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  • John Stokes

    John Stokes 9:13 am on March 12, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: grammatically judgements, , literature, , newspapers, , text speak, , txt   

    Those narrow-minded, prescriptivist . . . texters? 

    Texting encourages us to be creative and unconstrained with our language, right? Traditional print media, fettered as they are by the bounds of Standard English, promote more rigid acceptability and grammaticality judgments, don’t they? Aren’t those prescriptivist editors and stodgy old style columnists just concerned with dictating how we speak and write?

    Not so says some new research from University of Calgary linguist Joan Lee.

    Lee’s Master’s thesis tested students with varying levels of exposure to text/instant messaging versus traditional media (newspapers, magazines, literature, nonfiction). She hypothesized that those with comparatively more exposure to the free-form nature of ‘text speak’ would be comparatively more lenient in their acceptance of novel and deviate forms of words, both morphological and orthographic. What she found was the opposite.  Students who had spent more time reading books and newspapers were more likely to judge novel words or deviate forms of words as acceptable. Those who had more exposure to text speak tended to be considerably more rigid and constrained in their acceptability judgments.

    This result is moderately mind-boggling. Think of all you know about texting and compare that to your expectations of the effects of traditional media on language use. From texters, we see such classics as ‘wot r u doin 2day‘ and ‘ur stoopid dood‘ and ‘kewl‘ and, perhaps best of all, kthxbai‘. There’s a bunch of research discussing why texters say and spell things like this. In the preview of her thesis linked above, Lee cites one such study that says people are trying to be playful, spontaneous, socially interactive, and even creative. Compare this to what you read in the New York Times, where there’s actually someone whowrites articles nitpicking the grammar of other traditional-print-media articles, including sometimes the NYTimes itself!

    I haven’t read the whole 150-page thesis yet, but it seems there are several plausible explanations for what’s going on. One idea is that for a novel form to be acceptable to texters, it must be a novel form commonly seen in text speak. So while there may not be the same types of grammatical constraints, there are conventions that are respected nonetheless. Or perhaps text speak is still free-form and not subject to constraints in the ways that traditional media might be, but free-formedness doesn’t actually equate with creativity. So while you’re tossing standardized grammar out the window, you’re not necessarily looking for the most precise, novel, creative word to express a given idea. You may be using words with odd morphology and spelling, but you’re probably not reaching deep into the dictionary to find those words. This means that readers of text speak don’t often see words they’re unfamiliar with and thus don’t often have to figure what those unfamiliar words might mean.

    If, on the other hand, you’re a big-time reader of traditional print media, you probably encounter unusual words all the time. To figure out what they mean, you either infer their meaning from context or use your knowledge of productive morphology like -ity or -ness. This could explain why texters are ok with ur andkthxbai and wot, but not some of the novel forms that Lee proposed in her study, like canality andgroundness. If you read and don’t text, the textisms may be ridiculous to you, but you might be able to come up with a meaning for canality and groundness that makes sense, and thus conclude they’re acceptable words.

    I’m sure much more will be said on this front in the near future. For now, I think it’s enough to note this interesting bit of research and sign off — TTYL, folks.

     
  • Sandeep Prasanna

    Sandeep Prasanna 12:38 pm on March 9, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , law school, may, , parsing, shall, , united states   

    Parsing the Constitution 

    Some of the most delightful moments for an ex-linguistics student in law school are when legal analysis clearly intersects with linguistic analysis. That connection was part of what drove me to come to law school. This semester, for me, that close relationship has appeared most often in Contracts and Constitutional Law, two fields which depend heavily on the parsing of text to divine original and apparent meaning.

    Seth Barrett Tillman, currently a lecturer in the Department of Law at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth (Ollscoil na hÉireann, Má Nuad) and previously an attorney and law professor in the United States, has written extensively on the interpretation of clauses in the U.S. Constitution.

    In a piece that appeared in the American Journal of Legal History in 2010, Nora and Seth Tillman put forth the argument that our modern understanding of the words shallmay, and will in the Constitution are not consistent with their usage in the late 18th century, when it was written.

    [W]here a word once had multiple meanings, but only one variant is now remembered and understood, we may be seriously mistaken when we ascribe near certainty to our understanding of how a constitutional term was used.

    As we understand it, prevailing eighteenth century American usage, distinguished shall (indicating futurity) from will (indicating the emphatic tense), as it is still spoken in Anglo-English. Whereas today, we Americans conjugate will as “I will, you will, he will,” and shall as “I shall, you shall, he shall,” in the eighteenth century, the dominant American usage (following southern English standards) was will (Iwill, you shall, he shall) and shall (I shall, you will, he will).

    [W]e suggest that standards … may have been of import to [the drafters], and, for that reason, knowledge of those (long moribund) standards may be a useful tool with regard to determining original public meaning …

    It’s a short, fascinating piece. Read it here: Nora Tillman & Seth Barrett Tillman, A Fragment on Shall and May50 AM. J. LEGAL HIST. 453 (2010). (Opens PDF.)

    Tillman also debated Northwestern Law Professor Steven G. Calabresi in 2008 in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review PENNumbra. Tillman argues that the Constitution did not require Barack Obama to relinquish his Senate seat upon inauguration as President.

    He bases this argument over the precise definition of the word “officer” and whether the President falls into that category, drawing upon Article II, § 4 (the Impeachment Clause), Article II, § 3 (the Commissions Clause) and Article I, § 9, clause 8 (the Foreign Emoluments Clause) to make his point.

    Calabresi rebuts, noting that the rub for Tillman’s argument rests in Article I, § 6, clause 2.

    A fun read. Find it here: Seth Barrett Tillman & Steven G. Calabresi, Debate, The Great Divorce: The Current Understanding of Separation of Powers and the Original Meaning of the Incompatibility Clause, 157 U. PA. L. REV. PENNumbra 134 (2008). (Opens PDF.)

     
  • Sandeep Prasanna

    Sandeep Prasanna 2:10 am on March 1, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: american english, ap stylebook, , differences between british and american english, , style guide, toward, towards   

    Toward(s?) a better understanding 

    Hi all, sorry about the delay in getting new posts out to you. Let’s get to it:

    There are many well-documented differences between British and American English. Even those unacquainted with linguistics can point out some of the more obvious ones: color/colour, apartment/flat, spilled/spilt, and plenty more. Lynne Murphy, an American linguist abroad in the UK, maintains the wonderful blog Separated by a Common Language and writes about how language differs across the pond.

    But some American-versus-British rules are less readily apparent. For example, for years, I struggled with whether to write “toward” or “towards.” A few years ago, Grammar Girl taught me that the rule was simple: “toward” is used in the US and “towards” is used in the UK.

    The British newspaper The Guardian writes in its Style Guide:

    -ward, wards. Contemporary usage … suggests that when it is an adjective a word like upward, downward, backward or forward should not end in s, but when it is an adverb it should.

    I checked The Economist‘s Style Guide and found that it was silent on the issue, but it did write “forward” rather than “forwards” twice within the Style Guide itself. The Economist is published out of London and two-thirds of its journalists are based there, so I wonder whether there is or isn’t internal consistency on the use of the -ward(s) suffix.

    According to a commenter on the Grammar Girl website, “toward” is correct AP style. (The AP Stylebook doesn’t have free access, so I can’t confirm.)

    I wondered why we had that difference and whether it had always been that way. So I checked out the Google Ngram data for both American and British corpora. The data ended up raising more questions than it answered, so I’m hoping for more well-informed readers to suggest explanations for the patterns below.

    Here is the frequency of “toward” versus “towards” in British English from 1800 to 2000.

    It’s clear that “towards” has always been favored over “toward” in Britain during this period. There does seem to be a slight shift after 1980, with “toward” becoming more popular than “towards.”

    Here is the American data from the same period, which is more interesting:

    It appears that “toward” supplanted “towards” as the preferred spelling around 1900. The data show a steady decline in the frequency of “towards” starting around 1840. This trend is strange: why did the spelling preference change at all?

    First, a little background: the Oxford English Dictionary regards “toward” and “towards” as variants of the same word. Their etymology is closely related. Similarly, the OED considers other -ward(s) words as variants of each other as well: e.g., forward(s), backward(s), onward(s). It also notes that while there is no difference in definition between -ward and -wards, there may be a slight semantic difference that ascribes more of a sense of “movement” to -wards. This slight difference is disputed, even by the OED authors.

    The OED says:

    In English the history of -wards as an [adverbial] suffix is identical with that of -ward … ; beside every adv. in -ward there has always existed (at least potentially) a parallel formation in -wards, and vice versa. The two forms are so nearly synonymous … that the choice between them is mostly determined by some notion of euphony in the particular context; some persons, apparently, have a fixed preference for the one or the other form.

    It then goes on to observe the preference of Americans for -ward and Brits for -wards.

    Two possible explanations for the American switch from “towards” to “toward” popped into my head at first.

    The first was that Noah Webster’s dictionary, which set out determinedly American spellings for the nascent United States, expressed a preference for “toward.” His dictionary was first published in 1828. I couldn’t find a reliable online source for his original text, so maybe a reader with access to the text can clarify whether this is true. I’m still skeptical whether this is what drove the change. More famous changes like “colour” to “color” happened quicker, according to Google Ngram.

    Another possibility depends on the OED’s observation that “the choice between [toward and towards] is mostly determined by some notion of euphony.”

    According to The Cambridge History of the English Language: English in North America, rhotic accents (accents that pronounce the R in, e.g., “father”) became prestigious in the United States around the 1870s. It may have simply been more euphonic (more pleasing to the ear) for rhotic speakers to pronounce “toward” rather than “towards” — the former has just two consonants in a cluster, whereas the latter would have a three-consonant cluster, making it more difficult to pronounce. This, too, seems tenuous, because written language changes slower than spoken language and Google Ngram depends on data culled from written texts.

    I can’t seem to think of any other explanations, but I encourage readers to share their thoughts below.

     
  • John Stokes

    John Stokes 11:26 am on February 7, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: 9th circuit, California, , , gay marriage, gay rights, , prop 8, proposition 8   

    Prop 8: The importance of being ‘married’ 

    The 9th Circuit ruled today that California’s Proposition 8 was unconstitutional, saying that it violated the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. For a summary of the ruling and a link to the opinion itself, check out SCOTUSblog.

    Most of us probably remember that Prop 8 was the anti-gay-marriage initiative that California adopted a couple years ago. More specifically, though, Prop 8 was a public initiative that amended the California Constitution to prevent same-sex couples from obtaining the official designation of ‘married.’ It left in tact all of the rights afforded to gay and lesbian couples — the same rights that married opposite-sex couples are entitled to — but it forbade them officially to call these relationships ‘marriage.’

    One might argue–as indeed the proponents of Prop 8 did–that if none of the substantive rights of gay couples were taken away, the lack of official designation shouldn’t be a constitutional problem. Having the rights, after all, is more important than what they are called. But the 9th Circuit disagreed:

    All that Proposition 8 accomplished was to take away from same-sex couples the right to be granted marriage licenses and thus legally to use the designation of ‘marriage,’ which symbolizes state legitimization and societal recognition of their committed relationships. Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite sex couples.

    -  Perry v. Brown. 9th Circuit 10-16696. (from Judge Reinhardt, writing for the panel that decided the case)

    In other words, what you call something does matter. And this is a powerful idea. The 9th Circuit says it doesn’t care if you leave the substantive rights in tact; it doesn’t matter if you maintain all the other entitlements that come along with the word ‘marriage.’ No– certain words have such special significance, such special power, that to deny access to their use alone is enough to violate a right.

    So indeed – the 9th Circuit’s ruling came down to the fundamental importance of being, specifically and officially, ‘married.’

     
  • John Stokes

    John Stokes 12:34 pm on January 31, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: chad ochocinco, , inherit, magic, , , , nobility, titles   

    Who you callin’ Beezow Doo-Doo Zoppittybop-Bop-Bop? 

    Beezow Doo-Doo Zopittybop-Bop-Bop is the name of a man who was arrested recently in Wisconsin. Yes, that is his legal name. Considering that for much of history, a person’s name was of such weighty import as to be the key to their “power” (in one way or another), Mr. Zopittybop-Bop-Bop is a sign of just how far that history is gone.

    As Wikipedia tells us, certain cultures throughout history have thought that something’s name was so important that it was actually a “separate manifestation” of that thing. If you knew the name of a demon, you could exorcise it from a possessed person. If you invoked the name of a god or another spirit, you somehow impregnated your words with their power. If you knew the name of a person, that person was under your control.

    Most of us probably think this is silly today. But given the names of these legal figures, maybe they were on to something with the idea that a person’s name can bear influence on the course of their life.

    Learned Hand — Every law student comes to know the great Judge Learned Hand. He’s widely considered to be one of, if not the, greatest judge never to become a Supreme Court justice, and his formulation of the test for whether or not a person has been negligent dominates the tort law scene to this day.

    William Wayne Justice — Judge Justice is famous (or infamous) for his role in what’s come to be known as the Texas Prison Litigation. This was a court battle that raged for two decades about the conditions in the Texas prison system. Justice dictated that the system be improved in order to meet minimum Constitutional standards, but his role (the role of Justice, that is) was considered by many to be ‘activist’ beyond what is proper for a judge.

    Then again, maybe those names are just a happy coincidence. After all, someone, sometime was bound to have a name that coincided with their profession. Either way, in many other societies, your name had an entirely different type of influence on the course of your life. It’s not that if someone knew your name, they had power over you — it’s that if you had the right name, it meant you had power over others. I’m talking about titles of nobility – land, power, and status conferred by inheritance. No mysticism is needed to understand the importance of names in this type of society. With one type of name, you were guaranteed riches and power as a matter of right; with another,well, tough luck.

    Today, there can be no question that one’s name is less important than it was during these other periods in history. This decline is probably the subject of some very interesting historical and sociological literature, but it seems likely that the end of hereditary ruling and aristocratic classes indeed had something to do with it. If there’s no longer a hereditary aristocracy, whereby your name entitles you to certain lands and status, it’s less important to be associated with a particular genetic line. (Interestingly, the US Constitution goes so far as to prohibit the federal and state governments from granting titles of nobility.)

    Even so, one would not expect names to become entirely irrelevant (just ask a Kennedy or a Rockefeller). But, taking Mr. Zoppitybop-Bop-Bop as an example, it has become increasingly popular to forsake the name of one’s ancestors and adopt an appellation that’s slightly less traditional. Here are a couple of interesting examples from the sports world:

    Ron Artest –> Metta World Peace.  World Peace is an NBA player on the Los Angeles Lakers. His choice of names is interesting, as over the course of his career he has garnered more than his fair share of flagrant and technical fouls, and he has generally become reputed for his less-than-peaceful play.

    Chad Johnson –> Chad Ochocinco. Chad Johnson is a renowned wide receiver with great talent and a huge mouth. He is now on the roster of the New England Patriots, where he’s had a less-than-stellar season. The name that’s currently on the back of his jersey, you guessed it, is the Spanglish translation of his jersey number – 85.

    Jon Koppenhaver –> War Machine.  This guy is a mixed martial artist who liked his nickname so much that he legally took it. Haven’t seen him in the Octagon recently? Well, that’s probably because he’s been in jail for the last three years…

    Lloyd B. Free –> World B. Free.   Lloyd came into the NBA to play for the 76ers in the mid ’70s. This name change is particularly cool because his actual nickname was World. He apparently got the nickname for having a 44 inch vertical that allowed him to do a 360 dunk (back in the days before that was a common feat among NBA players). So he went ahead and made it official–how convenient his middle initial!

    Often times, these names smack of caprice and/or arrogance. But as a form of self-expression, changing one’s name can in theory be extremely meaningful. There’s literally no better way of identifying yourself with, say, World Peace than to actually make it your identity (though as I mentioned above, I’m not sure I buy that from Ron Artest).

    And dropping one’s inherited name (though most often done in favor of names less crazy than these examples) is one of the strongest forms of dissociation available to us. Today we take that to mean dissociation from one’s family for one reason or another. But this is actually something the ancients also recognized: by changing your name, you could avoid an ugly fate associated with your inherited name. An interesting idea for sure — I just hope Mr. Zoppitybob-Bop-Bop’s children get that message before it’s too late.

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 9:30 am on January 21, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: affirmation, bible, britain, christianity, court, , i swear to tell the truth, , islam, justice, , , , religion, sharia, swear   

    I swear (affirm?) that I will tell the truth 

    I was watching a Kannada soap opera last night (because I have apparently become an elderly Indian woman as of late) and a scene in a courtroom caught my attention. One of the characters was being questioned, and before she gave her testimony she was asked to declare her intention to speak the truth.

    ಸತ್ಯವನ್ನು ಹೇಳುತ್ತೇನೆ , ಸತ್ಯವನಲ್ಲದೆ ಬೇರೆ ಏನು ಹೇಳುವುದಿಲ್ಲ , ನಾ ಹೇಳುವುದೆಲ್ಲ ಸತ್ಯ |

    satyavannu hēḷuttēne, satyavanallade bērēnu hēḷuvudilla, nānu hēḷuvudella satya

    I will speak the truth; I will not speak anything that isn’t true; everything I say is the truth.

    That segment caught my attention for a couple of reasons.

    First, that the declaration was different from our familiar U.S. oath, “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”

    But of course it wouldn’t be the same. While an objectively large number of people in India use English as a second or third language (some 125 millionaccording to the latest census, nearly half the population of the United States), that still only comes out to about 10 or 11 percent of the country’s population.

    It would be fundamentally unjust for court proceedings to be carried out in a language with which the parties were unfamiliar — even though that probably happens regularly, since there are only (!) 22 scheduled languages of India and hundreds more unrecognized dialects and minority languages.

    So, okay, the witness’s declaration was taken in Kannada. The action takes place in the state of Karnataka, where the two official languages are Kannada and English, so a witness could plausibly use either language. That makes sense. (Plus, it was a Kannada soap.)

    Another thing that caught my attention was that there was no religious sentiment expressed in the declaration. India is a highly religious country, with upwards of three-fourths of the country declaring that religion is important to them. In the U.S., that rate is a little lower, at 65%, but the most famous form of our witness declaration here does explicitly invoke God — “… so help me God,” a line that is usually delivered, scripted, by court bailiffs, along with a Bible.

    In American law, an oath specifically references God. The OED agrees: an oath is specifically a type of declaration that “invokes God, a god, or other object of reverence.” Those who don’t want to make an oath instead provide an “affirmation,” which starts with “I affirm…” instead of “I swear…” and omits the reference to God. Affirming is referenced four times in the U.S. Constitution as an alternative to swearing, and Britain has allowed affirmations instead of swearing since 1695.

    Regardless of whether you swear or affirm, if you lie, you can be charged with perjury, a serious crime.

    Other declarations abroad
    In Britain, oaths are given slightly differently from the American version:

    I swear by [Almighty God/Name of God/name of the holy scripture] that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

    Affirmations in Britain require several more hedges than an oath, perhaps because of a cultural suspicion against people who affirm rather than swear: “I swear to tell the truth…” is such a well-known phrase that any deviance from that — regardless of how legal it is — can be regarded with suspicion.

    In Britain, one doesn’t simply “affirm” — one solemnly and sincerely and truly declares and affirms:

    I do solemnly and sincerely and truly declare and affirm that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

    In the U.S., one can simply affirm. Atheist and former Governor of California Culbert Olson, in office from 1939 to 1943, famously said to California Supreme Court Justice Waste, “God [can't] help me at all, and there isn’t any such person.” He chose to say “I will affirm,” rather than “I swear” during his oath of office.

    According to one of my friends in France (hi, Benoît!), the common declaration given by witnesses in France is:

    Je jure de parler sans haine et sans crainte, de dire toute la vérité, rien que la vérité.

    I swear to speak without anger and without fear, to say the entire truth, nothing but the truth.

    My friend writes, “Because France is a non-religious country, there isn’t any trace of God in any institutions.” I’m sure truth is more nuanced than that, but the French people are certainly less religious than the United States. But the word – jurer – used in the oath is similar to “swear.” Jurer usually carries the same valence as the English “swear” (in that it has religious undertones) and it also has the same secondary meaning of “to curse.” But jurer can also translate to “certify” or “pledge,” words that carry no religious undertones in English.

    Another one of my friends, a walking encyclopedia of Islam (hi, Ahmad!), gave me an overview of Muslim declarations of truthfulness. In many majority-Muslim countries, cases that are tried under Shari’ah law (today, usually family law disputes) require an oath to be given by witnesses. However, unlike Western civil courts, the oath is traditionally given after testimony is given. Once the judge collects all the testimony, he asks the parties to swear on the Qur’an or by God that what they have said is true, or else bringing upon them divine wrath. (Incidentally, this traditional oath appeared in the recent Golden Globe-winning Iranian film A Separation, which I highly recommend.)

    Back home

    The U.S. government is explicitly areligious, but a profession of faith is built directly into the common understanding of court procedure. Of course, there’s no law requiring nonbelievers to swear. But it’s undeniably unfair when free deviance from a set religious phrase, scripted and delivered by a court’s bailiff, could color a jury or judge’s perception of a witness. We shouldn’t be suspicious of someone who affirms more than someone who swears, but many of us are.

    Eliminating “I swear…” probably won’t help, but maybe raising the profile of “I affirm…” as an option for nonbelievers (and even believers who object to swearing in a civil setting) will help make the process fairer.

     
  • Sandeep Prasanna

    Sandeep Prasanna 9:34 am on January 17, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , precision   

    The English literature academy’s glorification of “elegant variation” in which one attempts to vary one’s nouns and adjectives when referring repeatedly to the same thing is anathema to the law.

    Kuney and Lloyd. Contracts: Transactions and Litigation. 2011: 40.
     
  • John Stokes

    John Stokes 6:15 pm on January 8, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: E.B. White, , , , quote, , taxes, White   

    Advice from E.B. White (especially good for aspiring lawyers…) 

    “Some day I mean to have a fireside chat with my government, that we may come to know each other a little better, for it is by a better understanding of the other’s traits that a government and its citizens must fulfill their mutual destinies. In my chat I want particularly to take up the first sentence under Section G of Form 1040, which is called ‘Items exempt from tax’ and which starts this way:

     ’The following items are partially exempt from tax: (a) Amounts received (other than amounts paid by reason of the death of the insured and interest payments on such amounts and other than amounts received as annuities) under a life insurance or endowment contract, but if such amounts (when added to amounts received before the taxable year under such contract) exceed the aggregate premiums or consideration paid (whether or not paid during the taxable year) then the excess shall be included in gross income. . . .’

    I want to ask my government what it thinks would become of me and my family if I were to write like that. Three sets of parentheses in one sentence! I’d be on relief inside of a month.

    That sentence, above, was obviously written by a lawyer in one of his flights of rhetorical secrecy. There isn’t any thought or idea that can’t be expressed in a fairly simple declarative sentence, or in a series of fairly simple declarative sentences. The contents of Section G of Form 1040, I am perfectly sure, could be stated so that the average person could grasp it without suffering dizzy spells. I could state it plainly myself if I could get some lawyer to disentangle it for me first. I’ll make my government a proposition: for a five-dollar bill (and costs), I will state it plainly.”

    -E.B. White. “Fro-Joy.” One Man’s Meat.

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 4:32 pm on January 7, 2012 Permalink | Reply  

    thediacritics.com 

    Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve reached a milestone. Our domain is now officiallyhttp://www.thediacritics.com!

    Subscribers, don’t worry–you don’t need to change anything. Also, our WordPress domain will redirect you to the new site automatically.

    Oh, and new posts to come soon!

    -John and Sandeep

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 1:19 pm on January 3, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , cyrillic, dear leader, dprk, hangul, hanja, hanzi, kim il-sung, kim jong-il, kim jong-il looking at things, korean, , naming conventions, north korea, russia   

    What’s in a Kim? 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    I’ve been fascinated by North Korea’s late Dear Leader Kim Jong-il for a while now — not just because he liked to look at things or because he died, although many people agree that those were two of his more positive qualities.

    Kim Jong-il looking at a leaflet.

    The reclusive state that he, and his father before him, maintained affected the development of the Korean language in the North by setting forth new standards (via official pronouncements in 1964, 1966, and 1987), which solidified differences between the Seoul and Pyongyang dialects. And while general daily vocabulary is based on a pre-partition standard, South Korean uses a lot of foreign borrowings from languages like English, whose influence is all but absent in the North.

    I was also surprised to learn that Kim Jong-il was born in Siberia with the name Yuri Irsenovich Kim. I couldn’t find any information about that discrepancy, so I did a little sleuthing.

    Kim Jong-il looking at names

    Korean naming conventions place the family name (here, Kim) at the beginning of the name. The name 김, Kim (pronounced /kim/, often mistakenly heard as “gim” because the /k/ is unaspirated) is the most common surname in Korea, with nearly 22% of Koreans named Kim. The name is derived from the Chinese hanzi (called hanja in Korean) 金, jīn, which means gold. In fact, nearly all popular Korean names derive their meaning from Chinese, and are often written in hanzi as well.

    The second part of Kim Jong-il’s name is derived from 正, zhèng (hanja), written 정 jeong (hangul), which means “straight” or “correct.” The third part is derived from 日, rì (hanja), written 일 il (hangul), which means “day.”

    Kim Jong-il named his sons using a generational name, keeping the character 정 jeong in all of them — Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-chul, and finally Kim Jong-un (the current Supreme Leader), although he didn’t do the same for his eldest child, a daughter, Kim Sul-song. Kim Jong-il’s father, Kim Il-sung, kept the character 일 il in his son’s name.

    That all does little, of course, to illuminate Kim Jong-il’s Russian name, Yuri Irsenovich Kim. For that we turn to the Slavs, whose naming conventions differ widely from the Koreans.

    Who is Kim Ir Sen?

    Russians place the family name (Kim) at the end. For males, the second name is a patronym, which means that it’s derived from the father’s name. If Yuri’s father’s name was Ivan, then his second name would be Ivanovich, like cosmonaut Yuri Ivanovich Malechenko. If Vladimir’s father’s name was Vladimir, then his second name would be Vladimirovich, like Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

    So this means that Kim Jong-il’s father’s name was Irsen, right? Right.

    Wait, what? Sort of.

    Kim Jong-il’s father, as we all know, was Kim Il-sung, the Eternal President of North Korea. In Russian, his name was transliterated Ким Ир Сен, Kim Ir Sen. That form is the most commonly used Cyrillic transliteration of Kim Il-sung’s name. However, under the standardized Kontsevich system of transliterating Korean hangul into Cyrillic, his name would be spelled Ким Ильсо́н, Kim Il’són. The Kontsevich system is the main system for Korean transliteration in Russia, but proper nouns such as names are still often treated differently. (Indians can relate to this discrepancy — for example, while my name would be transliterated saṃdīp, it’s most commonly written in English as Sandeep.)

    What a happy brutal autocrat!

    The border between the liquids /l/ and /ɾ/ is frail in Korean, and a word spelled using /l/ can be pronounced as /ɾ/ depending on its position between vowels or at the end of words. However, the “l” in Il-sung is not located in one of those places. Instead, the Russian transliteration of Il-sung as Ир Сен Ir Sen seems to be a sound change that occurred in Russian, not Korean. I’m not familiar with Russian phonology, so maybe somebody can explain in the comments why his name is spelled with “р” r, not “л” l.

    But… Yuri?

    The name “Yuri” is derived from the Greek word γεωργός geōrgos, which roughly means farmer. It’s unlikely that naming Kim Jong-il “Yuri” was an attempt to translate “Jong-il” into Russian, because the component parts of Jong-il translate into “straight” and “day.” Maybe Kim Il-sung just really liked the name Yuri for his son.

    Yuri is a nice name, although if Kim Jong-il had kept it, he probably would have been teased on the playground — Yuri (유리, transliterated yuli but pronounced /ju:ɾi/) is a girl’s name in Korea.

    And nobody — nobody – teases the Dear Leader.

    So there you have it — a “look” at Korean and Russian names. Kim Jong-il — sorry, I mean Yuri Irsenovich Kim — would have been proud:

    Yuri Kim looking at jam.

     
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