Monday March 5, 2007

Pressing the Turd

"They press it, and all the food (in the turd) goes away.  All that remains is the sweat, the shit with the sweat in it.  Then they scratch it."

That sentence appears in an article I read last week for a seminar on quantification.  It's the gloss for example 161 in Nick Evan's "A-Quantifiers and Scope in Mayali", which can be found in Bach, Jelinek, Kratzer, Partee's Quantification in Natural Languages.  Mayali, also known as Gunwinggu, is an Australian language, but there isn't much information about it on the web.  When I read the example above, my first reaction was to wonder why anybody would be pressing turds to make food go away—I like to think I'm culturally flexible, but that sounds pretty gross.  In class, somebody suggested that maybe it was an animal of some kind that was doing the pressing and scratching, but as it happens, Mayali grammar makes that interpretation impossible.

In order to understand why, first take a look at the full example (which I've transcribed faithfully, though I'm a little suspicious of it because some of the hyphenation doesn't line up):

kabirri-melme man-me manu ka-re rowk. djal
3pl/3-press-NP III-food IIIthat 3-go-NP all only
kun-ngen-wi ka-h-yo, kurduk man-bu
IV-sweat-only 3NP-SUB-lieNP shit III-that
kun-ngen-dorreng, wanjh kabirri-wirrkme.
IV-sweat-COM then 3pl/3-scratchNP

Mayali marks the person of the subject and, optionally, the object on verbs.  This marking is often accomplished with a portmanteau morpheme, so, for example, the prefix kabirri- on kabirri-melme marks a third person plural subject and a third person object.  Notice that the number of the subject is specified, but not the number of the object.  This isn't just an accident; Mayali number agreement on verbs is semantically conditioned.  Evans writes: "Overt pronominal representation of number on the verb is basically limited to humans an a few other higher animates like spirits.  For non-humans number is typically represented by cardinality expressions in external NPs."  He also includes an example to demonstrate that dogs, in particular, are not considered higher animates. (p. 213)

With this in mind, take a look at the example above.  The verbs kabirri-melme 'press' and kabirri-wirrkme 'scratch' both show number agreement with the subject, which means the subject of both must be a higher animate, that is, a person.  So my initial "eww, gross" reaction is apparently justified.  I'd love to know more about context this example occurred in.  Evans's article unfortunately doesn't provide any, and there are zero Google hits for the phrase "they press it and all the food" on the web and Google Scholar, and the only hits on Google Books are for this same article.

Can anyone come up with a context that makes the example sensible?  I could sort of see why you might want to press a turd if you would somehow get food out—some kind of peanut or corn recycling procedure, say—but what would be the point of pressing a turd in order to make food go away?  Is a foodless turd more valuable?  And why would you then scratch it?

I'd like to congratulate Evans, by the way, on sneaking the rather unacademic word turd into a scholarly article.  I wondered how uncommon that really is, so I tried searching Google Scholar for the word turd.  That turns up 3,460 hits, a surprisingly large number, I think.  Most of them are legitimate scholarly articles, too, including:

  • An article titled "Estimation of snowshoe hare population density from turd transects"
  • Another article by one of the same authors titled "Estimation of snowshoe hare population density from turd counts" (this sounds like fascinating work)
  • An article titled "Tocqueville, Turner, and Turds: Four Stories of Manners in Early America"

A few of the other occurrences appear not to be English, such as "Kovariatlon turd Kausalitiit: Ein ausreichend durchdachtes Problem in der plidagogisch-...", and a significant minority of the rest appear to be OCR errors:

  • "Debating Cu/turd H,bridiy: Multi-Cu/turd Identities and the Politics ofAnti-Racism", which I suspect should be "Debating Cultural Hybridity: Multi-Cultural Identities and the Politics of Anti-Racism".
  • A citation of "Grqyrapk Itfornwtiou S.\ W/IIY turd Ctrrrogrtrphic. Mot/-rlil" that turns out to really be to "Geographic Information Systems and Cartographic Modeling".
  • "The finite element method(FEM), having its roots in tiruc- turd mechanica"
  • "INCREASE VALVE SETTWG OF TURD FLOW CONTROLLER 15" (at least I hope that's an OCR error)

This seems to happen a lot for the word "third":

  • "Australia a Turd World Country" (though this might be a pun)
  • "...the second industry) 0.6131 r (total output value, the turd industry)..."

Finally, there's quite a few hits on articles that mention "Moose Turd Pie", a classic funny story by Utah Phillips that some of you may remember being played regularly on the Dr. Demento Show.  If you haven't heard it...well, let me just quote Will Farrell's imitation of James Lipton and say it is a delight (NSFW).

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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Have you thought about mailing him to ask? (I'm certainly curious to know the answer.) The sentence is almost definitely part of an extended dialogue or story, so he's bound to have the full context in a file somewhere.

I wonder whether it's part of a myth. The gods and early people do some pretty strange things, after all.

Posted by: Lance at Mar 5, 2007 9:44:32 AM

I would hazard a guess that this is part of a description of a practice of sorcery, which is very common in the area. One practice is to take someone's belongings, clothes usually works, but turds are more powerful, and put them in between two branches of a tree. Over time (many years) the branches rub together and the owner of the clothes eventually becomes violently ill inside and dies. If you've seen Ten Canoes, there is a scene in which a stranger does just this with someone's turd.

I don't know about the removing food from the turd; perhaps it's meant to get rid of all bits of that weren't made by the person's body. The scratching would be consistent with the slow destruction of the turd over time, inflicting pain on the poor, unsuspecting layer.

As for the verb inflection, well, I don't know much Mayali (a couple of my speakers know it very well) but I'll point out that 3rd singular actor (subject and object are contentious) is likely to be unmarked. So in the example, the ka-re probably includes a zero morpheme marking 3rd singular actor, 'it goes'. This is a guess coming from Wagiman (a little to the West) as really my only experience in the area, so I might be on the wrong track.

Posted by: Jangari at Mar 5, 2007 1:48:34 PM

Thanks, Jangari! This is why I love the web—people know things.

Posted by: The Tensor at Mar 5, 2007 3:06:32 PM

No worries.
But email Nick anyway, I may be on the wrong track completely!

Posted by: Jangari at Mar 5, 2007 5:20:58 PM

"Kovariatlon turd Kausalitiit" is also an OCR error; it should be "Kovariation und Kausalität."

Posted by: Q. Pheevr at Mar 5, 2007 5:38:57 PM