January 21, 2007

What's the (native) language?

Here's a puzzle for Language Log readers, from Zeno at Halfway There. He quotes the capsule biography of George W. Bush at the website of the "Presidential Coalition" (http://www.goppresident.org/history.html),

George W. Bush followed in his father’s footsteps to Presidency and was elected in 2000. In his first term, Bush made it his duty to advance the works of public schools, beseech accountability, and make local control stronger, and also signed tax assistance, improved betterments and income for the U.S. military, and works hard to ascend Medicare and Social Security. Then, after the September 11th irruptions, he announced war on terrorism, and with that made victory and proceeded individual opportunity and his Administration’s precedence. We look forward to four more years with Bush in the White House, and no one will ever forget “Dubya” or his greatest achievements.

and asks by email: "I can't tell what language the writer grew up speaking, but I'm pretty certain it's not English. Can you tell?"

I'm not sure either, though my working hypothesis is "Martian". Some of the signs and symptoms:

  1. Presidency with no article;
  2. beseech to mean seek;
  3. betterments to mean benefits;
  4. ascend to mean improve;
  5. irruptions to mean attacks;
  6. war with no article;

Well, you get the idea. The phrase "with that made victory and proceeded individual opportunity and his Administration's precedence" seems designed to prove Quine's idea about the impossibility of radical translation -- presumably the original meant "temporal stage of undetached presidential parts", or something like that.

If you have some well-founded (or sufficiently amusing) conjectures about the linguistic background (or neurological state) of the author, please tell me and I'll sumarize for the blog.

[Well, the results so far are mostly pretty much what I expected -- except for one, which suggests that Zeno asked the wrong question.

To start it off, here's what I wrote to Zeno when I posted the query:

I don't get a clear impression, though the lack of articles might suggest someone with a slavic background. The misuse of words might even be a native speaker with a poor vocabulary over-using the thesaurus -- I see that from time to time in student essays. But I agree that it's probably someone who grew up speaking another language.

Anyhow, I blogged your question and we'll see if anything interesting comes back.

Several readers proposed "slavic"; for example, Bill Scott:

I'm guessing Russian because of the lack of "the" before many nouns.

As for looking forward to four more years, the writer is (a) two years behind the times and (b) out of his gourd.

(Well, being merely two years out of date would make this one of the less stale pages on the web. And two years ago, more than half of the American electorate chose W, so the position was clearly not insane by the social norms of the time.)

Several others proposed "native speaker armed with a thesaurus", for example Kyle Gorman, who also suggested a Romance source:

i think it's written with a thesaurus.

the two missing articles don't strike me as that strange in a textual source. "presidency" is weird, but more so because it's capitalized without any real reason. many, many literate english speakers think that content words can be capitalized indiscriminately, a fact which is often a source of parody. here's an example from a parodic website called "The Philadelphia Diaries":

"My dad is literally, getting a new Wife, and she is a blatant Bitch. I just learned of this new News when I was just trying to drink my Lotte and like get Jake a new pare of alternative style Sneekers at Ubik, like Marc Jacobs Vans with the valkrow straps? I mean I was having a very Positive day and then there is Dad and the Blonde Slut Lady walking down Walnut St. with there arms intanglid together, like their in LUV."

i used thesaurus.com and looked up the low-frequency words you noted. each one of them linked directly to your glosses. only "beseech" does not pick out a thesaurus entry named after the gloss you give (i.e. "seek", though it's listed lower).

the one thing that strikes me as L2 is "made victory". obviously, that phrase would work as a calque from french or any language which uses a form like "fait victoire" has 754 attestations on google (low, but many more if you include intervening words). i'm sure there are many other languages which use constructions like this though i'm blanking on which ones.

Jay McCurdy thinks he knows the author:

I'd almost forgotten this particular student.  I believe I taught her many years ago in Comp.   She was a shy, sweet, girl and was absolutely mortified to be doing badly in my course, as she had consistently received ‘A’ grades in English at the high school level. 

She worked at it, but there was just too much of this stuff in her head for her to simply forget it and try to learn the English language in a semester.  In many ways, she was a more difficult student to teach than many of the other less-privileged kids I taught. Many of those other kids recognized that they did not think, or write, in the ‘dominant’ code.  It was clear to them that what I was looking for was essentially a translation, and they felt more comfortable trying to provide that than she did, because she had been misled into believing that her thinking and writing was better than, or equal to, the dominant code.

I would not be surprised if it is the same woman.  I think I’ve seen that beseech before.

Me too.

Suzette Haden Elgin gives a more precise account of how Thesaurian is generated:

I suspect that the author's native language _is_ English, and could provide you with additional examples in the same register, collected from local newspapers. Sequences like these come from people who are not academics but have as their goal the production of sizable stretches of Academic Regalian all the same. Their technique is simple but effective: Write the stuff in ordinary human-being English; take a thesaurus and choose a more AR-sounding word to replace as many of the ordinary human-being English words as possible; make the substitutions and send the result to the "Letters to the Editor" section of a newspaper. Matters such as meaning and appropriateness are not part of the process, and the authors are _very_ proud of the results.

I agree that this is the most plausible source for the strange word choice -- though non-native speakers also sometimes misuse the thesaurus. And Marie-Lucie Tarpent points out that the rest of the presidential biographies are rather, well, odd -- and in ways that transcend merely Thesaurian norms:

Thank you for passing along the interesting paragraph about the current president.  I looked up the site listing all the Republican presidents and discovered that a) the bio for G.H. Bush is actually Reagan's, and b) most of the other bios are barely better written than that for GW, which seems to be the worst one.  Not only the grammar and vocabulary of those texts but also the paragraph structure are unusual.  In one case the final sentence of Chester Arthur's bio is tacked on at the end of another president's.  etc, etc. Who hired the person(s) who produced those texts?????

She feels that there was good internal evidence against a Romance language, and she argues against Germanic on the grounds of national character:

I quite agree that these were not written, let alone reviewed, by native speakers of English (only one seemed to be relatively free of linguistic errors or incongruities).  I don't have precise suggestions but the lack of articles in many cases and the often aberrant vocabulary should narrow the search somewhat - Slavic, Oriental?.  It can't be Spanish or French, which would have more articles and where the abstract vocabulary would be more similar to that of English.  And a Germanic-speaking writer would probably have double-checked the vocabulary.

But Jim Gordon detects a Romance and even more specifically Castillian vibe:

To me seems English traduced for a person of speaking Castillian. I can't tell you why, but it has a certain flavor. Many of the goppresident.org web pages have the same flavor and type of errors. I suppose it could be influenced by any of the Romance languages.

Paul Bickart suggested South or East Asian connections:

My guess is that the management of the web site was outsourced to some Mumbai jobber, although the syntax reminds me rather more of Chinese-produced VCR manuals...

Richard Parker attempted an analysis in terms of national political preferences:

Try getting a native English-speaker to translate it into Hebrew, then a native Hebrew-speaker to translate it back again.

I can't think of any other country where the man might be popular.

I can't back this up with a citation to opinion polls, but my impression is that W has been no more popular in Israel than in the U.S., and that the recent world maximum for his popularity would be found in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The key insight, in my opinion, came from Mae Sander:

I'm not a linguist at all -- though I'm a fan of Language Log. But I think the most revealing page of GOPpresident.org is the donation request page.

This page wants you to fill in all your possible credit card info, your employer, etc. So I think the native language of the GOPpresident.org is SPAM. They just tried a little harder than some spammers -- maybe. Some of their bios of presidents verge on the incoherent or irrelevant, as well as revealing clues of nonnativeness.

I had noticed the similarity of the biographical pages to some spam text, but dismissed the thought immediately without adequate reflection. It makes sense -- during the last election, perhaps some Russian spammers decided to set up a phony PAC to target unwary wingers? Quite apart from the weird language, the site seems to be perfunctory at best -- there's basically nothing there but the front page, the botched presidential biographies, and the donations page. For all we know, the same crew set up dozens of other sites out there, targeting political segments from wingnut to moonbat...

It's the best hypothesis yet. After all, we know that spammers and phishers are notoriously careless about getting their stuff proofread.

The site responseunlimited.com ("Mailing Lists and Creative Services for Evangelical and Conservative Mailers") has a page for The Presidential Coalition, but this only tells us that they're willing to sell their mailing list (which is said to number 122,054 donors). At campaignmoney.com, they think that the "Republican Presidential Coalition" is a duly registered "527" Political Organization, with a contact person named "Matthew J. Palumbo".

I doubt that this was the "Matthew J. Palumbo" who gave a talk on "Ilex vomitoria: An overlooked North American caffeine source" at the 47th Annual Meeting of the Society for Economic Botany in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It seems more likely to be the "Matthew J. Palumbo" referenced on the web site for ALP Digital Media Services:

Digital Media Services is a fully integrated web services firm. We specialize in web design, marketing for the web, email marketing campaigns, banner advertising, e-commerce, hosting services and database design.
Established in 1997, we have been developing websites and marketing plans for our customers for many years. President and CEO, Matthew J Palumbo, has over 12 years experience in marketing and web development.
Headquartered in Garden City, Long Island, NY we service a broad range of industries including financial services, education, nonprofit, healthcare, retail, software and consumer products.

and presumably this just means that "The (Republican) Presidential Coalition" hired ALP to set up its web site. (Or maybe not -- see Stephen J. Carlson's comment below.)

Back at compaignmoney.com's page for "The Republican Presidential Coalition", the listings of contributions and of expenditures are both empty. So could it be that some spammers set this site up, registered a 527 -- and then took the money and ran? Update: apparently not -- in fact they seem to have spent about ten times more than they took in, according to politicalmoneyline.com. See below for details. ]

[Information about the laws governing "Section 527 Organizations" is here, and the wikipedia page is here.

The site politicalmoneyline.com has several mentions of the string {"Presidential Coalition"}, in particular this item from 10/16/2006:

David Bossie's Presidential Coalition, a Section 527 group, reported raising $175,945 and spending $1,194,051 during the third quarter. They paid Issue Advocacy Group (WV) $493,200 for survey/polling work. They paid Infocision Management Corp (OH) $157,108 for fundraising.

and this item from 7/18/2006:

David Bossie's Presidential Coalition reported raising $147,390 and spending $1,210,129. They paid IAG (WV) $385,375 for polling; Uniontown Fullfillment Services (OH) $296,972 for mail and postage; Infocision Management Corp (OH) $154,464 for telemarketing. They also paid $5,000 to the Libby Legal Defense Trust.

and this item from 4/19/2006:

The Presidential Coalition LLC reported raising $108,147 and spending $1,588,073 in the first quarter. The group paid IAG (WV) $650,974 for surveys and polling. They paid Infocision $258,551 for fundraising. They paid UFS (OH) $362,981 for postage and direct mail.

and this item from 1/27/2006:

The Presidential Coalition LLC (DC) reported raising $63,700 and spending $935,231 in the last six months of 2005. Major expenses included $492,790 to IAG (WV) for survey/polling; $174,073 to Infocision (OH) for telemarketing; and $210,323 to UFS (OH) for postage/direct mail. David N. Bossie is president and manager of the 527 group. The group registered on 6/30/05, but does not indicate where it got the other $871,153 used to pay expenses. Citizens United is listed as an affiliated organization.

Wikipedia believe that there is a real political operative named "David Bossie" -- whether this is the same "Presidential Coalition" isn't clear to me. If it is, then the web site's management is American -- but of course they might have contracted the site creation out to anyone at all. Still, with expenditures of $4,927,484 over 5 quarters -- almost a million bucks a quarter -- you'd think they could afford better writers and editors. If this is really their site, it suggests a casual and undisguised contempt for the suckers who give them money.

(And the fact that they've only raised $495,182 -- roughly a tenth of what they've spent -- might suggest a similar contempt for creditors. Or something -- perhaps this kind of bookkeeping is normal in the world of political fundraising.)


[More on this here.]

[Stephen C. Carlson wrote:

Thank you for your puzzle of a post.

I doubt that either of the "Matthew J. Palumbo"s you have found (the Florida biologist or the New Jersey webdesigner) is the same person who is listed as the contact information for the Washington DC based 527 group.

Here's some more information I've been able to glean:

According to Bob Novak, the (Republican) Presidential Coalition is an organization by a former congressional staffer David N. Bossie
that is intended to go after Hillary ("Pelosi goes over the heads of energy, environmental committee chiefs", Chicago Sun-Times, 1/21/2007):

Dick Morris' appeal

People on Republican mailing lists this week received an appeal for funds from Dick Morris, President Bill Clinton's political strategist in 1995-1996, asking for a contribution of between $25 and $100 or more to finance a film documentary critical of Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Signing the letter as ''Former Clinton Adviser,'' Morris wrote: ''If you liked how the Swift Boat Veterans turned the tide against John Kerry, you understand how a top Clinton aide can turn the tables and stop a Clinton-style liberal from becoming the next president of the United States.''

Morris' appeal was made through the Presidential Coalition, run by conservative activist Dave Bossie. The letter described Morris as dedicated to electing presidents like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Since 1996, Morris has been an author, columnist and television commentator.

In this connection, there is a documentary film on the illegal alien issue, "Border War," which not only was produced by Bossie but also credits a "Matt Palumbo" for research. I suspect that this Palumbo is the same one who is listed on the contact information.

This does not get us any closer to the curious text of the presidential biographies, I'm afraid, but it might tell us a little more about who is behind them.

But I suspect that it's not Matt Palumbo the actor, either. I think it's probably the Matt Palumbo who was appointed vice president of marketing in the political division of InfoCision Management Corporation of Akron, OH, in June of 2003. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 21, 2007 05:34 PM