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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Explaining Change

In a recent post, I parenthetically asked "How and why did 'Moslem' change to 'Muslim'? One of our readers offered the explanation (I paraphrase) "Well, 'Muslim' is closer in sound to the original Arabic word than is 'Moslem.'"

I have no doubt s/he is correct about his linguistic facts. Nevertheless, the explanation can be immediately dismissed, without any need for empirical investigation. Why? It attempts to explain a change in one circumstance by citing another condition that did not change. The problem with our reader's explanation is that, true though his point about pronunciation may be, it was just as true during all those years that English speakers said "Moslem." Since it was constant during the duration of each of the conditions, the transformation of the first of which into the second we seek to explain, it cannot possibly be the reason for the change!

The underlying principle, which I would regard as almost to obvious to bother stating, if I did not see it being violated so often, could be stated: Only a change in one condition, and never its constancy, can explain a change in another condition.

To give another example of an explanation ignoring this truth, the likes of which I have heard several times: Real estate prices in, say, New York City shoot upward. A wag is asked why, and he answers, "Well, NYC is the business capital of the world." We can dismiss his explanation without further ado, because NYC was also the business capital of the world before the real estate boom. Some factor must have changed to produce the change in prices.

In the case of the shift from 'Moslem' to Muslim,' I suspect that there was some agitation on the part of some faction to show sensitivity to or appreciation for Arabic culture. Note that there are many, many other instances in which English speakers call some group or nation by a name far more different than 'Moslem' is from 'Muslim,' without any apparent movement to 'correct' the situation -- we might as well call the nation that its residents call 'Deutschland' by the name 'GeneCallahanLand' as 'Germany.'

26 comments:

  1. Anonymous12:34 PM

    I don't think that it was activism that was involved in changing the spelling. Though Arabic only has three vowels, the pronunciation changes depending on the consonants. Using Muslim in English encourages correct pronunciation. Thus using Moslem is alike to using Musulman. It's not incorrect, it just seems uneducated.

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  2. Mr. Callahan, I must disagree. When a word (particularly a proper name) is transliterated from a language with a non-Roman alphabet to English, the transliteration seems to be somewhat a matter of opinion, and the prevalent scholarship does seem to change from time to time. Remember when you could go to Peking to see Mao Tse-Tung, instead of visiting Mao Xedong in Beijing? Then there's that perpetual star of America's Most Wanted, Osama bin Laden (or is it Usama?). So, I think it's at least arguable that the transliteration has changed as a result of an advance -- or maybe a degradation -- in the linguistic scholarship involved.

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  3. "So, I think it's at least arguable that the transliteration has changed as a result of an advance -- or maybe a degradation -- in the linguistic scholarship involved."

    Fine -- you are explaining a change with a change (the scholarship changed). That is a valid explanation.

    So I'm not sure what you are disagreeing with. (As I said, my suggestion about activism was merely a guess, and certainly not something I was claiming to know!)

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  4. "Remember when you could go to Peking to see Mao Tse-Tung, instead of visiting Mao Xedong in Beijing?"

    Just looked this up -- Peking --> Beijing had nothing to do with "scholarship" -- the Chinese name changed! The European named just lagged the change for a while.

    Also, why would proper names be any more problematic to transilterate than ordinary words?

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  5. Oops, Jim, turns out it was Muslim sensivities that were responsible. It seems scholars have said "Muslim" for a long time, but: "Journalists switched to Muslim from Moslem in recent years under pressure from Islamic groups."

    Thanks for "correcting" me, Jim and Anonymous!

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  6. "Also, why would proper names be any more problematic to transilterate than ordinary words?" Because, silly, ordinary words are what they are, whereas proper names are available for embroidery to further bedevil the hated foreigners requiring the transliterations.

    Oh, and, nice principle, Gene.

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  7. Wabulon, where have you been?
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    The posts are missing
    You've stopped pissing
    Way out on the edge of time
    Wabulon, where have you been?
    Wabulon, oh Wabulon!

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  8. Gene, I agree that a simple change in foreign preference can't account for domestic change, but if the change is strongly and consistently expressed, then changes in domestic usage is much more likely (this seems to have been the case with Peking - Beijing as I note below).

    My own guess is that the trigger for our domestic change in usage was the American civil rights movement; my recollection (which has served me wrong in the past) is that our use of "Muslims" began with Nation of Islam, so that the transition has been taking place for quite some time.

    Peking --> Beijing had nothing to do with "scholarship" -- the Chinese name changed!

    Gene, the Chinese name didn't change, merely the system of Romanization used. The Chinese remains "北京" or "Northern Capital" (Nanking/Nanjing means "southern capital", while in Japan Tokyo means "eastern capital" and Kyoto means "capital district"). You might recall that the older name for Peking/Beijing was Peiping (being a Tom, this older name was stuck in my mind); this is made of different characters menang "northern peace". More here.

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  9. Ah, another one of your "quibbles," hey, Tom? And, once again, it turns out to be wrong:

    "Peking is the name of the city according to Chinese Postal Map Romanization, and the traditional customary name for Beijing in English (passports issued by the British Embassy are still printed as being issued by the "British Embassy, Peking"). The term Peking originated with French missionaries four hundred years ago and corresponds to an older pronunciation predating a subsequent sound change in Mandarin from [kʲ] to [tɕ][15]"

    -- Wikipedia entry on Beijing

    But what's really startling is that the exact same change in the pronunciation of Peking/Beijing is described in the very article you linked to to "refute" me. Did you even read that article before you posted it?

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  10. "Gene, I agree that a simple change in foreign preference can't account for domestic change..."

    It's very funny your are "agreeing" with that, because I never said anything of the sort!

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  11. the exact same change in the pronunciation of Peking/Beijing is described in the very article you linked to to "refute" me.

    Who's trying to "refute" you, Gene? I was just trying to clarify that there was no change in the Chinese characters ("北京") for Beijing, merely a change in the official Romanization used for it. My point stands.

    a simple change in foreign preference can't account for domestic change..."

    You are right, that wasn't your point; my bad.

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  12. "Who's trying to "refute" you, Gene?"

    See:
    "Gene, the Chinese name didn't change..."

    You were, Tom.

    Yes, the spelling of the Chinese name didn't change. The pronunciation did. And after quite a lag, the West changed its spelling to reflect that.

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  13. Gene, call it a quibble, a clarification or a refutation, was my point correct, useful or interesting?

    If none of the above, I am happy to retire from the field for a while and lick my wounds quietly, perhaps to venture forth more carefully later.

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  14. No, in fact, your point was wrong, useless, and uninteresting -- you mistook the spelling of a word (the spelling is just a representation of the word) for the word itself, and because the spelling hadn't changed, you thought the word hadn't changed.

    Now, anyone could make such a mistake, but what puzzles me is what would prompt you to come around and "correct" someone else without investigating the issue sufficiently?

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  15. Gene, my you're a prickly one. My initial purpose was simply to advise that the written characters used for the capital of China had not changed and to stress that what changed was the entire system of Romanization by decision of the Chinese government.

    Rather than acknowledge those points, you chose to consider that I was trying to “refute” you and to stress an argument that the pronunciation of Beijing had itself changed. When I chose not to argue your point – it took nothing away from mine – you chose to call my comments “wrong, useless and uninteresting”. Thank you for your graciousness.

    So let me now turn to your point about shifts in pronunciation. First, there are great regional differences in pronunciation in China (not merely Mandarin vs. Cantonese and other Sinitic languages, but also within each language so much so that many speakers of Mandarin cannot understand each other). The government’s choice of Pinyin as the official Romanization of place names brings the names closer to standard Mandarin, but does not reflect pronunciations in other Chinese languages or dialects. One essayist notes “people from Canton say[] Pakking, people from Meihsien say[] Petkin, people from Amoy say[] Pokking, people from Swatow say[] Pakkiii, people from Fuchow say[] Pceyqking, and people from Shanghai and Suchow say[] Paqchin … [A]ll of these pronunciations resemble our Peking more than they do MSM [modern standard Mandarin] Beijing.” http://www.sino-platonic.org/complete/spp019_peking_beijing.pdf

    Second, while there have no doubt been phonological changes in Mandarin and other languages/dialects over the centuries since the West started using “Peking” (see the essay above), it is by no means clear that our use of Peking derived from old Mandarin as opposed to a Southern dialect; while the source I linked to in my first post mentions the possible drift in the pronunciation of Mandarin, it notes that “Place names, in particular, are often based on the usage of the old British-run Chinese postal system, which was based in Hong Kong. This is the probable source of the king of Peking.”.

    Finally, as you acknowledge, there has been no sudden change even in Mandarin in the pronunciation of Peking/Beijing.

    Consequently, while I am happy to acknowledge that you have a point that a shift in the pronunciation in Mandarin may have contributed to the change in Peking to Beijing, each of the three points above reinforce my point that the change in the official Romanized transliteration was primarily a political decision, and certainly no one that reflected a change in Chinese words generally. Rather, it seems that the Red government sitting in Beijing decided to wrest control over the transliteration of their language from the foreigners (English diplomats and sinologists, and the US military) who had devised the prior main transliteration schemes. Not surprisingly, the new "Pinyin" transliteration scheme closely matches the Mandarin pronunciation (the dialect spoken in Beijing) of Chinese place names and other Chinese words (in fact the system is also used in China to teach schoolchildren standard Mandarin), and thus serves to stress the dominance of Beijing and to lend relative weight to Mandarin.

    what puzzles me is what would prompt you to come around and "correct" someone else without investigating the issue sufficiently?

    What prompted me to comment is that I speak, read and write Japanese (which I imagine you may know uses Chinese characters) and am familiar with similar issues regarding the transliteration of Japanese into English (is it Mt. Fuji or Mt. Huzi?), and thought that a few comments on the sudden change in Peking to Beijing might be welcomed.

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  16. Happy Thanksgiving, Tom. I really do enjoy most of your commentary here, but... as far as 'prickly' goes, imagine this little thought experiment: Let's say that for the next three months I come around to your blog and regularly "correct" you with little "quibbles" on matters where you were perfectly right all along -- how "prickly" do you think you might get by the end of that period?

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  17. Or, Tom, look at it this way -- what if, instead of saying, "Gene, the Chinese name didn't change..." You had said, "Gene, I'm not aware of any change -- what one are you talking about?" thereby at least admitting the slight possibility that when I had said that I had "just looked this up," that I had not been hallucinating about just having looked it up?

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  18. "the explanation can be immediately dismissed, without any need for empirical investigation. Why? It attempts to explain a change in one circumstance by citing another condition that did not change"

    That's a rather bold conclusion you draw. Surely it all depends on what background beliefs may be reasonably assumed shared between explainer and explainee (so to speak)?

    More specifically, your claim only works if the background assumption of the explainee is that no change is the default (in the computer sense of the word 'default'). So, if the explainee takes it as a given that 'we' now see 'cultural sensitivity' as an important virtue where 'our' predecessors' did not, citing the (alleged) fact that "'Muslim' is closer in sound to the original Arabic word than is 'Moslem'" surely *does* make for an 'explanation'.

    Note I'm not speaking metaphysics here. For, the important assumption - important, that is, for an outsider trying to understand the explanation, not the explainee herself - is not 'change as such' is the default, but that in this kind of circumstance, this particular change will be assumed. Thus, I make no metaphysical claim for 'change' being more fundamental than 'no change'.

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  19. "So, if the explainee takes it as a given that 'we' now see 'cultural sensitivity' as an important virtue where 'our' predecessors' did not, citing the (alleged) fact that "'Muslim' is closer in sound to the original Arabic word than is 'Moslem'" surely *does* make for an 'explanation'."

    No, what explains the change in pronunciation is the change in cultural sensitivity, not the constant factor of the pronunciation being closer.

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  20. "No, what explains the change in pronunciation is the change in cultural sensitivity, not the constant factor of the pronunciation being closer."

    Gene, you missed at least part of my point, which was to say that what 'explains' is agent-relative, what is an explanatory factor vs. what is a 'mere presupposition' for an 'insider' being potentially different to what is for an 'outsider' (cf. Collingwood on the 'relativity of causes').

    Also, and notwithstanding the fact that, IMO, you are wrong to say the constancy of a state of affairs can never be explanatory, I now don't think the original claim is necessarily positing such a thing anyhow. For, to simply identify how 'Muslim' is closer in sound to the Arabic does not by itself claim it has always been thus - perhaps Arabs in the past pronounced it differently. In itself, the claim, then, is simply that the spelling 'Muslim' is *currently* a better fit to the native pronounciation, bracketting whether it was so in the distant past too. *Potentially*, the 'constant factor' here could thus be the social norm of respecting cultural sensitivities...

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  21. I get what you're saying here, Gene. (I'm referring to the original post, not your sparring in the comments which I just skimmed.)

    It always amazes me how people can confidently explain oil price hikes as due to greedy oil companies, when presumably they weren't altruistic in 2003. And a fortiori when people "explain" that gas stations jack up the prices after a hurricane because people need to drive to work.

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  22. Ah, the Collingwood reference clued me in as to who "Chris" is!

    Chris, I get what you're saying, but I'd still say the fundament in any explanation of change must be another change -- yes, the constant factors will help explain just why the changed factor had the effect it did, but I see them as distinctly secondary in the explanation.

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  23. What, the verbosity of language didn't suggest it...? Anyhow, to stop clogging up the comments here, I've said a bit more about the matter somewhere else: http://singleworldofideas.wordpress.com/2008/11/29/relativity-of-causes/

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