Sunday, 29 April 2012

30 years into the Canadian Constitution

I must say that - disregarding the contentious technical issues and political/ideological details for the moment - I'm quite disappointed (though not surprised) in the way our fascist government has treated the 30th anniversary of the repatriation of the Canadian Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Firstly, I think it is the failure of all the political parties involved and not the idea/system itself that the amending formula and Quebec whereats debacle has never really been resolved and, therefore, the repatriation has never been ratified by all parties and jurisdictions of Canada; secondly, this imperfect yet hitherto stable political environment speaks volumes of the validity and success of the Constitution and the Charter with Canadians (ie, not the political parties) over the last 30 years. It says more about the partisan politics (which increasingly does not allow voting by conscience) than anything else.

Thomas Paine wrote that

'A constitution is a thing antecedent to a government, and a government is only the creature of the constitution' (p. 122, Thomas Paine, Rights of Man; Common Sense; and other political writings (Oxford University Press))

which I totally believe to be the case. And, why I think Harper's government is acting the way it is with respect to the 30th anniversary. Harper definitely to wants to be able to limit the Charter and believes the democratic system itself is antithetical to corporate interests (ostensibly, because the supreme court welds too much power). - the Supreme Court of Canada acts in the absence of ratification, and nothing else. If the sad dog will not wag its tail Harper would wag the dog. In fact, he thrives in this environment of uncertainty.

Paine also wrote that

'The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which other rights are protected. To take away this right is to reduce a [free person] to a state of slavery, for slavery consists of being subject to the will of another...' (p. 398, ibid)

To wit: Harper tried to sue the Elections Act to put in the right for third party advertising (as a National Citizens' Coalition leader) because it'd free up corporate funding for American-style superpac negative attack ads (which are extremely successful in creating apathy and disgust in the electorate which he has always relied on to get elected in).

In his political career, he has always acted the psychopath, and like a serial killer of democratic processes, he has tried many things looking for the right release. His mastery of double-speak suggests it is in his interest to deny the informal validity of the Charter and the Constitution for Canadians (ie, to portray important court decisions stemming from the Charter as "unconstitutional" and "undemocratic").


Saturday, 28 April 2012

Some features of Inuktitut (part v)

One of the hardest things to master (for Inuktitut speakers) is distinguishing the voiced vs unvoiced segments (called finals in the syllabic writing system). This is not surprising as these variations are usually allophonic and not phonemic in nature. An allophonic variation makes no meaningful difference for it is just a manner of articulation or follows a standardized writing convention (ie, not psychologically real to the speaker), whereas a phonemic different is psychologically real - as one can see below:

iglumi  'in the house'

iglumit  'from the house'

iglumik  'a house'

- the absence of a final in the first instance [-mi] denotes a locative case; the second [-mit] denotes an ablative case; the third [-mik] is an accusative case, and these all make a meaningful difference; but an allophonic variation (as per the writing convention):

nunaqaqtunga  'I live in...'

is sometimes written in syllabics as

*nunaqartunga 'I live in...'

doesn't make a meaningful difference being that /q/ and /r/ are articulated in the same place in the mouth cavity and only differ in the voicing - /q/ is voiceless; /r/ is voiced. Following what is called the ICI syllabic writing conventions (which Nunavut follows) the first example above is the correct one because the voiceless uvular segment /q/ occurs before a voiceless initial segment of the following morpheme [-tunga] - voiceless segments go with voiceless segments; voiced with voiced.

*Inuuvikmut  'to Inuvik' is not well-formed;

Inuuvingmut 'to Inuvik' is well-formed (as per writing convention).

-Again, /k/ and /ng/ occur in the same place of articulation (velar) but differ in voicing.

This system, despite my poor attempts at explaining it, is actually quite elegant for it is merely based on voicing of the first segment of the following morpheme and nothing else. In Inuktitut, the assimilation in manner and place of articulation is usually regressive or 'backward' (as above examples), but progressive assimilation also occurs:

pisuktunga  'I am walking'

the assimilation of the voiceless segment /t/ is progressive because the preceding morpheme ends in a voiceless segment /k/, whereas [-tunga] below becomes [-junga] - again following the voicing rule:

anijunga  'I am exiting'

and not *anitunga

-the last two examples occur at the phono-morphemic level [-tunga] and [-junga] where the assimilation tends to be progressive, but as in the first few examples regressive assimilation tends to occur for the segmental level (ie, just one consonant) voicing assimilation rules.

Older Inuit tend to be masters of the language, and tend also not to follow much the standardized final systems. The absence of the niqqud dots (ie, finals) does not bother the mature reader and errors in pronunciation tend to be neglible because they follow intuitively the grammar and not the spelling conventions (bare syllabics are just mnemonics for them). For younger Inuit who've been taught the whole-language approach (ie, not the grammar but solely the spelling system) the syllabic system is often read torturously syllable by syllable because they've not been taught to master the grammar.

It is for this reason I've often spoken out against the whole-language approach and advocate for grammar-based teaching. The importance of the narrative is key to grammar-based teaching (in direct opposition to rote memorization of 'spelling' lists which has sadly been the practice for a long time now). But I've heard that Nunavut Education HQ unofficially regards Inuit legends as religious material so the logical end result for Inuktitut is language death as things now stand.


Friday, 27 April 2012

When does "life" begin?

That conservative backbencher who proposed to re-open the abortion debate in Canada by posing the question of when life begins has every right to pose the question. But, I say this for very different reasons. I'm pro-choice, but the question he raised is something I think warrants serious reflection for it is not just a scientific question but also a legal, philosophical and humanist one.

Science, we have come to realize, is a poor, low hanging fruit. Our long history of eugenics, racism, classism and charlatanism points to the fact that science is ironically without standards that would even rival the likes of legal, philosophical and humanist discourse where we at least have some vague idea of what values should apply - sort of like we don't know how to define "happiness" and "love" and "quality of life" but we know from experience when we hit upon their examples.

Science, by opposition, is an amoral, objective enterprise (by design) that is only concerned with knowledge acquisition. It is merely a tool, indifferent to human values and whether it is good or bad for humanity: who and what interests weld it is a very important issue (or should be) for these facts and knowledge of them should be balanced by our society's values (as the legal systems, and philosophical, spiritual and humanist discourse are tested and measured by).

Using science, we can make claims without any sense of irony, that single cells (whether protozoa or our own cells) are living beings. I don't know about you, but I don't get paralysed by questions of right to life when I shed dry skin and cut my nails, or suffer injury; the questions of whether it be good or bad for me and how I deal with it come into play and inform my actions.

Potentia, which are zygotes and embryos by definition, does not a life make. But that is not to say they don't deserve humane treatment. Accredited abortion clinics, our open and liberal political, legal and societal values and systems provide that humane assurance as far as humanly possible. Life and consciousness often appear cruel to us; mature and realistic reflection and decision-making are often our only means of dealing with flawed and imperfect situations and circumstances.

Science and idealism, by design, are not at all concerned with such practical and humane questions.


Sunday, 22 April 2012

What Gandhi Said

In Canada, we have a facist government in power. "Oh. It's not so bad," Canadians say, "once you get to know them." But this is a form of denial wrought by political apathy and cultivated ignorance of history and human nature. It is a sign of decay: the crumbling infrastructure and human capacity, economic hardship, diplomatic indifference... the irresistible forces of history repeat themselves because human nature is bred to lazy optimism even in the face of grave danger because success and hard-work of our ancestors lulls us into thinking we are entitled to the same (without the heavy lifting and the cuts and dirt of work, mind).

Every once in a while, rays of divine light shine through. If we would just recognize that our personal imperfections (perceived and real) are no excuse for denial, inaction and paralysis, we'd see that optimism and love are not just campy concepts but real possibilities of cultivable, learned characteristics of the best we can be.

One of the most inspiring lights of human history laid out a workable road-map with warning signs for human thriving (but one that requires our active engagement and conscious awareness to be actualized) which he wrote on a piece of paper and gave to his grandson shortly before his assassination. He called it, The Seven Blunders of the World:

Wealth without work;
Pleasure without conscience;
Knowledge without character;
Commerce without morality;
Science without humanity;
Worship without sacrifice;
Politics without principles.

Wealth without work:
Peter Mackay are not "one of us". MacKay is descended from aristocracy (the third earl of Caledon and the first earl of Verulam). The way he carries himself is bred into his character. His "entitlements" to helicopters and f-35s are part and parcel of who he is;

Pleasure without conscience:
"You're either with us or the child pornographers": Toews is said to have carried on a seven year affair with his baby-sitter [who would have been 10 years old when they started]... Toews' ex-wife's allegations of his lavish spending habits on meals and housing, paid for by the public purse, and details on how he's stiffed his ex-wife on support payments. ...contrasted Toews' behaviour with his past statements on the importance of marriage back when he was being wheeled out to prop up the Conservatives' family values (anti-gay-marriage) platform.

Knowledge without character:
The sorry state of affairs that is the governments-aboriginal relations. Aboriginals have the unfortunate distinction of being a poor, disenfranchised group of Canadians with land rights. It has always been the federal and provincial governments' interest to keep the Anishinabe (ie, first peoples) ignorant and dependent on the state; real knowledge is anathema to the state so it is denied us. Mainstream Canadians are also kept ignorant of Canada's history in this respect because knowledge means conscience and demands action;

Commerce without morality:
Deregulation of environmental and market safeguards; the demonization of labour movements.

Science without humanity:
When you have technical and technological know-how that is potentially lucrative but destructive to public and environmental well-being and you carry through anyway, your humanity is lost. Cherry-picking then becomes a pathetic attempt to regain what cannot be recovered easily (without hard-work and reform);

Worship without sacrifice:
The Conservatives' family and religious (as opposed to "spiritual") values demand that you only conform publicly ( as Toews' shameful personal life and blatant hypocrisy shows) - the better if you come from the "right" stock and protestant "faith" - else your ethnicity/religion has electorial value every four years though it doesn't hurt trying to become "Canadian";

Politics without principles:
"Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it", "if you're like all Americans, you know almost nothing except for your own country. Which makes you probably knowledgeable about one more country than most Canadians", and "the NDP [New Democratic Party] is kind of proof that the Devil lives and interferes in the affairs of men." -Stephan Harper. He is not only extremely arrogant but does not believe in Canada as a democratic, humane and tolerant society.

These are dark days; moderate, thoughtful persons would be told that moderation and decorum are passe; that only the strong and willing deserve a place in the public discourse. The Liberal Party may be dead in their eyes but that doesn't mean that there aren't people left with liberal, humanist values.


Saturday, 21 April 2012

Some features of Inuktitut (part iv)

One of my readers posted a comment on this blog recently asking about the demonstrative/pointing lexical class of Inuktitut. This set is one of the most complex and extensively detailed lexical class in the Inuit language. I wrote a paper on it when I was starting out as a linguist and have had much time to think about it since. I must admit that I'm still trying to get my head around it for there is much more to it than first blush suggests.

For instance, this class is the only one with a prefix [ta-] in the whole of Inuit language, but more: it also has its own set of case endings (to, from, through, etc.).

Roughly following Dorais' and Mallon's analysis we may create a basic declension like this:

una/uvva                      'this'                            manna              'here'

pinna/pikka                 'that (up) there'            panna              '(up) there'

inna/ikka                     'that one'                      anna/avva        'there'

kanna                          'that (down) there'       unna                 '(down) there'

but I treat another form and separate it from the subclass above:

majja              majja manna piaktuq sikuup qulaa
                       'this here surface of the ice is slippery'

pagga             pagga tuktu pangalikpuq qimaajuq
                      'that caribou (up) there is fleeing'

agga               agga inuk maunga sanguniarmujuq
                      'that person (over) there will turn this way'

kagga             kagga tiitaqarmat aiksilaurit
                      'that house (down) there has some tea so please go and get some'

and label it as "pointing to something with a continuous quality' or 'a specific aspect of something' - such as the slipperiness of the ice - or as "present, progressive verb emphasis" - as in, 'that airplane which is landing now'. In other words, this class differs from the first in that the first subclass refers to things as whole units while the second subclass refers to aspects or qualities of something.

Now, the interesting thing is that we may add the prefix [ta-] (Dorais calls this "thou" which I really like) to any one of the above:


and make the pointing/locating reference in relation not to the speaker but the one being spoken to.

But there is an additional complication because the allomorphic variations are not that simple and obvious when the prefix [ta-] is added on:

ta+una  becomes taanna
ta+uvva becomes tavva

And I can't even begin to explain

taipsuma '(done) by that one there'    -though I suspect the form comes from ta+uuma = ta + 'with respect to this one here'. But where does the -ips- come from? There are others like this, especially when we add case endings to any one of the forms:

taikuuna 'by way of that' could come from ta+ikka+na =thou+there+through

As I said, [-kkut] 'through' is manifested as [-na] as this whole class has its own case endings:

'from'       [-ngat]     instead of [-mit] as we'd normally say;
'through'  [-na]        instead of [-kkut] as we'd normally say;
'to'           [-nga]      instead of [-mut] as we'd normally say; etc.

but tauvani 'in that area'   where the case ending [-ni] though it is obviously from [-mi] 'in', may only occur in the plural form of the case for this class, as in: Iqaluit  becomes Iqalungni because the root "Iqaluit" is in the plural number.

I think figuring out the phono-morphemic rules here would provide some insights as to how irregularity in conjugations and 'strong' vs 'weak' verb forms arise. But I must admit that I'm currently stumped. We don't even know how the sole prefix in Inuktitut came into being, but I suspect it comes from 'third person possessive' evolving into 'second person possessive' for this particular class. I think figuring all this out would help us construct a theoretical framework that not only captures what is happening in Inuktitut but for all languages (though the motivations would differ the structural tendencies would be brought out more clearly.


Friday, 13 April 2012


As some of you know, aajiiqatigiingniq is one of the IQ (Inuit Knowledge) principles that has been explained in English as "decision-making through discussion and consensus" - at least, in one of the Government of Nunavut pamphlets. But aajiiqatigiingniq means more than the terms used in the government-speak (ie, as Western conceptions of "discussion" and "consensus" - which usually means to try and "persuade" or "defend" an argument or position).

In IQ, expert-knowledge carries a heavier weight than is obvious because usually the notion of "expertise" is not tied to ego-indulgence, proprietary privileges nor is it just an impressive title. Expertise, rather, is a practitioner's privilege - whether it be hunting, healing, thinking, etc. There is a notion of "free agency" in Inuit expertise, of piqqusiq (or, a way of being), where efficacy and ethical behaviour rather than appearance matters.

When governments say they want to "consult" (ie, aajiiqatigiit) with Inuit there is usually a misunderstanding on both sides (Inuit-government) of what a "consultation" actually means. Government officials already have a set position and only want to argue and defend that position because they've "done" all the work by then; for Inuit, a "consultation" is more open-ended. It is a subjecting a line-of-reasoning to expert scrunity.

There is all that "expert" analysis with impressive sounding but deliberately obscure terminology and contrived logic replete with provisos and whereats, but it usually nothing more than a Rube Goldberg affair (ie, deliberately over-engineered machines that churn out a number). Time and again, Inuit look at the number - ie, not the machine - and offer alternative (usually more realistic) arguments that fall on deaf ears. But time is the great equalizer, impervious to positions and interests.

People who keep up with the wildlife management discourse in Nunavut know what I'm talking about: The Wizard of Oz is a foreigner; the smoke machines and mirrors give a frightening show, but the wizard is still a foreigner who finds himself in a frightening world, whose "knowledge" is alienating rather than liberating.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not speaking out against people per se. But the autistic stubbornness of professional wizardry that clouds the world in its own dysfunctional terms. Greed, hunger for power, unexamined value systems, have not only wreak destruction on the planet and its animals but it also assumes and transfers its own guilty conscience upon other human beings, other cultures (which it mistrusts because it mistrusts itself and knows that what it has done is unconscionable).

Almost invariably the need for "healing" comes up where Inuit are involved. They aren't so much talking about abstractions and airy-fairy notions but the need for truth-telling and authenticity - about addressing the alienation. Inuit, and indigenous peoples, belong to a place, to an ecology. Money and commodification of animals and other resources perverts that sense of place. But it's very complicated and there are no pat solutions. Ideally, everything is negotiated in good faith.

This is aajiiqatigiingniq also.


Friday, 6 April 2012

Some grammatical features of Inuktitut (pt. iii)

Revisiting the ergative marker in Inuktitut.

The ergative case, at least in Inuit languages, serves two main functions: to denote the subject (in transitive constructs) and possessor. I mentioned that 'possessor' function earlier, but now I want to talk a bit about the 'subject' aspect.

nattiqtara aktualuk
'the seal I caught is huge'

-the subject is not 'I' (ie, the pronominal ending - [-tara]) but the noun root 'nattiq'. The root may also be a verb:

isiqtara pivikittukuluk
'(the place) I enter is small'

but, again, the subject is not 'I' but the (transitive) verb root 'isiq'. It's as if the actor - 'I' - takes secondary function while the root (whether verb or noun) takes the primary slot.

tigumiaqtait qaiguk
'give me the thing you are holding'

or (in high abstraction):

hold+you+it give+you+(to) me

'you' (subject form for both first and second phrases), again, serve a secondary purpose while the root (the thing held) is the subject.

In mathematical terms, the pronominals are constants (ie, do not change) while the roots are variables (ie, change according to the situation or circumstances). But, as in mathematics, the structure is extremely rigid - meaning that, in ergative cases, the (primary) pronominal of the main (and second?) clause is always in a subject form (and no other). To carry the math analogy further: to non-Inuit speakers, the equations may not necessarily make much sense but the geometry and relational aspects of the phrasing will (consider the relational aspects of 'you'; 'it'; and 'me' above in their abstract and colloquial phrases - 'you' subject; 'it', 'me' object forms).

'I', 'you', 'me' - in highly simplistic terms - normally function as subjects/objects proper, but in the ergative cases of Inuit Languages they denote a requirement of an adjunct phrase to complete them (transitivity). The pronominal values of the ergative cases are embedded in the larger phrase structures and they denote that the phrasing is necessarily transitive.

In Subject-Verb-Object languages, word/phrase order is important but in a polysynthetic language, such as Inuktitut, the case is important. I could just as easily have re-organized the phrases above and the meaning would not have changed one iota. To some layperson, Inuktitut - in this respect - would appear to have "no grammar" (not an SVO structure in any case), but Inuktitut has a deeper structural integrity that obey and exhibit all mathematical/technical rules of language. Figuring out what these 'rules' are is a worthy subject of serious study.


Sunday, 1 April 2012

Euclidean vs non-Euclidean geometries

I find it rather dismaying that someone like the great Roger Penrose would find the first four postulates of Euclidean geometry a "little strange", especially the fourth: that all right angles are equal. (Roger Penrose, London, UK 2004, p. 29)

I think if Penrose really thought about the origins of Euclidean geometry, he'd realize first that it stems from surveying of land and the laying on of foundations of buildings. In this respect, Euclidean geometry still applies while 'embedded' in three dimensional space, and, as a result, levelling (squaring) of buildings is possible. The natural contours and geodesics of the landscape are "cut" into planes more amenable to "Euclidean" treatment. The levelling of the foundations for the building is first determined, then, the floor-plan is built-up from the boundaries of outerwalls whose angles are determined by the fourth postulate, mind.

In this localized context, the Euclidean plane is perpendicular to the vertical direction of gravity; the rolling of the wheel is still allowed to describe the sine and cosine waves - 90 degrees from each other; two points really generate an indeterminately-long straight line (points and lines being, after all, just idealized entities). Though the number, shape and height of the ground floors may vary from building to building the commonality of all buildings is that abstract plane that allows flush and weight to be balanced, where sea-level would be were it there. A cathedral, no less than an outhouse, is an Euclidean affair. The arches, domes, vaults, buttresses and walls conspire together to illustrate the great as well as the mundane considerations of humanity.

The Pythagorean theorem is given space (and time) to assert itself upon all right-angled triangles therein its realm as in the real world. It is naturally assumed that the Euclidean space is static: true, but that is if one disregards the wheel on top of the plane happily describing sine waves...