Wednesday, April 09, 2003


Languagehat has made its long-promised peregrination to Movable Type (thanks, Songdog!); it is now to be found at, complete with comments that work, snazzy graphics (thanks, taz!), and the possibility of RSS feeds. Please update your links and bookmarks accordingly, and make yourselves at home! The existing entries and archives will remain here (as well as being replicated at the new address), but will not be updated. Thank you for your patronage, and I hope you will continue to provide stimulating comments and e-mails whenever you feel talkative.

Over and out...
ATTENTION PASSENGERS... We are experiencing delays due to system maintenance. By the spring of 2005 tomorrow Languagehat should be up and running at its new site, with improved graphics and functioning comments, not to mention an RSS feed. In the meantime garble mumble grackle...

We appreciate your patience!

Sunday, April 06, 2003

IDENTIFONT. If you're a lover of typography, you'll want to bookmark this site; find a capital Q in the text whose type you want to identify, answer a question about it, and you're started on a journey that will end in satisfaction. (If it doesn't, let them know—they're always adding new fonts.) Thanks, Chris!

Saturday, April 05, 2003

A POEM FOR MOIRA. This is from Dark World, a 1974 book by one of my favorite American poets, Hayden Carruth (also editor of my favorite American anthology, The Voice That Is Great Within Us); Dark World has an epigraph from Rabbi Baruch of Mezbizh: "What a good and bright world this is if we do not lose our hearts to it, but what a dark world if we do!"

I waken and
   lean and look out
      to see the darkness
   sunken westward
      over curving earth,
   like the long ocean
      running in tide
so fast and far
   it can never return
      or darken
this wide shore.

The last green star
      and the trees
lean in their green leaves
      as if in yearning
and then they straighten.

I rise
   from my window
      thinking now
the new words I must say
   as I step backward
      into day.

Friday, April 04, 2003

OLIVIER. I just saw Linda Winer interview Rosemary Harris, who knew Laurence Olivier and insisted that he pronounced his name in the traditional anglicized fashion ("oh-LIHV-ee-er," with the ending as in "heavier") and disliked the "oh-LIHV-ee-ay" pronunciation that has become universal ("It's not French!"), though he learned to accept it. (The same is true of the jazz drummer Paul Motian, who used to insist on pronouncing his Armenian name "MOW-tee-an" but finally gave in to the ubiquitous "MOW-shun.") Since I can't find any mention of this on the internet, and all my reference books give the French-style version, I thought I'd better post it here so there will be some record of the fact.
SHE'S THE GREATEST. Some of you may have noticed Languagehat was looking distinctly green about the gills lately. I tried my usual amateur haruspication of the template and gave up in despair; Caterina stepped into the breach, waved her magic wand over it, and hey presto!—the poor little blog was good as new, wagging its tail and begging for new entries. All praise and honor go to Caterina the Great, who may be a Fake but is the real thing.

(Comments and archives seem to be missing at the moment, but that's just Blogger being Blogger, I presume. Which reminds me: this little episode has finally gotten me off my lazy butt; I have bought and will be moving to MT soonest. Prepare to update your links!)

Thursday, April 03, 2003

THE MYTH OF THE SMALL VOCABULARY. It is sometimes said that "primitive peoples" (or welfare mothers, in a particularly obnoxious use of the trope) have a pathetically small vocabulary—a thousand words, perhaps. I've just found an excellent essay by linguist Geoffrey Nunberg (the language maven of Fresh Air, among other things) debunking this nonsense. By the way, although Nunberg doesn't give a figure, the average adult vocabulary appears to be somewhere around 40,000-50,000 words (or, if you believe Steven Pinker, not one of my heroes, something closer to 60,000). (Thanks to Jonathan Mayhew for pointing me in this direction.)

Addendum. Check out the other essays at Nunberg's homepage; there are eminently sensible ones on American attempts to pronounce "Iraq" and "Qatar" (and foreign names in general) and on the use of "Gallic" and other symptoms of our conflicted Francophobia, inter alia.

Wednesday, April 02, 2003

LINGUISTIC X-FILES. You thought Yiddish was descended from German? Wrong. It's from Basque. The truth is out there...

Note: Since it is no longer April 1, I'd better add, to clear things up for the overly literal, that the above should be read with eyebrows raised to the maximum level. The linked site is completely loony, despite its neat, professional appearance. As a matter of fact, I wondered if I myself was being taken in by an elaborate joke. I mean, "diaspora (exile, dispersion), .di-as.-.po-ora: adibide (advice) asagotu (to go far away) apokeria (filthy deed) oraintxe (right now): 'The advice is to go right now, far from the filthy deeds'"? "Diaspora" isn't even Yiddish! But naah, it's way too much trouble for a practical joke. It has to be in earnest.

Mea culpa. My deepest apologies. I failed to investigate the linked site further; I was satisfied with the first morsel of yummy lunacy. Moss was not so lazy, and he has directed my attention (see Comments) to the deep well from which the Yiddish stuff is drawn. It turns out that "Basque" is actually ancient Saharan, the base from which linguists invented all other languages. Yes, linguists. Why wasn't I in on this? It would have been so much more fun than digging around in dusty nineteenth-century German journals. Anyway, here is the inspiring conclusion, and I thank Moss for bringing this treasure our way:
From my work in with the following languages it appears that all highly developed languages, without exception, were invented by linguists; some languages turned out more elegant and useful than others. If this is indeed the case, then we should be entitled to start facing out some of the unnecessary and dying ones, such as Celtic, Friesian, Wallonian, Flemish, Catalan etc. Danish and Norwegian are almost the same so why not combine them, as the Basques did with their seven languages, which are now together called Euskera Batua or Unified Basque. Ukrainian and Russian, Galician and Portugese, Finnish and Estonian, Polish and Kashubian, Czech and Slovak, Macedonian and Bulgarian etc. all can be combined with a bit of good will. Why treasure something as artificial and unauthentic as the many unnecessary and people-dividing Benedictine language creations we we are now stuck with?

The European nations are making tremendous strides to unify under one government, one monetary system, one army, no boundaries, and now it is time to simplify the church-caused language bewilderment and start working toward a Unified European language, which we could call Euro Batua, which could be English or Spanish, but not German. The coming of the third millennium B.C. could be celebrated by starting to work toward the Universal language, it is long overdue. It is a pity that this Universal language cannot again be the Saharan of our ancestors, because it is just too complicated and too difficult to learn, but the oldest highly developed language in all the world shall not be allowed to die. Let Latin and Greek and Sanskrit only be remembered in books, we can well do without them, but the Basque language must survive and be spoken by a vibrant population, if necessary through the creation of a United Nations Heritage Region called Euskadi. It would be a worthy "Year 2000" project for the U.N.
MEDITERRANEAN. From a beautiful little book by Predrag Matvejevic (translated from the Croatian by Michael Henry Heim) featuring lots of centuries-old maps and drawings of cities and the kind of rambling but painstakingly precise commentary I love:
The name of a sea depends on its location and its links to the lands along its shores and to their peoples. Ancient peoples like the Egyptians and Sumerians called the Mediterranean the Upper Sea because of its position with respect to them. It had many names in the Bible: the great sea (yam ha-gadol, Joshua 1:4), the uttermost or utmost sea (yam ha-aharon, Deuteronomy 11:24, 34:2), the sea of the Philistines (yam pelishtim, Exodus 23:31). At times it was called simply The Sea, everyone assuming the sea in question was the Mediterranean....

Both Hecataeus and Herodotus call the Mediterranean the Great Sea, as do the Phoenecians, who appear to have been the first to navigate it. In The Peloponnesian War Thucydides calls it the Hellenic Sea (1:4) because it belongs to Greece. The Greeks called it, accordingly, "our sea," which nomenclature the Romans borrowed (mare nostrum) as did many after them. Plato is a bit more circumspect when he says, "the sea beside us" (par' hêmin thalassa, from Phaedo 113a). In a text known under the title "De mundo" and perhaps wrongly attributed to Aristotle we find the fateful designation of "inner sea" (hê esô thalassa, 3.8) as opposed to the outer sea or ocean: it is this designation that will later give rise, in Latin translation, to the term Mediterranean.

Philology will help us to trace our sea's history. The adjective mediterraneus was not a particularly refined word. Festus, a grammarian of the golden age, recommended that it be replaced by mediterreus, but recommendations of the sort are rarely heeded once a word has come into common use, and this was a time when Rome was on its way to becoming a major sea power. (By then the adjective meditullius—from tellus [earth] and possibly related to the Greek mesogaios [inland, in the heart of a country]—was archaic.) The word mediterraneus designated a landlocked space on the continent as opposed to maritimus. Cicero calls inland inhabitants "the most mediterranean of people" (homines maximi mediterranei, from In Verrem 2.5). Similarly, the noun mediterraneum designated the heart of the country (for example, and in the plural, mediterranea Galliae [the continental parts of Gaul]). The epithet mediterraneus came to be linked with the "inner sea" because the "inner sea" was itself landlocked.... But it was Isidorus Hispalensis, or Isidore of Seville, who turned the adjective into a proper noun: "The Great Sea [Mare Magnum] flows from the ocean in the west; it faces south and reaches north. It is called 'great' because other seas pale in comparison; it is called the Mediterranean because it washes against the surrounding land [mediam terram] all the way to the east, dividing Europe, Africa, and Asia" ("De Mediterraneo Mari," Origines 12.16).
Isn't that interesting? And the next time some Safiresque pedant criticizes current usage, ask him or her "So as a person of refined understanding, do you think the Mediterranean should properly be called the Mediterrean or the Meditullian Sea?" and watch the latter-day Festus flounder.
DO CHIMPS SPEAK? Ask Cecil for the Straight Dope on the subject. I pretty much agree with his conclusion ("I've seen nothing to persuade me that animals can use language as we do, that is, as a primary tool with which to acquire and transmit knowledge"), but then I'm a linguist, so I would. (Via Linguistiblog.)

Tuesday, April 01, 2003

PROPOSAL FOR NEW UNICODE SYMBOLS. My heart leaps up when I behold new typography being created. I especially like the Arabic/Persian samples. (Via Avva; pdf file.)
THE FLONG OF SAN SERRIFFE. I have tried the bitter-sweet swarfega and celebrated the Sonorous Enigma, but I have not been able (despite much effort) to find any information about the language of the Flong. If anyone out there can help, it will be much appreciated.