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  • The Diacritics 9:00 am on December 30, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ape, cormac mccarthy, etymology, evolutionary anthropology, , monkey,   

    Aping McCarthy 

    [This is a guest post from my friend and former research colleague Joel Bray, a junior at Duke studying evolutionary anthropology. He is recently back from projects and adventures in Uganda and Madagascar and writes about his experiences and all things primate here. -S.]

    I just finished Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece, Blood Meridian, an epic tale about the depravity and brutality of the American Old West, revolving around a teenage boy who joins a band of Native American scalp hunters. An unpleasant read, to say the least.

    I was struck, however, as any good primatologist should be, by McCarthy’s obsession with the word “ape.” He uses it not once, not twice, but nine times throughout the story to describe the primitiveness and wretchedness of humanity. For example:

    • “Men whose speech sounds like the grunting of apes.”
    • “He turned to the men and smiled and they once again began to hoot and to pummel one another like apes.”
    • “They were half naked and they sucked their teeth and snuffled and stirred and picked at themselves like apes.”
    • “…where the company sat among the rocks without fire or bread or camaraderie any more than banded apes.”

    The frequent use of “ape” got me thinking about the word’s etymology and current popular usage. I did some browsing on the web, and it appears that the word can be traced to pre-12th century and has its roots in Middle English, from the Old English apa. Its origin is uncertain, possibly alluding to animal chatter, but it seems to have first referred to all primates and was a synonym for “monkey.” Since medieval times, it was believed that apes were prone to imitative human behavior, and the word was used to describe a “fool,” leading to the modern, secondary definitions of “ape” as a mimic, or large uncouth person. Recent cognitive studies suggest, however, that humans are in fact the expert imitators, which explains why you see children mimicking ape behavior at the zoo more often than the reverse.

    As the use of “ape” among the public changed over the centuries, so did the biological definition evolve over time with advances in our scientific understanding of primates. For a long period, and even among some holdouts today, it was used to describe all members of Hominoidea except humans. Homo sapiens remained exceptional until recently, when they were finally placed within the other apes — chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans, and gibbons — a victory for monophyly (grouping all descendants of a common ancestor together).

    Colloquially, “ape” and monkey” continue to be used interchangeably to the constant vexation of primatologists (shortcut: monkeys have tails, apes do not). From personal experience, if and when people do differentiate, “monkey” simply refers to all primates while “ape” retains some specificity. To be fair, even “monkey” refers to a paraphyletic group (a group descended from a common ancestor, but not including all descendants) and thus is not reflective of true evolutionary history, but that’s a discussion for another day.

    An amateur investigation at Google Translator suggests that most languages (Spanish, Dutch, French, Korean, Portuguese, Arabic, German – exceptions include Japanese and Chinese) do not even distinguish between the two and use the same word or character for both. For example, in Spanish “mono” means both “monkey” and “ape,” although due to English influence there seems to be a movement for the less-used “simio” to signify “ape,” though traditionally it too refers to both. Complementing this usage is the phrase “grandes simios,” or great apes, which parallels the English in referring to all apes except gibbons.

    Other languages likely have similar etymological histories. However, since English is the modern language of science, it may have been the prime mover in officially separating the two words and their meanings. That being said, I’d be curious to know if languages from regions of the world that are home to both apes and monkeys (e.g. equatorial Africa, Indonesia) have historically had more subtle terminology to describe them. [The English word “orangutan” comes from the Indonesian/Malay words orang hutan, forest man, suggesting that Indonesians viewed orangutans as more similar to humans. The word kera is translated as both “monkey” and “ape,” but in a scientific context monyet is “monkey” and kera is “ape.” –ed.]

    Ultimately, with such a complicated and dynamic etymological and evolutionary history, it’s no surprise that the public can hardly keep up with the wishes of primatologists on what to call the primates. I won’t give up the good fight, but I realize that it’s pretty much a big deal to fewer than a hundred people on the entire planet.

    Thinking back to the connotations in Blood Meridian though, I would like to know how other people perceive the word “ape” and what it suggests to them. So I ask you: does ape make you think smart, thoughtful, creative? Or primitive, nonhuman, backwards? Do you imagine monkeys? Savages? King Kong? Yourself?

  • The Diacritics 7:00 am on October 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: congo, country, definite articles, , etymology, geography, , iraq, nation, popular usage, rule, the congo, the ukraine, ukraine, usage   

    Indefinite definite articles: the Ukraine or Ukraine? 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    In 2007, Miss Teen South Carolina embarrassed herself in the Miss Teen USA pageant by giving a famously terrible answer to a simple question. Buried somewhere in the maze of her response were two references to Iraq, except in both instances she referred to the country as “the Iraq.” There are plenty of things wrong with what she said, but calling “the Iraq” was especially (and laughably) jarring to me. We just don’t call Iraq “the Iraq.”

    But why? Is it really so simple, that we just don’t add the definite article “the” to Iraq? There are innumerable other examples of countries that don’t take a definite article, of course. All of which would sound ridiculous with a definite article: “the France,” “the Greece,” “the India.”

    But there are a handful of countries which do take definite articles. There are two main patterns.

    The Gambia.

    The Gambia.

    (1) It seems that many countries whose names derive from important geographical features, such as “the Philippines” (islands) or “the Gambia” (river) or “the Netherlands” (lowlands) take a definite article. (Consider similar formations in the names of solely geographical features, such as “the Amazon” or “the Sahara.”)

    (2) Then there’s the United States of America and the United Kingdom, which take a definite article because the countries’ names describes their political organization. (This becomes clearer when you consider similar formations in many countries’ official names, such as “the Republic of China” [Taiwan] or “the Russian Federation” or “the United Mexican States.”)

    Mexico map.

    The United Mexican States.

    For most countries’ names in English, the presence or lack of a definite article is settled. But there are still other conflicts about whether to use “the.”

    (The) Ukraine

    Consider (the) Ukraine. Both “the Ukraine” and “Ukraine” are used in English. Personally, I’ve always used “the Ukraine,” but we’ll see below that my usage is likely misguided.

    A commonly accepted etymology of the word Україна (Ukrayina) is “borderland.” Based on this etymology, the “geographical feature” rule described above could explain the presence of the definite article in “the Ukraine.” But there’s still some level of uncertainty about Ukraine’s etymology — some believe it to be an ancient ethnonym of the Ukranian people, among other etymologies — so that rule doesn’t seem very persuasive here. The geographical rule for definite articles only seems to be useful when the country’s name is obviously referring to a geographical feature. We don’t use definite articles with countries whose names now have tenuous connections to geographical features — like India (the Indus River) or Indonesia (“Indian archipelago”).

    The use of “the Ukraine” stirs up intense passion among Ukranians, in fact. Some argue that the systematic use of “the Ukraine,” especially before its independence from the U.S.S.R., was used by English-language authors and journalists to subjugate the people and nation of Ukraine by demoting it to a mere region, a mere feature of the larger U.S.S.R.

    A similar issue has raised hackles in the Ukranian language itself. The use of the preposition na “on,” before “Ukraine,” has been scrapped for v “in,” within Ukraine. According to this site, the Ukranian government requested the change in 1993. Russian prescriptivists, quoted on the same site, continue to demand na, based on “tradition”:

    Литературная норма не может измениться в одночасье из-за каких-либо политических процессов.

    “Literary norms cannot change overnight because of any political process.”

    Some have pointed out that the style guides of many newspapers and magazines, including The Washington Post and The Economist, have explicitly required the use of “Ukraine” rather than “the Ukraine” after its independence. (I don’t have a copy of these style guides, so I can’t confirm, but there are secondary sources online which mention the shift.)

    Ukraine map.

    Ukraine or The Ukraine?

    I did a Google Ngram search to see the frequency of the phrases “in Ukraine” and “in the Ukraine” over the last 50 years in books. There’s a definite shift around 1993, soon after Ukranian independence (and the same year that the Ukranian government requested the preposition shift from “on” to “in”) from “the Ukraine” (red) to “Ukraine” (blue). Click the image below for a larger version.

    Similar data for the phrases “from the Ukraine” (red) and “from Ukraine” (blue).

    As someone who has been using “the Ukraine” for the past decade, I guess I’ll have to make a shift to the apparently more acceptable “Ukraine.”

    (The) Congo

    But what about the Democratic Republic of the Congo? (The) Congo’s name refers to the Congo River, which itself refers to the pre-colonial Kongo Kingdom. Some sources use “the Congo” whereas others use “Congo.” The official name of (the) Congo uses a definite article: “the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” similar to other definite-articled nations like “the Republic of the Gambia” (the Gambia) and unlike nations such as “the Republic of South Africa” (merely South Africa).

    People I know who have traveled often to (the) Congo, including my undergraduate advisor Brian Hare, call it “Congo.” News outlets, such as CNN, also use “Congo.” But check out these Google Ngram graphs.

    “From Congo” versus “from the Congo” usage from 1800-2000. “From the Congo” (red) is significantly more popular.

    Similar data for “in Congo” (blue) versus “in the Congo” (red).

    Perhaps the continued popularity of the phrase “the Congo” is due to the recurrence of the imagery of the Congo rainforest (a geographical feature) over references to the actual nation. My advisor Brian Hare’s globetrotting author wife Vanessa Woods wrote a book about bonobos (who live almost exclusively within [the] Congo) and the subtitle of the book uses the phrase “the Congo.” But was that usage referring to the country or to the rainforest? It’s debatable.

    So while Miss Teen South Carolina was clearly veering from popular usage when she called Iraq “the Iraq,” other cases aren’t so clear. It’s worth noting that some languages draw a bright line — French, for example, tacks on a definite article to all non-neuter-gender countries: even though “the France,” “the Greece,” and “the India” might sound strange to us, “la France,” “la Grèce,” and “l’Inde” are par for the course in France.

    • John Cowan 12:31 pm on October 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      The official name of the U.S. is “United States of America”, no article, though no one ever uses it that way. Similarly, the United Church of Christ doesn’t use an article officially.

    • lynneguist 3:29 pm on October 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      There’s also some variation on this kind of thing between British and American English. I did a post on that a long time ago, if you’re interested: http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2007/04/gambia-lebanon-etc.html

      • The Diacritics 4:00 pm on October 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Thanks for sending this along! I’m curious whether it’s Americans or Brits who are more concerned about the “colonialist” undertones of using “the.” -S

    • Alex 8:25 pm on October 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      In German, it’s “der Irak” and “der Iran”. German doesn’t tend to use definite articles for countries but those two are generally accepted exceptions.

    • Irena Bell 11:00 am on October 9, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Great article ! ‘ Ukraine ‘ it is !

    • stuartnz 5:13 am on October 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      The use of the article is a feature of NZE when it comes to the two main islands of Aotearoa. Native speakers will say “THE North Island” and “THE South Island”, treating the compass points as adjectives , non-native speakers (except perhaps Aussies, who may know better) almost invariably say “North Island” and “South Island”, as if that’s what they were actually called. Te Ika a Maui and Te Wai Pounamu both include the article, though. 🙂

    • Lane 2:59 pm on October 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

    • Mark Bej 3:42 pm on October 11, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I do not believe that “geographical features”, nor a description of political organization have anything to do with the use of the definite article. The definite article is used when the name of the country includes a noun that is a “regular” English word, i.e., not merely a proper noun. Thus: “the Netherlands”, because this is literally, the nether (low) lands. Compare, for example, against “Holland”, which never takes the definite article. “The Philippines” is so most likely because of the implication of “Islands” thereafter; similarly with “the Azores”, “the Antilles”, yet we say “Indonesia”, without the article, since the country is not called “the Indonesian Islands”. In the case of the US and UK, it’s because “States” and “Kingdom” are regular English words that just happen to be a part of these names. Compare, for example: “South Africa”, but “_The_ Union of South Africa”.

      The other consistent pattern is that regions take the definite article. The Amazon, the Sahara, the Sahel, the Himalayas, the Midwest, the New World, etc., all exemplify this. “The Sudan” would thus be a now-outdated reference to that portion of Africa in those years when, politically, it was a region of a colony under England’s control. This is the most likely explanation as to why “the Ukraine” came to be used in English.

      As to “the Gambia”, I have never been able to figure out why that country’s government insisted on the definite article being used, but it certainly does not follow the usual English pattern.

      Note that French does not have a neuter gender. It would not be unusual to see some degree of transference (insisting on the definite article where it does not belong, or insisting on its absence where it should be used) by those whose native languages are not English.

      • The Diacritics 4:11 pm on October 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        I’m not sure that you understood the thrust of my argument. Your points actually do fit neatly into my categories: the Netherlands (lowlands), the Philippines (islands), the Azores (islands)– these are all geographical features. Similarly, the regions that you point out all take “the” and they are all geographical features (desert, river, etc.). And the political organization (Union, States, Kingdom) also informs the use of “the” in a country’s name, whether it’s their official or common name.
        The Gambia uses “the” probably because the country is named after the Gambia River, hence a geographical feature.
        You point out correctly that French does not have a neuter gender, but the names of countries/political units that are also islands do not have a gender. So you would say Je vais à Hawai (I’m going to Hawaii), whereas for gendered countries/political units you would use the prepositions “au” or “à la” depending on the gender.

        • Mark Bej 2:34 pm on October 19, 2011 Permalink

          Not at all, I understood your argument quite well.

          My argument is that the use of the “the” has nothing to do with a geographical feature. Rather, (in my view) it has everything to do with the fact that “land[s]”, “island[s]”, “state[s]”, and “union” — the latter two of these decidedly *not* geographical feature, but a man-made one — have semantic meaning in the English language, whereas “Congo”, “Ukraine” etc. have no semantic meaning outside of its meaning as a proper noun.

    • Julie 10:13 pm on October 11, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I use “Gambia,” not “the Gambia.” I’ve never heard anyone say it with the article before…

    • johnwcowan 11:18 am on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Here is Arnold Zwicky’s list of Language Log postings on anarthrous (article-free) proper names. In French, the rules are fairly simple: all such names are arthrous unless they are abbreviations of more complex forms. Thus Maurice (Mauritius) takes no article because it is short for l’île de Maurice.

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