Tuesday, May 02, 2006

starstruck


Quibbling over stars refers to a practice of linguists critizing another's work. Rather than maing a substantive criticism of methodology or theory, the argument is based on the acceptability judgements made by the author, which are marked by stars. The starred sentences indicate that they are impossible sentences by the rules of the grammar set out in the paper. Thus the quibble is whether this is really impossible at all, and thus the whole distinction of the grammar to other possible grammars is lost. Likewise, a tendency to make these strong prouncements about the possibilities of language is a necessary weakness in the theory of language. Thus people get stars wrong all the time and its low-hanging fruit.

The same thing happens in all arenas of debate. Just look at the recent semantic scuffle between Juan Cole and Christopher Hitchens: Hitchens said that President Ahmadinejad of Iran said that Israel was to be wiped off the map, a metaphor to be sure, but Cole argued Hitchens misquoted Mahmoud about the intent as well, further arguing that the occupying regime referenced in the original Persian referred to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza following the 1967 war and not Israel itself per se. Nevermind that this conference was a World Without Zionism. This proved to be disastrously wishful thinking by Cole, when the entire context of the quote is considered. Hitchens:
Esrail ghiyam-e mossalahaane bar zed-e mamaalek-e eslami nemoodeh ast va bar doval va mamaalek-eeslami ghal-o-gham aan lazem ast.

My source here is none other than a volume published by the Institute for Imam Khomeini. Here is the translation:

Israel has declared armed struggle against Islamic countries and its destruction is a must for all governments and nations of Islam.

This is especially important, and is also the reason for the wide currency given to the statement: It is making something into a matter of religious duty. The term "ghal-o-gham" is an extremely strong and unambivalent one, of which a close equivalent rendering would be "annihilate."

Professor Cole has completely missed or omitted the first reference in last October's speech, skipped to the second one, and flatly misunderstood the third. (The fourth one, about "eliminating the occupying regime," I would say speaks for itself.) He evidently thinks that by "occupation," Khomeini and Ahmadinejad were referring to the Israeli seizure of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. But if this were true, it would not have been going on for "more than fifty years" now, would it? The 50th anniversary of 1967 falls in 2017, which is a while off. What could be clearer than that "occupation regime" is a direct reference to Israel itself?
Ouch. I wish all my rhetoric could be that sharp when discussing phonemes and aphasia.

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