more on the socio-cultural aspect, especially the consequences, while I also had the language itself in mind. That is, the actual phonological and grammatical side of it.
  • The various issues you mention are seemingly based on existing languages, while my question was more hypothetical (I didn’t mean an existing natural language).
  • For example, you mention ease of enunciation, which means the language would not yet have arrived at the point where speakers feel they no longer need to make it easier.
  • Rather than “What if a language suddenly no longer could evolve?”, my question was more about “How would a hypothetical natural language end up in such a state that all or most parts of specch and phonology had become a closed class?”.

An isolating language is going to be crying out for its function words to be reanalysed as affixes, changing it into an agglutinating language. An agglutinating language is going to be crying out for its affixes to be phonologically assimilated, resulting in a fusional language. A fusional language is going to be crying out for its inflections to become phonologically indistinct, and disambiguating function words to be added, resulting in an isolating language.

In other words, there is a cycle of language change, in this and in many other aspects of language; and so long as the forces which bring about language change exist, a language can’t hop off the cycle. The core conflict of ease of production vs ease of comprehension results in language being in an unstable equilibrium: any perturbation (and there are constant perturbations) leads to local language change. And those opposing factors are not intrinsic to any one language structure; there is no language structure that is guaranteed to be stable.

For example, you say “the language would not yet have arrived at the point where speakers feel they no longer need to make it easier.” It never will. A language which speakers feel they no longer need to make easier to pronounce is a language consisting of the single word “uhhhhhhhh”. The contradictory pressure to make the language easier to understand is going to kick in way before then.

What would it take for a language to have most of its parts of speech and phonology be a closed class? Have the language be in a world where there are no novel concepts to express. Failing that, have the language have no compounding, and no phrases consisting of multiple words and a single denotation, which could be reanalysed into a single word, and accented accordingly. It just won’t happen with language as we know it.

Answered 2017-08-14 · Upvoted by

Steve Rapaport, Linguistics PhD candidate at Edinburgh. Has lived in USA, Sweden, Italy, UK.

What sounds in your language do foreigners find hard to pronounce?

For Modern Greek, the following sounds are cross-linguistically rare, and certainly rare among European languages:

  • ɣ ~ ʝ: γάμος, γέρος
  • x ~ ç: χάμω, χελιδόνι
  • ɟ [the palatalised allophone of ɡ]: αγγίζω
  • ð, θ: δέντρο, θάμνος
  • r: ρέμα (people really don’t deal well with trills)
  • Initial clusters like ks, ps, vl, vr, ðr, ðj, ɣl, ɣr: ξέρω, ψέμα, βλέπω, βρίσκω, δράμα, διάνα, γλόμπος, γράμμα
Answered 2017-08-14 · Upvoted by

Steve Rapaport, Linguistics PhD candidate at Edinburgh. Has lived in USA, Sweden, Italy, UK.