Help me get this linguistics joke?
September 30, 2012 9:46 AM   Subscribe

Linguistics! Can you guys explain the joke in this image, which represents how different languages get from point A to point B?

What is point A? What's B? What does the bit about Russian signify? Why is French so different from Spanish? I'm curious, but I don't understand it at all!
posted by Pwoink to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Seems to me the point might be that, in a discussion, people from different cultures take varying routes to get their points across, or come to a an agreement, perhaps. It doesn't necessarily matter what point A and point B are. It's more about getting off track, and whether you ever get back on track.
posted by emelenjr at 9:55 AM on September 30, 2012

Best answer: OK, so if point A is You and Me and point B is the point of our conversation.

There are a lot of jokes here. As the board says, these are stereotypes, and as such they're broad generalizations about the language being depicted and also likely the culture that speaks that language. You can confirm a lot of these stereotypes by typing "_________ is" or "________ are" into Google and waiting a beat.

So Germans are/German is direct. ( IE, Google says "Germans are .... rude/efficient/mean" and "German is easy")

Arabic is known for its kufic ornamentation, and also as a 'flowery' language.

Turkish like Arabic only more-so.

French are/is precise but convoluted.

Italian is/Italians are multi-divergent, but also come around to the point eventually.

As opposed to the Spanish/speakers, who are multi-multi-divergent and the point is incidental.

Russian is hopelessly convoluted and complex until alcohol is involved, then it's all really just the same thing anyway!

Austrian is direct like German, but misses the point completely.

posted by carsonb at 10:00 AM on September 30, 2012 [16 favorites]

I think it's a reference to the complex system of inflection in the case of Russian.

The Arabic flower is not appropriate. Donald Keene said that one of his fellow linguists told him that any given word in Arabic means itself, its opposite, and something to do with a camel.
posted by mule98J at 10:03 AM on September 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

If it were really a question for linguists, it might be about linguistic drift, e.g. in English the Great Vowel Shift. But the Russian example, especially, suggests we're dealing with cultural stereotypes about conversational practices -- so you might have better luck asking a sociolinguist or linguistic anthropologist. Except wait, I'm one of those folks, and I certainly don't understand the Dutch vs. Flemish contrast. So I suggest you consult an amateur familiar with cultural stereotypes deployed in and around Belgium and the Netherlands (where many of these other groups are immigrants).
posted by feral_goldfish at 10:19 AM on September 30, 2012

Best answer: I thought A meant "the point in the speaker's head" and B meant "The understanding of that point in the listener's head". So Germans are extremely direct with no divergence. English might seem to take a long time but it gets there eventually. French dances around the point for awhile. Etc.
posted by bleep at 10:51 AM on September 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I understand the diagram to represent how each language stereotypically gets to a point. Germans do it directly, the French sort of take you on a spiraling exposition before settling in on what matters, and everybody else just tends to miss the point entirely or employs nonsequiturs as weird segways to the point.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 11:40 AM on September 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

The diagram immediately reminded me of a simplified version of Roman Jakobson's model of communication, a model which remains very popular in linguistics. Scroll down on the wiki page to see the image of the model. This would make A the sender, B the receiver and the lines the message.

The header Stereotype is clearly very important. Like feral_goldfish, that part strikes me as being closer to sociolinguistics or linguistic anthropology, all be it, not a part of it I'm familiar with. It vaguely reminds me of some French paradigms that take up the notion of social and linguistic representations (représentations linguistiques). It's been a long time since I read up on those, however, and do not remember who the key players were. (Henri Boyer comes to mind as a sociolinguists who links stereotype to language, but he doesn't use the concept in the way presented on the board).
posted by Milau at 12:12 PM on September 30, 2012

Best answer: I live in Flemish Belgium now, though my Flemish/Dutch is pretty pathetic, I think the artist is saying that Standard Dutch speakers are just a little bit less direct than German speakers while Flemish speakers are a little bit less direct than Standard Dutch speakers. They may also be more used to West Flemish, which is notorious for very slow speaking? Or they or they may have gotten the joke backwards, where the most obvious difference between the different varieties of Flemish and Standard Dutch is how much of a bouncing lilt Standard Dutch speakers have to their cadence. I'm told that generally the Dutch accent is off-putting to Flemish speakers while the Flemish accent is adorable to Standard Dutch speakers. I'll make sure to ask my native Vlaanderen lab-mates in the morning and report back if there is something I've missed.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:05 PM on September 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Most of my undergraduate degree was linguistics. Beyond dimly suggesting some Anglocentric stereotypes, this diagram is absolutely meaningless to me.
posted by Nomyte at 3:54 PM on September 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

My undergraduate degree is in linguistics, but I understand this pretty well; as everyone has said, it isn't so much "linguistics jokes" as it really is "cultural jokes."

I also feel like the Turkish elephant is a reference to zoomorphic calligraphy, which developed at least in part in Ottoman Turkey. (In Ottoman times, Turkish was written with the Arabic script and also just had a lot of influence from Arabic in general.)
posted by andrewesque at 5:18 PM on September 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have an MPhil in linguistics and have studied most of these languages, and much of the chart makes no sense to me. German = direct, yeah, but otherwise it's pretty weird/idiosyncratic, and I suspect you'd have to be in that particular class and know the professor's sense of humor in order to get it.
posted by languagehat at 5:59 PM on September 30, 2012

This doesn't seem to be making any sort of coherent point, even as a joke.

It's true, linguists study pragmatics and its intersection with culture. But the stereotypes alluded to in this diagram are all over the map.
posted by stroke_count at 6:51 PM on September 30, 2012

The Arabic flower is definitely a reference to Islamic artwork. Often, graven images were verboten, so if you wanted to draw a flower, you had to write something in a way that looked like a flower.

Andrewesque has it on the Turkish example.

The joke is about how languages get points across. German is direct. French often has a roundabout sentence structure (putting adjectives after the noun, etc). But also about the conversational conventions -- in some languages being direct about a subject is considered rude, so you kind of skirt the issue in politer ways. And obviously Russians go off on drunk tangents.
posted by custard heart at 8:15 PM on September 30, 2012

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