Tuesday, December 31, 2002

PEACE. I would like to wish all Languagehat readers a happy new year; may 2003 be a year of peace for each of us individually and for the world at large.
I do not want the peace which passeth understanding, I want the understanding which bringeth peace.
—Helen Keller
TRADUCING TOLKIEN. I saw The Two Towers yesterday and enjoyed it a lot—partly because the theater kept the sound down to a level where I didn't have to keep my hands over my ears for half the move; theater owners please take note! (Best Languagehat line: "It takes a long time to say anything in Old Entish.") However, I had not read the books in decades, so discrepancies were lost on me aside from a little uneasiness around the edges. Now that I've read Naomi's detailed demolishing in Baraita, I like the movie less in retrospect. Renee has a more narrowly focused attack in Glosses.net. Tolkien fans will want to read both.

Monday, December 30, 2002

MEMORIZING POETRY. Yesterday's NY Times had a good op-ed piece, A Lost Eloquence, by Carol Muske-Dukes on the value of memorizing poetry, which I heartily endorse. The opening is a little silly, but here's the heart of the essay:
Years ago, when I taught in the graduate program in writing at Columbia, the late Russian poet Joseph Brodsky was also on the faculty. Brodsky famously infuriated the students in his workshop on the first day of class, when he would announce that each student would be expected to memorize several poems (some lengthy) and recite them aloud. The students — even if they had known that Brodsky had learned English in dissenter's exile in Russia by putting to heart the poems of Auden, among others — were outraged at first.

There was talk among students of refusing to comply with this requirement. Then they began to recite the poems learned by heart in class — and out of class. By the end of the term, students were "speaking" the poems of Auden and Bishop and Keats and Wyatt with dramatic authority and real enjoyment. Something had happened to change their minds. The poems they'd learned were now in their blood, beating with their hearts.

In the workshops I teach I continue to ask students to choose poems to memorize. Recently, a young woman loudly resisted what she called a boring exercise. But after memorizing Emily Dickinson, Countee Cullen, Sylvia Plath and several haiku by Issa, she was still going strong — delighted with how the words rolled trippingly off her tongue. "I own these poems now," she said.

Sunday, December 29, 2002

LOWERCASE THAT I! I don't tend to join crusades, but I'm hereby enlisting in Joseph Turow's. According to John Schwartz's article "Who Owns the Internet? You and i Do" in this week's NY Times Week in Review, Turow is campaigning to have the word "internet" spelled with a small i.
Capitalization irked him because, he said, it seemed to imply that reaching into the vast, interconnected ether was a brand-name experience.

"The capitalization of things seems to place an inordinate, almost private emphasis on something," he said, turning it into a Kleenex or a Frigidaire. "The Internet, at least philosophically, should not be owned by anyone," he said, calling it "part of the neural universe of life."

But, he said, dropping the big I would sent a deeper message to the world: The revolution is over, and the Net won. It's part of everyone's life, and as common as air and water (neither of which starts with a capital).
I've always thought of the word as lowercase, and it irritates me every time I see that capital I. Mind you, there are (as always) obstacles to change:
Dictionaries do not generally see themselves as making the rules, said Jesse Sheidlower, who runs the American offices of the Oxford English Dictionary.

"What dictionaries do is reflect what's out there," he said. He and his fellow dictionary editors would think seriously about such changes after newspapers make them, he added.

That could take a while. Allan M. Siegal, a co-author of The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage and an assistant managing editor at the newspaper, said that "there is some virtue in the theory" that Internet is becoming a generic term, "and it would not be surprising to see the lowercase usage eclipse the uppercase within a few years."

He said, however, that the newspaper was unlikely to make any change that was not supported by authoritative dictionaries.
And, by the way, "the Internet's capital I is virtually engraved in stone, since Microsoft Word automatically capitalizes the lowercase "i" unless a user overrides its settings."

So fight the power and force the newspapers, the dictionaries, and Bill Gates to recognize the new, non-brand-name reality—write "internet"!

Saturday, December 28, 2002

GAZABO. No, not "gazebo": it's a slang term from the early part of the last century meaning 'guy, fellow' or (according to Howard N. Rose's 1934 A Thesaurus of Slang) 'a friend or companion.' Jack London in Valley of the Moon (1913) uses it thus: "By the sixth round the wise gazabos was offerin' two to one against me." I came across it in a poem by Edwin Honig, "The Gazabos." The poem is a bit long to quote in full here, but it can be found online (a page with a large number of poems; search on "gazabos" or scroll to about two-thirds down). Here is the beginning:
I saw them dancing,
the gazabos, apes of joy, swains of
their pocket mirrors, to each a world:
a dancing, a gallumphing, a guzzling
of themselves.

They yapped, they cooed,
they flapped their feet and winked grimaces
into grins. They rapped their knuckles on
their teeth and bled and licked
the blood like honey.

Turning the corner
to my street, I spat on each
gazabo as they came. They loved it,
they could barely keep
from following....

Friday, December 27, 2002

GANGS OF NEW YORK. I have lots of things to say about this movie, which (besides having great acting from Daniel Day-Lewis and Jim Broadbent) puts you in mid-nineteenth-century New York so convincingly you can practically smell the pigs wandering the streets in Five Points, but what's relevant to Languagehat is, of course, the language. Which is magnificent. Much of the script (especially Day-Lewis's part) was obviously written with a deep love for the period's mix of high and low, exemplified by the line "I don't give a tuppenny fvck for your moral conundrums!" (No, he doesn't say "fvck," that's my attempt to avoid misbegotten googlings.) And the attention paid to detail can be heard in the way a policeman discussing problems at various locations during the Draft Riots refers to "Broad Way"; you can hear the two words, not ostentatiously but clearly. For that sort of thing I am willing to forgive some of the historical lapses (though not the absurd shelling of the city at the climax of the riots, obviously inserted to provide more bang for the multimillion bucks). I must warn potential viewers, though, that this is an extremely violent movie; anyone made queasy by multiple shootings, stabbings, hatchetings, brainings, and the like should avoid it (or at least wait for the video, where you can fast-forward through the gore).

Thursday, December 26, 2002

HERESY OF THE DAY. I was looking for an entirely different word in the Shorter Oxford when I ran across the mysterious term "Osiandrian." I don't know why religious sects so often have such recondite-sounding names, but they do; in high school I was fascinated by the word "Muggletonian" (and still am, truth be told, though I have no idea what belief it was that Muggleton held so fervently), and I couldn't resist this. I could quote you the Oxford's boring definition about the Atonement of Christ being wrought by His divine nature, but instead I will serve up this pungent piece of rhetoric from "The Osiandrian Controversy" at the fundamentalist-Lutheran site Concordia Lutheran Online:
Wherever the vicarious atonement of Christ is denied or minimized as the cause of man's justification; wherever God's forensic act of Objective Justification is rejected; wherever the "Christ in us" is substituted for (or stressed above) the "Christ FOR us"; wherever Christians are taught to place their confidence and look for the assurance of forgiveness in their "personal experience with Jesus Christ" and their mystical relationship with the indwelling Savior; and wherever poor sinners are directed to their own works of sanctification for favor with God, as if they in any way merit His goodness—there the error of Osiander still lurks in the bushes.
Addendum. Pete, of the excellent New Companion, provides this touching testimonial:
I do believe in God alone,
Likewise in Reeve and Muggleton.

This is the Muggletonian's faith,
This is the God which we believe;
None salvation-knowledge hath,
But those of Muggleton and Reeve.
Christ is the Muggletonians' king,
With whom eternally they'll sing.

GAELIC AND SORBIAN. "Essentialism and Relativism in Gaelic and Sorbian Language Revival Discourses" (Paper given by Konstanze Glaser on 30 January 2002) is actually pretty interesting, with information on the background and present status of the two languages (that's Scottish Gaelic, by the way, which I didn't realize at first; since the paper was presented to the Department of Celtic and Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh, it's understandable the Scottish part was taken for granted). And of course Languagehat is known to take an interest in Sorbian. The main reason I'm posting it, however, is the unexpected pairing of the two languages. When I saw the title, I blinked and repeated the words of my dear departed mother: "I never thought the subject would come up." An excerpt:
Gaelic has served as a reminder of an original genetic and cultural link of indigenous Highlanders to the traditional Gaelic-speaking community of Ireland. Gaels have celebrated this link as a confirmation of their share in a rich cultural heritage and as a source of Pan-Celtic sensibilities, but there has never been a serious attempt to (re)establish a political union between them and their Irish counterparts. At the same time, Gaelic has functioned as a boundary marker towards the Lowlands. The Gaelic term Gàidhealtachd still is translated as both 'Gaeldom' and 'Highlands' even though the continued retreat of Gaelic language ability and language use to the Western periphery and a growing share of 'Highland' natives whose biographies were only marginally affected by the region's traditional language and culture have made the composite meaning of the term Gàidhealtachd problematical.

Tuesday, December 24, 2002

HAIRY ISTHMUS TO ALL! Eeksy-Peeksy has a little ditty (or, as he calls it, augury doggerel) that made me laugh despite my wretched cold, and I thought I'd share it with my readers. However, since 1) it may offend those who are solemn about the Nativity season and 2) it contains words that I don't want drawing Google hits to Languagehat, I will put the actual ditty in a comment; if the comments are temporarily missing (sigh), just click on the Eeksy link above to be taken right to it. I will probably not be blogging tomorrow (too busy stuffing myself with Norwegian meatballs), so I will take this opportunity to wish all Languagehat aficionados a merry & happy twenty-fifth of December, whether or not you assign any metaphysical significance to the date.

Monday, December 23, 2002

LANGUAGEHAT RESTORED. Thanks to a timely intervention by Anton Sherwood, the muttering Ogre, I found my missing entry by the simple expedient of republishing the archive. I apologize for crying wolf, but dammit, the gate of the sheepfold was open, I could have sworn I saw wolf tracks, and it's so hard counting virtual sheep... At any rate, I am glad to know I have readers so willing to help out and encourage me to improve the blog; I appreciate all of your comments to the earlier entry, and I promise I'll switch to Movable Type!

Sunday, December 22, 2002

TIMES WATCH. In a silly article called "Suddenly, It's Easier to Find a Hero Than a Villain," Rick Lyman rehashes the ancient wheeze about how hard it is to find acceptable ethnic groups for a villain to belong to since the fall of the Soviet Union. I can forgive him that—the Times has to fill the "Week in Review" section somehow—but I can't forgive him this sentence:
When it comes to choosing villains for big popcorn movies — a task that used to be as easy as "Where did we put those Nazi uniforms?" — it is becoming more and more difficult to take a step without trodding on someone's tender toes.
"Trodding"?? Does Rick think about what he's wroting, or does he just sat down and let flew? And where are the editors, for the love of god?

Addendum. Having recently beaten William Safire like a rented mule, I feel I should compliment him for this week's column. Not only does he provide interesting information about the etymology of "pot" (I'm not at home and don't have my full array of sources, but the Online Etymology Dictionary agrees: "pot (2) - 'marijuana,' 1938, probably a shortened form of Mexican Sp. potiguaya marijuana leaves.'"), he openly disagrees with the unfortunate Times decision to refer to Saddam Hussein as "Mr. Hussein." As the column says, "Hussein is not a family name but his father's first name." This is something I rarely see referred to, and Safire is absolutely right to insist on calling the dictator "Saddam."
FUJIMORI. I have never figured out how to pronounce the family name of Alberto Fujimori, quondam president of Peru. There is debate over whether he was born in Japan or Peru, but his native language is Spanish, so he (like all Peruvians) pronounces his name with a Spanish j (=kh). That should settle the matter, except that it feels strange to be pronouncing a clearly Japanese name in such an un-Japanese way. (Compare the discussion of how to pronounce foreign names in this earlier entry.)

Saturday, December 21, 2002

THE ULWA PROJECT. I happened on a very well done site, The Ulwa Project, which includes a dictionary of this language (of the Misumalpan family) of eastern Nicaragua as well as Thomas Green's dissertation, "A Lexicographic Study of Ulwa" (MIT 1989) and is dedicated to recording and preserving the fast-dwindling language. I liked very much Green's acknowledgments, in which (along with the usual suspects) he thanks Eugene "Sully" Sullivan, "the night custodian on the third floor of the now-deceased Building 20.... He was always good for some Red Sox talk or griping about the system or keeping a pot of coffee brewing in one of the biohazard labs."

Friday, December 20, 2002

OLD ENGLISH COMPUTER TERMS. For example, boot up = inspinngehweorfastyrian. Via Avva.
TRANSLATING GENDER. Jacek Krankowski, a professional translator, has a very interesting discussion of problems involved in translating between languages with grammatical gender marking and those without. Some samples:
The Russian painter Repin was baffled as to why Sin had been depicted as a woman by German artists; he did not realize that "sin" is feminine in German (die Sünde), but masculine in Russian (grekh). Likewise a Russian child, while reading a translation of German tales, was astounded to find that Death, obviously a woman (Russian smert, fem.) was pictured as an old man (German der Tod, masc.). My sister Life, the title of a book of poems by Boris Pasternak, is quite natural in Russian, where 'life' is feminine (zhizn), but was enough to reduce to despair the Czech poet Josef Hora in his attempt to translate these poems, since in Czech this noun is masculine (zivot). (1959: 237)

Similarly, the German painter Stuck personified the gruesome war as a man (der Krieg, masc.) while, in contrast, the Polish painter Grotger represented a similar war-like figure as a woman (wojna, fem.) (de Courtenay, 1929: 246)....

In Daphne du Maurier's gothic-like novel Rebecca, the protagonists, Maxim and his wife, have invited some relatives to their once-deserted manor in the English countryside. After dinner, Maxim's brother-in-law expresses his admiration for the meal by saying:
Same cook I suppose, Maxim?
There is no later reference in the book to the cook and the sex of this chef de cuisine is never revealed. How does a translator, whose task it is to translate the sentence into a language that shows grammatical gender, cope with this problem? How does he/she know whether the cook is male or female? There seems to be no one agreed solution as five different translations into grammatical gender languages show:

French: la meme cuisinière
Italian : lo stesso cuoco
Spanish: el mismo cocinero
Portuguese: a mesma cozinheira
German: dieselbe Köchin
(Wandruszka 1969: 173)
The example demonstrates that three translators assigned 'generally female' and two 'generally male' as the social gender of cook. Whether this is due to the translators' lack of knowledge as to what type of cook is more likely to be in a noble English manor or whether this is due to their ideological expectations as to what is likely in their own community, is an open question.
He gives several other examples of different translators coping with the same text; I love this sort of thing, and would happily read an entire book of it. [Via Enigmatic Mermaid.]
OD, A MONOSYLLABLE. Now, here's a branch of the sciences that has been too long neglected. From the OED:
Od. A hypothetical force held by Baron von Reichenbach (1788-1869) to pervade all nature, manifesting itself in certain persons of sensitive temperament (streaming from their finger-tips), and exhibited especially by magnets, crystals, heat, light, and chemical action; it has been held to explain the phenomena of mesmerism and animal magnetism.
An odd name, you say? But it was chosen for impeccably logical reasons: "I will take the liberty to propose the short word Od for the force which we are engaged in examining. Every one will admit it to be desirable that a unisyllabic word beginning with a vowel should be selected... for the sake of convenient conjunction in the manifold compound words.... Instead of saying, 'the Od derived from crystallization', we may name this product crystallod." (Ashburner 1850, tr. Reichenbach's Dynamics 224). Those interested can pursue their odylic studies here. Od's most significant appearance in literature is probably in the Seventh Book of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh:
We think, here, you have written a good book,
And you, a woman! It was in you—yes,
I felt 'twas in you: yet I doubted half
If that od-force of German Reichenbach
Which still from female finger-tips burns blue,
Could strike out, as our masculine white heats,
To quicken a man. Forgive me. All my heart
Is quick with yours, since, just a fortnight since,
I read your book and loved it.
But it is also referred to in Avram Davidson's The Enquiries of Doctor Eszterhazy, a collection of stories about curious events in the Empire of Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania which I recommend to anyone interested in fine prose and recondite phenomena.

Thursday, December 19, 2002

THE PERFECT SQUELCH. Anton Sherwood cites a story about three Romanian gymnasts being banned by their federation for giving a nude performance in Japan: "The trio had 'tarnished the image of gymnastics' with their naked performance . . . in a DVD filmed in Chiba prefecture outside Tokyo, said the Romanian gymnastics federation president Nicolae Vieru." The Ogre remarks: "Spoilsport. He should look up the etymology of gymnast sometime. "

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

97 AND STILL GOING STRONG. I should have been paying more attention to Stanley Kunitz. This poem is wonderful:

"The Testing-Tree", section 4

In the recurring dream
   my mother stands
      in her bridal gown
under the burning lilac,
   with Bernard Shaw and Bertie
      Russell kissing her hands;
the house behind her is in ruins;
   she is wearing an owl's face
      and makes barking noises.
Her minatory finger points.
   I pass through the cardboard doorway
      askew in the field
and peer down a well
   where an albino walrus huffs.
      He has the gentlest eyes.
If the dirt keeps sifting in,
   staining the water yellow,
      why should I be blamed?
Never try to explain.
   That single Model A
      sputtering up the grade
unfurled a highway behind
   where the tanks maneuver,
      revolving their turrets.
In a murderous time
   the heart breaks and breaks
      and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
   through dark and deeper dark
      and not to turn.
I am looking for the trail.
   Where is my testing-tree?
      Give me back my stones!

Copyright (c) 1995 Stanley Kunitz
from Passing Through: the Later Poems, New and Selected (via Wood's Lot)
JEWISH FAMILY NAMES. From Beth Hatefutsoth (via Plep) comes an introduction to their database of Jewish names. Getting information on particular names costs five bucks a pop, but the introduction is well worth reading:
In all Diaspora communities, Jews had a preference for surnames of biblical or Hebrew origin. Not only did they choose biblical given names that had been in Jewish usage for generations – Shimon, David, Yaakov, Abraham, Aharon and many others – but also biblical toponyms like Jerusalem, Bethlehem and other venerated sites and landmarks of the Land of Israel. Yet, Jews did not use the name in the original form, but generally changed its spelling and pronunciation or added prefixes and/or suffixes from other languages. In this way, they wished to combine their ancestral heritage with a sincere desire to be integrated into the non-Jewish surrounding society. Family name Nathansohn is an example of choosing a biblical name – Nathan – to which the German suffix "-sohn" (meaning "son") was added to confer it a more German appearance. In North Africa, the biblical Yaakov became the family name Vaaknin, which is a diminutive of Yaakov in the local Berber language. As a result, the Hebrew name sounded more similar to a local Berber or Arabic name.

Sometimes family names were created by using acronyms or anagrams of Hebrew words. Thus, the name's sound and spelling was changed, transforming it into a European name while keeping the original meaning: Katz, which is a Hebrew acronym of Kohen Zedek ("rightful priest") (ë"õ) means "cat" in German. Family names Wiehl or Weill are anagrams of the biblical name Levi.

Translating a Hebrew name was another popular method for selecting a family name: Hayyim (literally: "life") became Vivas or Bibas for Ladino speaking Jews, while Cohen (meaning "priest") was translated as Kaplan ("chaplain", in German).
I'm assuming that their information is accurate; what I know about seems correct, but as always I welcome corrections from knowledgeable readers.

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

LANGUAGEHAT HACKED. Over the weekend I was trying to access an earlier entry; my archives had disappeared (which happens every once in a while with Blogger), but I assumed I'd be able to retrieve it via Google. However, Google seemed to have no record of it, which worried me; it occurred to me that some rabid Greek nationalist with hacker skills might have taken offense at my account of Macedonian history and somehow removed it. I had no way of finding out for sure until my archives returned; now they have, and my fears are confirmed: the entry is gone. Here is the problem report I sent Blogger:
Almost a month ago I published in my blog Languagehat an entry titled "Purity vs. History 4," the last in a series of entries about Greek history. This one concerned Macedonia, and I was aware that it would be controversial (Greeks are obsessed with the issue), but apparently an offended hacker has gone to the trouble of deleting the entry from my blog. I have no idea how it was done, not being a computer maven, but you can see the evidence here:
In that blank space at the top is where the entry should be; it would have been dated either the 18th or the 19th of November. I hope this concerns you as much as it does me, and it concerns me a great deal: I put a lot of work into that entry, and to have it erased is not only a personal violation but an intellectual crime. Even though I am not a paying user, I hope you will respond and treat this with the seriousness it deserves. I thank you in advance.


Language hat
Blogger proudly announces that they do not provide personal support unless you fork out for BloggerPro, but I'm hoping this is serious enough that they will deal with it. If anyone out there knows how to contact Blogger directly, please let me know. This is very upsetting.

Update: It turns out the blank space is unrelated (the source code is missing a line valign="top" so the vertical alignment defaults to "middle"). However, the entry is still missing. [Thanks, Songdog!]
TRANSLATING ANTIGONE. This introduction to Sophocles' Antigone includes an excellent discussion of the problems of translation. Here's a paragraph on the opening line (discussed in a previous Languagehat post):
From the first line, the translator confronts the abyss separating Sophocles' Greek from English. Our translation, "O common one of the same womb, dear head of Ismene" uses eleven words for five of the original. An endearment like "dear heart, Ismene" would be more readily understood than "head of Ismene" but with a false familiarity: the Greeks spoke of the head, not the heart, as the center of love and affection. Richard Jebb's translation, "Ismene, my sister, mine own dear sister," forfeits the slight delay in discovering the identity of the addressee and dilutes the hyperbolic expression of kinship.(2) Elizabeth Wyckoff's "My sister, my Ismene" and Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald's "Ismene, a dear sister" further diminish the urgency perceptible in the words of kinship. Kinship is emphasized in Andrew Brown's "Sisters, closest of kindred, Ismene's self " and in Richard Emil Braun's "Ismene? Let me see your face," although "Ismene's self " is no more English idiom than the literal "head of Ismene," and looking upon Ismene's face is not in the Greek. Robert Fagles' "My own flesh and blood--dear sister, dear Ismene" highlights the physicality of the kinship Antigone asserts with Ismene at the price of abandoning the Greek. "Ismene, my dear sister whose father was my father" (Grene) stresses the notion of the sisters' kinship shared through the father, an emphasis on father that not only is not in the Greek but imports father into words that denote kinship through the womb. Each version of line 1 promises a faithful translation, but they are not the same English, since the translator cannot escape imposing his or her layer of meaning upon Antigone of the written page.

Saturday, December 14, 2002


On an empty sarcophagus
   hewn out of alabaster,
A branch of fennel on an
   empty sarcophagus...

Nothing suggests accident
   where the beast
Is finishing her rest...

Smoke of ultramarine and amber
Floats above the fields after
Moonlit rains, from tree unto tree
Distils the radiance of a king...

You might as well see the new branch of Enkidu;
And that is no new thing either...

Christopher Okigbo

Friday, December 13, 2002

SINGULAR "THEIR." I have long been pushing for the acceptance of "they/their" as the gender-neutral third person singular pronoun, and I am delighted to discover (via fabulousness) a site that nails down its credentials so thoroughly it might shake even the ossified beliefs of William Safire:
These files contain a list of over 75 occurrences of the words "they"/"their"/"them"/"themselves" referring to a singular antecedent with indefinite or generic meaning in Jane Austen's writings (mainly in her six novels), as well as further examples of singular "their" etc. from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and elsewhere. While your high-school English teacher may have told you not to use this construction, it actually dates back to at least the 14th century, and was used by the following authors (among others) in addition to Jane Austen: Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, the King James Bible, The Spectator, Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, Frances Sheridan, Oliver Goldsmith, Henry Fielding, Maria Edgeworth, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, William Makepeace Thackeray, Sir Walter Scott, George Eliot [Mary Anne Evans], Charles Dickens, Mrs. Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, John Ruskin, Robert Louis Stevenson, Walt Whitman, George Bernard Shaw, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, W. H. Auden, Lord Dunsany, George Orwell, and C. S. Lewis.

Singular "their" etc., was an accepted part of the English language before the 18th-century grammarians started making arbitrary judgements as to what is "good English" and "bad English", based on a kind of pseudo-"logic" deduced from the Latin language, that has nothing whatever to do with English. (See the 1975 journal article by Anne Bodine in the bibliography.) And even after the old-line grammarians put it under their ban, this anathematized singular "their" construction never stopped being used by English-speakers, both orally and by serious literary writers. So it's time for anyone who still thinks that singular "their" is so-called "bad grammar" to get rid of their prejudices and pedantry!
Incidentally, this is part of Henry Churchyard's linguistics page, which also contains his dissertation, Topics in Tiberian Biblical Hebrew Metrical Phonology and Prosodics, as well as "The vowel system of a reconstructed 18th-century proto-language ancestral to modern 'standard' English dialects in both England and America," Twain's hilarious "The Awful German Language," and a couple of other things.

Thursday, December 12, 2002

OH, JUST ABSQUATULATE, BILL. It's been a while since I last lambasted William Safire, so let's take a look at his latest bout of lexicoskepsis, "Gifts o' Gab". This week he's doing his annual Xmas-book column, and he begins by recommending the newly issued Volume IV of the Dictionary of American Regional English. Fine with me, I hope he sells people on it (though it's hardly a "bargain at 90 bucks")—but he refers to the dictionary as "the set that no library can afford to absquatulate." Sorry, my lad, but absquatulate is an intransitive verb; to quote the American Heritage Dictionary,
INTRANSITIVE VERB: Midwestern & Western U.S. 1a. To depart in a hurry; abscond: “Your horse has absquatulated!” (Robert M. Bird). b. To die. 2. To argue.
It doesn't mean anything like 'do without,' which is what you were trying, with your usual clumsy jocularity, to convey.

He goes on to recommend several other books, some of which (like the two by Fiske) sound like a rehash of the usual useless maxims (short words are better than long!—well, sometimes they are and sometimes they aren't) and some of which (Metcalf and Bryson) sound interesting. He likes the fact that Bryson corrects his use of "munch" (one of Safire's winning characteristics is his willingness to acknowledge error), but he goes on:
Bryson and I part company on begging the question, which he accurately describes as presenting as proof something that itself needs proving, like the logical fallacy ''parallel lines will never meet because they are parallel.'' He abandons the ramparts with ''I am inclined to think that insisting absolutely on the traditional sense is more a favor to pedantry than to clarity.''....In my book, if you mean ''raise the question'' or ''pose the question,'' say so; but if you mean ''that's a phony argument that turns in on itself,'' say ''beg the question.''
This is one of those issues that is catnip to the adolescent language-lover but which a sensible person grows out of. I too used to enjoy tormenting people with the "truth" about the phrase, but I eventually realized that, whatever its origins in philosophy and petitio principii, I had never seen or heard the phrase used "correctly" except by people making a point of doing so (cf. "hoi polloi"); in current English usage, "beg the question" means 'raise the question,' and that's that. I got over it, and so should Safire. (An anguished appraisal by the earnest Michael Quinion of World Wide Words ends by saying the phrase is "better avoided altogether"; like Fowler's similar recommendation concerning "hoi polloi," this counsel of despair is a sign that the language has sailed on, leaving wistful archaists treading water and clutching at the stern.)
MORE PEOPLE SHOULD DO THIS. Joey deVilla provides a loving description of his Toronto neighborhood (near Queen Street West), with descriptions of businesses, sociological summary, brief history, and lots of pictures that give me a real sense of what the place is like. There should be a web ring of bloggers who do this for their own neighborhoods; I'd happily spend many hours investigating them. I'm easily bored by monuments, but I never tire of street scenes and local quirks. [Via Gideon Strauss.]

Wednesday, December 11, 2002


She stole ma hat
    ma hat . was in the lounge with ma jacket
The jacket she dint take it, but
         ma hat, she tukkit, clean
         outa the place . she liked
ma hat . & went with it to the room & danced,
     DANCED with it, wearin the hat she
danced, and dint expect I'd cum back ferit . ah did .
      Pretended I hadn't figured it out
      talkin with her friend . I'd figured
            she laiked ma hat .
Next mornin, nobuddy up, both of 'em sleepin late .
             "Come in"
                             I did, & there it was,
ma hat
on the bed . She'd bigod
                                  slept with ma hat!

Paul Blackburn

Monday, December 09, 2002

JOURNALISM HAVING NEW SYNTAX. Sunday's "Week in Review" section of the NY Times had an article by Geoffrey Nunberg discussing a phenomenon I have noticed but not seen mentioned before, the proliferation of participles taking the place of verbs in news broadcasting.
...The all-news networks have begun to recite their leads to a new participial rhythm: "In North Dakota, high winds making life difficult; the gusts reaching 60 m.p.h." . . . "A Big Apple accident, two taxicabs plowing into crowds of shoppers" — call the new style ing-lish. Fox News Channel and CNN have adopted it wholesale, and it's increasingly audible on network news programs as well.

The odd thing is that not even the newscasters seem to have a clear idea of what they're doing, or why. A "Newshour With Jim Lehrer" feature described the style as one of "dropping most verbs, putting everything in the present tense."

But cable news reporters don't actually drop any verbs except "to be," and that only in sentences like "President Bush in Moscow." And those participles like "plowing" aren't in the present tense — they don't have any tense at all.

What ing-lish really leaves out is all tenses, past, present or future, and with them any helping verbs they happen to fall on — not just be, but have and will. Newscasters used to say "The Navy has used the island for sixty years but will cease its tests soon." On CNN or Fox, that comes out as "The Navy using the island for sixty years but ceasing its tests soon."

What's the point of this? The NewsHour calls it "an abbreviated language unique to time-pressed television correspondents," and points to the need to shoehorn as many stories as possible into a brief space. But the new syntax doesn't actually save any time — sometimes, in fact, it makes sentences longer. "Bush met with Putin" is one syllable shorter than "Bush meeting with Putin."

Strangely, broadcasters don't seem to realize how bizarre the new style sounds. Fox newscaster Shepherd Smith calls it "people speak" and explains, "It's about how would I tell this story if I were telling it to a friend on a street corner." But that must be a pretty exotic intersection, if Mr. Smith's buddies are saying things like "My car in the shop. The brakes needing relining."
SORBS IN THE NEWS. From BYU News (via Pat) comes this story about one of the least known minority communities of Europe (and Texas!), the Sorbs. Sorbian (also called Wendish and Lusatian) is a Slavic language (a fact oddly unmentioned in the BYU article), closely related to Polish [and Czech—thanks, Mark!]; here is a detailed discussion of its history and place in contemporary Germany, and here are versions of "Silent Night" in both High and Low Sorbian.

Addendum. R.G.A. de Bray, in his still very useful Guide to the Slavonic Languages (J.M. Dent & Sons, 1951, rev. ed. 1969 which I do not have), begins his final chapter, "Lusatian (or Wendish)," as follows:
No book on the modern Slavonic literary languages would be complete without a chapter on the ancient and interesting Lusatian Serb or Wendish tongue.

The Lusatians call themselves "Serbja" (Serbs) and their country "Luzhica"* (Lusatia; in German—Lausitz). Hence the English name Lusatian Serbs. The Germans call them "Wenden" (slightly pejorative) or "Sorben"—hence the English use of "Wends" or "Sorbs". As the name "Serbs" can cause confusion with the Yugoslav Serbs of Serbia, while the term "Wend" or "Sorb" does not readily indicate a nationality to the English mind, we propose using the term "Lusatian" here. This name indicates the native land to which these Slavs are attached so passionately that they will not even hear of being transferred to other areas where there is a higher proportion of Slav inhabitants....

The period of Germanization has been so long that it is really a wonder that any Lusatians at all have preserved their language.... Too small in numbers, in comparison to their neighbours, to make an independent state, the Lusatians have been a pawn in the game for power of strong neighbouring rulers. Nevertheless they have survived, holding fast to their language, their Christian religion and their ancient customs, patiently tilling their land and waiting doggedly for better days. After the two recent world wars they have made claims to autonomy and independence, but the statesmen of the Great Powers have not even mentioned that they have considered their case. So the Lusatian cause has remained on the conscience of the very few who know anything about them (under whatever name). Their case has been passed over and ignored by the majority of the Press, and they have been considered too insignificant to be worthy of any kind of independence. Nevertheless, to the student of Slav languages, literatures and history they form a most interesting, if obscure, group of Slavs. Because of their very survival and ancient character they deserve to be more widely known, even apart from their literature, which is no mean achievement for so small a people.
Now there's a man who liked Sorbs.

*[The L should be barred and the zh should be z with a hacek, but I can't get either to show up.]
NEXT FRIDAY. In a meeting this morning someone referred to something that would happen "next Friday." Someone else corrected him: "You mean this Friday." The first person looked a bit startled and a bit contrite and said quickly "Yeah, this Friday, the thirteenth."

This is something that's always bothered me, and I think it's a structural problem. There is simply no way to know whether "next Friday" is meant to refer to the immediately following Friday or Friday of next week; I understand it as the former (and therefore was as taken aback as the first speaker by the correction), but obviously lots of people assume the latter. (The same holds, mutatis mutandis, for "last Monday.") I had thought it was a problem specific to English, but I see the same thing happens in German (Google translation here), so I guess it's just more evidence that language is irremediably sloppy.

Friday, December 06, 2002

THIRSTY. I woke up last night wanting a drink of water, and it popped into my head to wonder what the Russian word for 'thirsty' was. I drew a blank, which alarmed me. 'Hungry' is golodnyi, 'thirsty' is... ? It wasn't just that the word temporarily escaped me, which happens now and then; it was as if there were empty space where the neurons containing that word should be, which was alarming. I got my drink and headed for the bookshelves. It turns out (as I knew perfectly well, somewhere in there) that there is no Russian word for 'thirsty'; you say you want to drink (which is what came to my mind when I was scrabbling for the adjective: khochetsya pit'). Isn't that an odd asymmetry? 'Hungry' and 'thirsty' seem like such a natural pair; it's like having a word for 'left' but not 'right.' Language is stranger than is dreamt of in Chomsky's philosophy.

Addendum. In the comments section Avva brings up the symmetrical absences of solnechnyi zaichik (meaning 'reflected sunlight (e.g., on the wall)'; the Russian translates to "sun bunny") in English and of "dust bunny" in Russian; for those who read Russian, there is a discussion of the subject in progress at his site.

Thursday, December 05, 2002

EL CASTELLANO EN NUEVA YORK. Today's NY Times has an article by Janny Scott about the researches of Ricardo Otheguy and Ana Celia Zentella into the nature of Spanish in New York City; they are attempting to determine whether the various immigrant dialects are maintaining their identities or merging into a unified "New York Spanish." One focus of research is the use or nonuse of subject pronouns:
The use of subject pronouns in Spanish has long been of interest to linguists. (There is an entire book on so-called subject expression among Spanish speakers in Madrid.) In English, the subject of a sentence is always expressed; in Spanish it can be, and often is, left out.

For example, where an English speaker would say "We sing," a Spanish speaker could say either "Nosotros cantamos" or simply "Cantamos." Linguists say Spanish speakers from the Caribbean tend to use a lot of pronouns; people from Central and South American countries use them less.

"What makes New York City interesting, and why we grabbed this issue, is that New York contains people from areas that differ with respect to this feature," said Ricardo Otheguy, a professor of linguistics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a researcher on the project.

"It's interesting to compare Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Cubans with the Mexicans, who use few pronouns," he said. "And communities are different in their exposure to English. The Mexican community in New York is new; the Puerto Rican community is well settled."
Otheguy is also studying borrowings from English:
For example, he said, early Spanish-speaking settlers in New York were mostly from the Caribbean, so they took "the winter vocabulary of English," creating words for things like steam, coat and boiler — words that are spoken rather than written but that resemble their English counterparts.

"Many times the loan takes place even though there is a word that's usable and perfectly accessible to the people who borrow the English word," he said. "So it isn't simply a matter of filling a gap because the gap ain't there. The person knows a Spanish word and uses both of them."
The Times article will only be available for a week, but here is a good piece (in Spanish) on Otheguy's research.

(Note: I learned my Spanish in Buenos Aires, where they call the language castellano, whence the heading of this entry.)

Wednesday, December 04, 2002

HA! From Dr. Weevil:
Someone once told me that the University of Pennsylvania was reshaping its language departments a few years back and briefly considered putting Hebrew in with Russian, Polish, and German. It wouldn't be easy to come up with a brief and accurate description for such a disparate collection of languages, and someone facetiously suggested that it could be called the Department of Semitic and Anti-Semitic Languages.
And from Alas, a Blog:
Headline from the English edition of Pravda:

"Black to Swallow Planet Earth"

The story (which turns out to be about a black hole about 6,000 light years away, rather than a very hungry person of color) also contains a new definition of "good news": "This is good news, is it not? It’s like learning that there is a blood-thirsty killer living next door to you."
WHAT HAPPENED TO 'THOU'? Mark, in the comments to an earlier entry, brought up an interesting point: why did the "thou/thee" form disappear from English (except for a few dialects)? There is a fascinating discussion of this on LINGUIST List, from which I quote the following, by Larry Trask:
English-speakers began to use 'you' as a respectful singular in the 13th century, probably under French influence. Except in conditions of intimacy, 'you' quickly became established as the ordinary way for an upper-class speaker to address an equal, as well as a superior, and by the 16th century 'thou' was all but non-existent in upper-class speech, except in addressing obvious inferiors. Naturally, this usage began to be copied by the middle class, and by the 16th century 'thou' was likewise rare in middle-class speech, except in addressing obvious inferiors. But 'thou' lingered long among working-class people, especially in rural areas, and it still survives today in parts of the north of England, where it has reportedly become something of a badge of solidarity.

None of this requires any particular explanation, but one point does: why did the non-reciprocal use of 'you' and 'thou' in power-based relationships disappear? Now, as Brown and Gilman argue in their famous paper ["The Pronouns of Power and Solidarity." In Ed. T. A. Sebeok. Style in Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960. 253-277], there has been a steady trend (now mostly gone to completion) in European languages to replace the older non-reciprocal power-based use of T and V pronouns with a newer reciprocal solidarity-based use. Something similar appears to have happened much earlier in English, with the added twist that `thou' was driven out of the standard language altogether. Nobody knows why, but Leith has an interesting suggestion. He proposes that 16th-century England, in comparison with most other European countries, was characterized by a fluid and prosperous middle class, in which rapid rise was possible by entrepreneurial success. England, he argues, therefore lacked the comparatively rigid social structures typical ofother countries, at least as far as the middle class was concerned. Whereas every speaker of French or Spanish knew his own station and knew that of everyone else, so that power-based non-reciprocal usage could be readily maintained, a middle-class English person was by comparison insecure: he could never quite be sure whether a stranger was an inferior, an equal, or a superior. Therefore, Leith concludes, the reciprocal use of 'you' rapidly took hold among the middle class as the safest option, as a safe way of avoiding giving offense to a person one might need to do business with or ask favors of.
Another discussion includes pronoun distinctions in Italy, Belgium, Australia, and Providence (Rhode Island), and an article on the subject by Sara Malton includes a bibliography for those who wish to pursue this intriguing issue further.

Addendum. There is a discussion of this going on at Page of Moss; no Korean yet, but lots of Mongolian and Buryat, as well as a reference to the prerevolutionary honorific use in Russia of the third person plural for a single individual: a housemaid, asked if her master were in, would reply "Yes, sir, they are." Also, Karin has this to say:
In Norwegian it is du - informal and de - formal. I always found it a pain in the neck. De always felt awkward to me, but as a child I was supposed to use it when talking to grownups: teachers, my sister's in-laws, the tramcar conductor, neighbors—you name it. It was such a relief coming to the US and just say you. Easy, comfortable, no (class distinction). Thank you English!
I have also found a discussion of the polite-pronoun issue here; Mark J. Reed is investigating the matter and presumably will put a summary of what he learns online when he learns it; the phenomenon of voseo (use of the singular pronoun vos as a neutral form of address, avoiding the choice between and usted, used in Argentina and Uruguay and less widely elsewhere) is described here (some illustrations here); and Mikhail Epstein discusses the ideology of Soviet forms of address, including Vy/ty, here (scroll down to CHAPTER 9. IDEOLOGICAL SYNTAX: FORMS OF ADDRESS). A sample:
Ideological language, however, most often combines the familiar pronoun with the formal name and patronymic: "ty, Aleksei Nikolaevich." This form of address is the norm between members of the Communist Party, even in the Politburo. Such a combination reflects the two-fold nature of ideological language: in addressing an ideological brother it is impossible to use the vy form, but since this "brother" is not a blood-relation, it is necessary to retain some element of formality when addressing him. The element of formality was strengthened when ideological language became the official language of Soviet society. Ideological language is thus simultaneously brotherly and official, a combination of familiarity and formality.
HIRSEL. It is not often that I (lexicomane that I am) run across an English word with which I am entirely unfamiliar, but I have just encountered "hirsel" for the first time. It is primarily a Scottish and northern word meaning 'the entire stock of sheep on a farm or under the charge of a shepherd'; it is related to "herd" (though borrowed from Old Norse hirzla, from hirtha 'to herd, tend'), which is a help in remembering its meaning. I found it in the following passage (from an interesting article, "The Ecology of Medieval English Monasteries" by Austin Mardon of Greenwich University):
Several of the herds that roam the Yorkshire dales today have existed continuously since the 13th century.  It is worth noting that it is illegal to sell off a complete hirsel from any mountain because it takes several generations of sheep to learn their individual "sheep-walk" and some of the older, experienced sheep must be left to guide the young, who would otherwise starve.
I hope the law is still on the books; I like it a great deal.

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

DU REFORM. I have learned from Avva that Swedish, which used to have a formal/informal pronoun distinction Ni/du comparable to French vous/tu or German Sie/du, has virtually lost it, and the change occurred in a remarkably short time. The origins of the change are recounted in a fascinating discussion at soc.culture.nordic; as Jan Böhme explains,
Bror Rexed, when he became General Director [of] the National Board of Social Issues and Medicine (Socialstyrelsen), in 1968(?), issued a formal decree[...] that he wanted to be called by first name and "du", and expected the rest of the staff to do the same.

The development was considerably speeded up when Olof Palme, as new Prime Minister in 1969, let reporters call him "du" on live broadcasts.
One reason the change occurred so quickly is that Swedes traditionally addressed anyone with a title by that title, using the third person: "Would the professor like more tea?" (Jan Böhme's father was called "Mr. Appeals Court Justice" until the late '60s.) Thus the use of "Ni" was slightly derogatory, implying that one's interlocutor had no title or office worth bothering about. With that kind of system, it must have been a relief to start using one pronoun for everybody. The interesting thing is that, according to Jon Kåre in the same discussion,
Norway almost immediately followed Sweden in adopting "du", although our polite form of address was simply "De". That is, the system was like in French or German, and not at all like in Swedish.
If anyone knows anything more about this, please leave a comment.

Avva speculates on the possibility that Russian itself might lose its parallel Vy/ty distinction within a generation, since young people routinely use "ty" with each other, but decides it's unlikely because of the ingrained use of the distinction to reinforce subordination in the workplace: the boss addresses his underlings as "ty" and they must respond with "Vy." Avva despises this (as would I), but since he lives in Israel he doesn't have to put up with it.

Addendum. Avva points me to a discussion by Dmitri Evmenov of the origin and history of Swedish Ni; it was originally I, borrowed from German, and became Ni through reanalysis (ären I > äre ni).

Further addendum. Des says Ni is making a comeback (thanks to SAS)! See comment #4 within.

Monday, December 02, 2002

LEXICOGRAPHY IN A HARD TIME. The most moving dictionary preface that I know of adorns the second volume of the Persidsko-Russkii Slovar' [Persian-Russian Dictionary] by M.A. Gaffarov (Mirza Abdallah ebn-e Abd-ol-Ghaffar Tabrizi). The first volume (alef to zhe), replete with explanations of roots, proverbial usages, and quotations from Hafez and Sa'di, had appeared in 1914; the second was delayed by circumstances that will readily, I am sure, suggest themselves. I will let the editor of the second volume tell the story:
The second volume of M.A. Gaffarov's Persian-Russian Dictionary makes its appearance thirteen years after the publication of the first and twenty years after the author began his work. The editor of the first volume, Academician F.E. Korsch, has since passed away, and almost the entire work of putting together the second volume has gone on without his irreplaceable participation. Between the appearance of the first volume and that of the second—everything has changed, even the generally accepted spelling of the Russian language. The initial pages of the second volume (up to the word saf) still preserve the form in which they were published following the appearance of the first volume, i.e., in the old Russian orthography. After the aforementioned word the spelling, paper, and typeface of the book all change—the pages were printed last year and this year, when it has been necessary to content oneself with whatever paper could be found, and to take such type as the printers now have available.

Naturally, during the preceding years, so rich in events and changes for both Persia and Europe, the languages have changed as well. Both the Persian and Russian languages now include many new words and terms, for the most part pertaining to the social and political spheres, that did not exist when the basic text of the dictionary was being prepared. This unavoidable obsolescence of the material had to be rectified by an extended edition. For the sake of keeping to the plan, it was decided to place all new words and meanings, as well as words added to remedy omissions, in a special section of Addenda. These addenda are quite extensive—the lexicon has undergone too many changes, introduced into the language by life. The not infrequent emendations of the basic text, as well as the not infrequent misprints, are due for the most part to the conditions in which the author was forced to work before and during the war. He worked in the evenings, in the course of long years, after a whole day's labor. The setting of type of various sizes, with lead lining, as well as the lack of skill and experience of the young compositors observable in the beginning, also made matters more difficult and multiplied the deficiencies of the book.

The late F.E. Korsch in his preface to the first volume pointed out the significance of the Dictionary.... The present Dictionary represents the fruit of the living linguistic feeling and extensive erudition of an educated and intelligent Persian. Therein we may see the fundamental significance and fundamental value of this work. The Dictionary presents the entire lexical stock of its author. Thus everything in the Dictionary represents an indisputable fact, existing in a living linguistic consciousness, whereas in the heretofore large Persian dictionaries too much has represented the fruit of the compilers' copying, with varying degrees of critical scrutiny—sometimes greater (Vullers), sometimes lesser (Steingass), and sometimes completely lacking in criticism (Jagiello). In the present Dictionary, perhaps in some respects less material is given, but all of it is unconditionally reliable in the above sense....

For many words in the Dictionary, examples are cited from colloquial, literary and poetic language. On occasion a poetic citation will be encountered even for a word whose meaning would be clear without it. The author thinks that some excess in this respect is no great sin, and hopes that readers and critics will excuse him.

L. Zhirkov.
The author of the preface was Lev Ivanovich Zhirkov, "one of the founders of national literacy for many unwritten languages of the Northern Caucasus and of the Turkic languages of the USSR" (Vsemirnyi biograficheskii entsiklopedicheskii slovar'). I am happy to report that he lived to a ripe old age and died in 1963.