How to Snore in Korean

Consider the dog.

He exists the world over, in various forms and sizes, but his signature sound doesn’t translate all that well.

In Swedish, the sound of a small dog barking is rendered as bjäbb-bjäbb; in Turkish, hev hev; in Japanese, kian kian. Imagine a somewhat larger dog, and the words change yet again: to vov-vov, hauv hauv, and wan wan, respectively. Americans might say a small dog goes arf arf and a medium-sized dog ruff ruff.

Granted, a Swedish Vallhund is not an Anatolian Shepherd or a Japanese Spitz. But variations in dog breeds can’t fully account for these differences (for what it’s worth, you can find Swedish Vallhunds in Oklahoma). Instead, they speak to a larger phenomenon: Words formed from a sound and intended to imitate that sound—what linguists refer to as onomatopoeia—fluctuate around the world even when the underlying sound is roughly the same in each place. Sometimes there’s remarkable consistency across these words (most cows go something like moo) and sometimes there are curious outliers (America’s exceptional gobble gobble for a turkey). Other times it’s a free-for all; witness the grunting pig, which goes knor knor, oink, groin groin, and hrgu-hrgu as he trots around the world.

And the thing about it is, we don’t really understand why this fluctuation occurs. It has something to do with the alchemy of humans in different times and places striving to mimic noises in the world around them, and to incorporate this mimicry into distinct linguistic systems and cultural contexts. But what exactly?

Why ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ Sound So Similar in So Many Languages

“No rigorous studies have been done” on comparing onomatopoeia across cultures, Derek Abbott of the University of Adelaide in Australia told me by email. “Academics like me are still at the rudimentary ‘stamp collecting’ phase where I am making a collection of sounds.”

Some have hypothesized over the years that language originated with the imitation of natural sounds—a notion sometimes referred to as the “bow-wow theory.” But whatever the answer to this question, onomatopoeia explains only a sliver of the words we use. As John McWhorter recently wrote at The Atlantic, “No theory will ever account for why the words in a sentence like ‘He couldn’t even get halfway over that wall!’ are the way they are. Language is too changeable to allow us that pleasure, standing as we are at the end of a possibly 150,000-year timeline since human speech began.”

By day, Abbott is a professor of biomedical engineering. But for fun, in the course of his travels, he has amassed a giant spreadsheet of animal sounds in different languages (from which the examples above are drawn). He thinks of the words he compiles as “what would be written in the text balloon coming from the mouth of an animal” in a comic book.

Four years ago, Ke Nguyen, a video editor in London, took a different tack by consulting friends and volunteers recruited through Gumtree, a Craigslist-like site in the U.K. The result was this delightful video. (Onomatopoeia junkies beware: Judging from the video’s comments section, the Canadian and Brazilian participants may not have gotten all their animal sounds right.)

James Chapman, an illustrator who just completed a Ph.D. at the University of Manchester, has embraced the mystery in all this. First on Tumblr, and now in a recently released book funded through Kickstarter, he has spent a couple years chronicling onomatopoeia around the world, glorying not in explanation, but in variation. Plus, it’s illustrated.

James Chapman

It’s an unlikely project for Chapman to undertake. His Ph.D. is in physics, not linguistics. And he doesn’t speak any foreign languages (“I speak dog in other languages,” he offers). He told me he got interested in the subject after visiting a friend in South Korea, where he was baffled to learn that dogs there say mung-mung.

James Chapman

A bit of trivia here: The name of the ravenous main character in the game Pac-Man is based on paku paku, the Japanese word for the sound of eating.

James Chapman

Chapman pointed out that what looks like variation in onomatopoeia is sometimes simply a rearranging of discrete sounds: clap clap in English becomes plec plec in Portuguese.

James Chapman

I asked Chapman whether his research had led him in any bizarre directions.

He recalled one sprawling Google search for the duck sound in Estonian. “I ended up coming across one that was a man chasing a duck and making the duck sound in Estonian, and I thought, ‘This is a very strange video.’ It had, like, three views.”

“That was a life-questioning moment,” he added.

Thankfully for us all, he persisted. Oh, and that duck? In Estonia, it goes prääks.

The Key to Henry Kissinger’s Success

In his new biography of Henry Kissinger, the historian Niall Ferguson recalls that halfway through what became an eight-year research project, he had an epiphany. Tracing the story of how a young man from Nazi Germany became America’s greatest living statesman, he discovered not only the essence of Kissinger’s statecraft, but the missing gene in modern American diplomacy: an understanding of history.

For Ferguson, it was a humbling revelation. As he confesses in the introduction to Kissinger: “In researching the life and times of Henry Kissinger, I have come to realize that my approach was unsubtle. In particular, I had missed the crucial importance in American foreign policy of the history deficit: The fact that key decision-makers know almost nothing not just of other countries’ pasts but also of their own. Worse, they often do not see what is wrong with their ignorance.”

The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?

Ferguson’s observation reminded me of an occasion three years ago when, after an absence of four decades, Kissinger returned to Harvard. Asked by a student what someone hoping for a career like his should study, Kissinger answered: “history and philosophy”—two subjects notable for their absence in most American schools of public policy.

How did Kissinger prepare for his first major job in the U.S. government as national security advisor to President Richard Nixon? In his words, “When I entered office, I brought with me a philosophy formed by two decades of the study of history.” Ferguson uncovered a fascinating fragment from one of Kissinger’s contemporaries when they were both first-year graduate students at Harvard. John Stoessinger recalled Kissinger arguing “forcefully for the abiding importance of history.” In these conversations, Stoessinger said, Kissinger would cite the assertion by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides that “The present, while never repeating the past exactly, must inevitably resemble it. Hence, so must the future.”

“More than ever,” Kissinger urged, “one should study history in order to see why nations and men succeeded and why they failed.”

Ferguson has crafted his biography of Kissinger not only as the definitive account of an incredible personal and intellectual odyssey, but also as an opportunity to initiate a debate about the importance of history in statecraft. The book plants a flag for a project in “Applied History,” which he and I have been gestating at Harvard for several years. By Applied History we mean the explicit attempt to illuminate current policy challenges by analyzing historical precedents and analogues. Following in the footsteps of the 1986 classic Thinking in Time by Ernest May and Richard Neustadt, our goal is to revitalize Applied History both as a discipline in the university and as an art in the practice of statecraft.

How does Kissinger apply history? Subtly and cautiously, recognizing that its proper application requires both imagination and judgment. As Kissinger put it, “History is not … a cookbook offering pretested recipes. It teaches by analogy, not by maxims.” History “can illuminate the consequences of actions in comparable situations.” But—and here is the key—for it to do so, “each generation must discover for itself what situations are in fact comparable.”

Ferguson’s biography offers an array of examples of when Kissinger drew comparable analogues from history to illuminate contemporary issues and choices. For clues in coping with the frequently frustrating behavior of French President Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s, Kissinger suggested thinking about German leader Otto von Bismarck. For instance, responding to de Gaulle’s moves toward European confederation and away from American influence, Kissinger noted that the French president’s “diplomacy is in the style of Bismarck, who strove ruthlessly to achieve what he considered Prussia’s rightful place, but who then tried to preserve the new equilibrium through prudence, restraint, and moderation.” This insight led Kissinger to conclude that de Gaulle was a self-interested but reasonable leader whom the United States could deal with, at a time when many were ready to write de Gaulle off as a communist sympathizer for being the first Western leader to recognize Maoist China in 1964.

In the 1950s, when mainstream conservatives were ambivalent about Senator Joseph McCarthy’s broadside against alleged communist sympathizers in the State Department and across American society, Kissinger sought to remind them of the complacency of Germans during Adolf Hitler’s early years. As he wrote, “It took some of the best elements in Germany six years after Hitler came to power to realize that a criminal was running their country which they had been so proud of considering a moral state.” The challenge was “to convince the conservative element that true conservatism at the moment requires … opposition to McCarthy.” Using an early version of what Applied Historians might recognize as the “May Method,” in 1951 Kissinger wrote to the CIA’s leading theorist of psychological warfare to set out the similarities and, just as importantly, the differences between 1951, when the United States, the Soviet Union, and Western Europe were struggling to stabilize global order amid the Cold War, and 1815, when European nations constructed an enduring balance of power at the Congress of Vienna.

In reasoning from history, Ferguson explains, the “counterfactual–what might be and might have been—is always alive in the mind of Kissinger’s statesman. The peace he achieves is always by definition a disaster that has been averted.” Ferguson illustrates this point with a string of counterfactual examples in Kissinger’s writings—none more vivid than the West’s response to Hitler: “If the democracies had moved against Hitler in 1936, for instance, ‘we wouldn’t know today whether Hitler was a misunderstood nationalist or whether he was in fact a maniac. The democracies learned that he was in fact a maniac. They had certainty but they had to pay for that with a few million lives.’”

Ferguson calls this concept the “problem of conjecture”: acting before one is certain to avoid potential but uncertain consequences. This is the challenge policymakers face constantly—whether dealing with Vladimir Putin or the threat of nuclear terrorism from ISIS or al-Qaeda. What price are we willing to pay for greater certainty of an adversary’s intentions and capabilities?  In the case of terrorist groups, if we don’t defeat them today, in their incipient phases, we risk allowing them to mature to the point where they can conduct Paris-style attacks—or even another 9/11—tomorrow.

Central to Kissinger’s statecraft, Ferguson’s masterful biography argues, was his ability to bring a deep knowledge of history to bear on the policy questions he confronted. In doing so, Kissinger demonstrated, as Winston Churchill observed, that “the longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.”

The Fragile French Republic

PARIS —There was indeed a period of public mournfulness here, but it did not last long. The bars and cafés are filled once again with chatter and cigarettes; subway-riders have returned to unabashed discourtesy. At local bookshops, A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir of a bohemian life in the French capital in the 1920s, is suddenly in great demand. The French title is a declaration: Paris est une fête—“Paris is a feast,” or more colloquially, “Paris is a party.” Among Parisians, one senses a quiet resolve to fall back into routines and social habits, not only because they must, but because they should, and can—because the so-called Islamic State is not, of course, an existential threat to Paris or to France, unless the French choose to give themselves over to hysteria, and to treat it as if it were.

The Charlie Hebdo I Know

And yet the policy response seems to reflect exactly this, less confident, stance. The choice is unfortunate but unsurprising; any democratic government, trapped by electoral calculus and the felt imperative of immediate action, might be expected to do the same. Yet French authorities have been particularly alarmist, opting for a response that is both notably bellicose and notably heedless of civil rights. They have retaliated with bombing raids in Raqqa, with calls to close French mosques and deport more radical preachers, and with the declaration of a three-month state of emergency that has already allowed for more than 1,000 warrantless police searches, 165 warrantless arrests, and the placement under house arrest, without judicial approval or the possibility of legal recourse of any kind, of more than 250 people. There have been serious calls for the internment of the thousands of people listed by the intelligence services as possible threats; Prime Minister Manuel Valls has declared himself open to the possibility.

Perhaps these choices were truly necessary; unfortunately, unless the government chooses to reveal the intelligence information that motivated them, there will be no way to know. What is certain, however, is that such responses are of precisely the sort the Islamic State sought to provoke. “What IS wants is to set off civil war,” pitting Muslims against their would-be oppressors in the West, said Gilles Kepel, the political scientist and specialist in jihadist thought, in an interview with Le Monde. At worst, France’s draconian responses will beget a fresh cohort of alienated, angry French terrorists; at best, they will be propaganda fodder for ISIS’s recruiters, who will present them as further evidence of France’s hypocrisy, its willingness to apply its fundamental values variably, and its alleged oppression of Muslims.

France is now a top target of international jihad, having perhaps eclipsed even the “Great Satan” of the United States. It is easily accessible to jihadists with European passports— many hundreds of them French—and is a nation-symbol of secular enlightenment, with a notoriously fraught and, some would say, hostile approach to Islam. But its specific political culture and national mythology also make it particularly susceptible to the trap ISIS has laid for it. A history of political upheaval and collapse seems to have instilled in the country’s political leaders the conviction, even in times of political calm, that France’s Republican project is terribly fragile. This alleged fragility can impose a sort of permanent defensiveness, a siege mentality that treats criticism as treachery and the admission of failure as an “anti-Republican” threat to the nation’s very survival. As elsewhere, moments of crisis tend not to bring analysis and adaptation, but retrenchment; in France, that tendency is particularly pronounced, exacerbated and legitimated by a long political tradition.

“Anxiety” over the survival of the Republican model, a collective project that from its start has sought to impose national unity, and uniformity, from on high, is indeed “hard-wired into French Republicanism,” said the historian Emile Chabal. The result, he said, is that “there is a much greater fear in France than elsewhere that people will not toe the line,” that they will not endorse the country’s values and mores unless obliged by law. This fear began at the Revolution, Chabal said, and ran through a tumultuous 19th century: The Republican model was twice jettisoned, twice readopted and constantly under threat, be it from monarchists, the Catholic Church, or leftist insurrection. In the 20th century, the country faced what Chabal deemed “attacks on its own territorial and social identity” of a sort uncommon in Europe; the Nazi occupation and the Vichy regime remain a source of deep shame and political confusion here, as does the brutal Algerian war of independence, in which France’s colonial subjects effectively turned Republicanism against the French, demanding for themselves the freedom and equality it nominally guaranteed. The current constitution, that of what is known as the Fifth Republic, dates from 1958, when an attempted putsch by several French generals in Algiers effectively brought Charles de Gaulle to power and brought down the Fourth. Given this history, modern French politics is informed by the conceit, however far-fetched now, that “there’s something there that can bring down the whole edifice,” Chabal said. When successful, terrorism serves to reveal the weaknesses of that edifice, and can thus be viewed as one such threat.

“The fear of collapse is something constant within French society,” the historical journalist Emmanuel Laurentin told me, and it is felt that moments of crisis “always create the possibility of regime change.” In addition to the universal tendency among politicians, then, there exists a particular French urgency to the avoidance of criticism.

Thus Bernard Cazeneuve, for instance, who as interior minister oversees France’s principal intelligence services, could insist last week that the November 13 killings had revealed no failure in the French counter-terror apparatus, despite the fact that at least nine young extremists, many of them French and many of them known to that apparatus, were able to infiltrate Paris with an arsenal of black-market assault rifles and murder 130 people. “I’d like to ask anyone who’s proceeded sometimes with dicey commentary, or tried to create polemics, to look at the facts,” Cazeneuve said last week. “This attack was prepared and organized by cells which are outside the national territory, and mobilized individuals who were not known to our services.” This statement was intended, apparently, as a defense of those services’ fine work. (Cazeneuve added that, in fact, some of the attackers were known to French authorities, but only for their apparent religious extremism, “not for their involvement in activities of terrorist character.”)

Since March 2012, when a 23-year-old Franco-Algerian jihadist killed seven people in shootings in and around Toulouse, the French have adopted a series of laws meant to bolster a counter-terror system that was already, for the extensive powers it afforded investigators, judges, and the intelligence services, the envy of governments the world over; this past summer, following the killings at Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery in January, the legislature approved a major expansion in authorized electronic surveillance practices. It is not clear, however, that any of these new powers have been of particular help in preventing terrorism. “Running against all logic, be it economic or industrial, against the most elementary intellectual rigor, we’ve decided to considerably reinforce the means afforded to structures that have been found to be heavily lacking,” Jacques Raillane, a former French diplomat and intelligence specialist, wrote last week in a blog hosted by Le Monde. Cazeneuve, the interior minister, apparently does not intend to see the efficacy of the counter-terror system “challenged by facts,” Raillane wrote. “After all, facts are so 20th century, and criticism is such a sign of an anti-national posture.”

About 2,000 French citizens or residents are thought by the French government to be involved in the Syrian jihad in various capacities from recruitment to actual fighting, more than from any other European nation; there seems to be little appetite for an examination of possible reasons for this, or of possible long-term solutions. (It should be noted that France does have what is generally thought to be Western Europe’s largest Muslim population, though France doesn’t keep official numbers.) Many public officials seem to believe that France is just unlucky. The possibility that the country’s particular approach to Islam, or the integration of its post-colonial underclass, or the poor concrete neighborhoods of the banlieues, might contribute in some way to this sad phenomenon has not been the subject of any serious political debate since the start of the Syrian conflict. “We know it, and it’s cruel even just to say it, it was French who killed other French on Friday,” President François Hollande acknowledged before legislators last week. Yet he made no effort to interrogate or explain that reality, saying simply: “We must thus protect ourselves, urgently and in the long-term.” He spoke of police operations, and the state of emergency he’d decreed.

Laurentin, the historical journalist, found it striking that the November 13 killings have been so often described by politicians and journalists as “an attack on our way of life,” he said, “as if the way of life of the cafés of the 10th arrondissement represented the way of life of all of France.” This reflex speaks to a Republican “fantasy of unity,” he said, a wish to “recreate, in an almost imaginary way,” a uniformity that has never existed here. The tendency began at the Revolution, with efforts to eradicate the various regional patois and impose French, for instance; the same instincts were at work in January, after the Charlie Hebdo killings, when “being Charlie” became a social responsibility incumbent, it seemed, upon every faithful Frenchman.

Hollande ended his address with a promise to “eradicate” terrorism. “Terrorism will not destroy the Republic,” he declared, “because the Republic will destroy terrorism.” He spoke from the Château de Versailles, amid the seized glories of a king beheaded by the Republicans who deposed him. “French Republicanism has for a very long time had a very martial strain within it,” said Chabal, the historian. He suspected that Hollande’s speech was “necessary hyperbole,” a political calculation intended simply to rally the country. “If the French people actually respond to his rhetoric, then he could have a problem,” Chabal said. Hollande’s choice of dire terms is surely to be understood in the context of a long French political tradition. In matters of jihadist terror, that same tradition has not in recent years served the country particularly well.

The Real Danger of the Downed Russian Jet

For clues to how the Syrian Civil War might finally end—or devolve into an even more nightmarish conflict—look to the congested skies over Syria.

There, the air forces of countries such as the United States, Russia, Turkey, and Syria are all regularly conducting strikes, often at cross-purposes. And there, on Tuesday, Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian warplane for allegedly violating Turkey’s airspace. As my colleague Marina Koren notes, the episode marks the first time a NATO country has downed a Russian plane in 63 years.

It’s the kind of incident that has haunted military planners: a tussle between major powers involved in Syria’s kaleidoscopic conflict, with the potential to draw allies into a much bigger war.

But the more pressing problem is arguably the impact the clash could have within Syria itself. After all, NATO countries have been reluctant to invoke Article 5 of their treaty, which commits members to collective defense (the principle was not applied, for example, when Syria brought down a Turkish jet in 2012). And while American officials have publicly defended Turkey’s right to police its airspace, they’ve less publicly been frustrated for months now with Turkey as a partner in fighting ISIS and resolving the Syrian Civil War. Plus, as New York University’s Mark Galeotti observed on Tuesday, “Russia cannot fight hot diplomatic wars on too many fronts, and Europe clearly wants Moscow to be part of the solution in Syria and maybe Ukraine, too.”

The Confused Person’s Guide to the Syrian Civil War

Instead, Tuesday’s skirmish threatens to derail international negotiations over Syria just when they seemed to be making (very tentative) progress toward a diplomatic solution to the civil war, and thereby a response to its many symptoms, including the ascendancy of ISIS.

Turkey and Russia have long been on opposite sides of the Syrian Civil War, with Russia supporting President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey backing an array of rebel groups. But these tensions have intensified since Turkey joined the U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS over the summer (while simultaneously bombing U.S.-supported Kurdish militants in the region) and Russia began air strikes in Syria against ISIS and other anti-Assad groups in September.

Many of Russia’s strikes have occurred near the southern tip of Turkey where the Russian plane was hit this week, as the map below indicates.

Recent Russian and U.S.-Led Air Strikes in Syria

Institute for the Study of War / U.S. Central Command / Reuters

Russian aircraft repeatedly veered into Turkish airspace in October, prompting Turkey’s president to threaten a reduction in the country’s considerable and growing commercial relations with Russia, and NATO’s secretary-general to float the idea of deploying troops to defend Turkey. More recently, Turkish officials have been incensed by Russia’s bombing of Syrian Turkmen, a minority ethnic group of Turkish descent, in northern Syria. (In fact, it was Turkmen rebels—who, with Turkish support, are fighting Assad’s forces—who claimed to have killed the Russian pilot who died while parachuting into Syria on Tuesday, after the Turkish military struck his plane.)

Some have speculated that Russia’s incursions into Turkish airspace have not been accidental, but rather deliberate efforts to test Turkey, NATO, and the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition—and their vision for Syria’s Assad-less future. That vision includes the creation of safe zones in northwestern Syria, the very region where Russian bombers are most active.

In recent weeks, however, ISIS’s bombing of a Russian airliner over Egypt and attacks in Paris, among other developments, had given new impetus to diplomatic negotiations over Syria’s civil war. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius reported last week that talks between the major powers in the conflict—the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, and several European countries—were making surprising progress, and that the next stage could feature a ceasefire between Assad and the more moderate rebel groups.

But Ignatius added that there was a possible snag involving whether to include the rebel group Ahrar al-Sham, which has reportedly collaborated with other elements of the Turkey-supported opposition, including Syrian Turkmen fighters:

A test of the delicate process will be whether it includes an Islamist opposition group called Ahrar al-Sham. This rebel group has been backed by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and it has fought alongside [the al-Qaeda-affiliated] Jabhat al-Nusra against the regime and its Russia ally.

If the proxy war between Russia and Turkey intensifies, it could impede progress on compromises like these, which would be critical for reaching any semblance of a peace deal in Syria. And continued Russian and Turkish succor for their preferred factions will likely only prolong the civil war. In 2013, for example, The Economist reflected on the pivotal role foreign powers play in sustaining conflicts such as Syria’s:

So far, nothing has done more to end the world’s hot little wars than winding up its big cold one. From 1945 to 1989 the number of civil wars rose by leaps and bounds, as America and the Soviet Union fuelled internecine fighting in weak young states, either to gain advantage or to stop the other doing so. By the end of the period, civil war afflicted 18% of the world’s nations, according to the tally kept by the Centre for the Study of Civil War, established at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, a decade ago. When the cold war ended, the two enemies stopped most of their sponsorship of foreign proxies, and without it, the combatants folded. More conflicts ended in the 15 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall than in the preceding half-century (see chart 1). The proportion of countries fighting civil wars had declined to about 12% by 1995. …

The main reason for jaw-jaw outpacing war-war is a change in the nature of outside involvement. In the Cold War neither of the superpowers was keen to back down; both would frequently fund their faction for as long as it took. Today outside backers are less likely to have the resources for such commitment. And in many cases, outsiders are taking an active interest in stopping civil wars.

Civil wars, James Fearon and David Laitin wrote in 2008, channeling the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, can be thought of as “international politics by other means.” Before a Russian warplane hurtled to the ground in Syria on Tuesday, there had been signs, however small, that key powers were at last truly interested in stopping Syria’s civil war through politics. Now, however, they seem more likely to stick with other means.