Tuesday, February 18, 2003

SOVIET ANNIVERSARIES. On this day in 1964 began the trial of Iosif Brodsky for parasitism (tuneyadstvo); famous exchanges with the judge include:
"Why haven't you been working?"
"I have been working. I've written poetry."
"That doesn't interest us."
"Who included you among the ranks of the poets?"
"Who included me among the ranks of the human race?"
Five years later, on this day in 1969, was the premiere of Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev at the Dom Kino in Moscow, one of the great moments of world cinema.
MANY WORDS FOR MUD. I am watching the Nova special on Tibetan art in Mustang, and I had to share the following sentence with you: "There are many words for 'mud' in Lo Monthang, but none of them are as important as gyang." I don't think I've ever heard the English word "mud" mentioned so many times in an hour. Mustang is truly the Land of Mud. (The language, Lopa, is a Tibetan dialect; Ethnologue says: "The inhabitants of Lo are called 'Lopa'. Their capital is Manthang, called Mustang by outsiders.")

Monday, February 17, 2003

COMUNISM SAVES! This strange page, part of a strange Australian site that advocates sustainability, limited liability, and "7 prinsipls to improve present spelling NOW," purports to recount the history of Russian spelling reform. After a quick dash through tsarist times they arrive at the Bolshevik revolution and get down to business: the 1919 Decree on Illiteracy, the postrevolutionary reform of orthography that "simplified spelling and eliminated surplus letters," and Stalin's literacy campaign of the '30s. Then things take a turn for the bizarre: "After 1945, spelling reform was predictably again on the agenda of reconstruction of a war-ravaged society. By the 1960s doubled letters without functions had been dropped. It was claimed that 90 tons of paper were saved annually by now spelling Kommunist as Komunist." Leaving aside the question of whether "predictably" is heavy irony or simple insanity, there was no such reform. The word kommunist is, was, and probably always will be spelled kommunist. This makes me a bit suspicious of whatever other information and nostrums they purvey (as it does Avva, who suggests that it may be a voice from an alternate universe, and from whom I swiped this link).

Friday, February 14, 2003

PHONOLOGICAL PHUN. I just ran across this protein-filled piece on phonology written by Professor Edward Vajda (editor of Word) for his Linguistics 201 class at Western Washington University. It contains all sorts of gems (including, for those of you who took part in the discussion of "nucular" a few days ago, this: "Metathesis rule reorders the segments that are present: ask/aks; nuclear, 'nucular'... These are examples of a rule randomly applied"); I was particularly struck by this:
A more striking example of a morphological constraint on phonetic distribution is to be found in Cherokee. Cherokee has a sound [m] that contrasts with other sounds to create changes in meaning: ama 'salt'; ada 'baby bird'; ana 'strawberry'; ata 'young girl'. However, the sound [m] appears in only about 10 morphemes: ugama 'soup'; kamama 'butterfly'; gugama 'cucumber.' Although most of these words seem to be foreign borrowings, no new words using [m] seem to be entering the language. Nor do new words containing [m] seem be made in Cherokee on any regular basis. Thus, the sound [m], which definitely would be considered a phoneme in the phoneme theory of phonology, is highly restricted in its distribution, at least as far as concerns the present state of Cherokee. The restriction is random: the sound [m] only appears in a small collection of words with no specific meaning in common. Yet the restriction on the distribution of [m] is morphological rather than phonological: [m] is restricted to a specific and limited set of words.

An even more extreme example is to be found in Quileute, a Native American language from the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. The sound [g] appears in only one word in the entire language: hága'y 'frog.' Thus, this sound, which is in contrastive distribution with other phonemes, is entirely restricted in function to being able to contribute to the makeup of a single phoneme, the word for 'frog.' It is even possible to say that [g] in Quileute has a specific function: to contribute to the morpheme meaning 'frog.'

Thursday, February 13, 2003

TRADUTTORE, TRADITORE. Some things just don't translate well. Regardless of how you feel about France's position in the current international crisis, you have to admit Groundskeeper Willie's line about "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" is pretty funny. But not when dragged, kicking and screaming, into French:
If such language is proving a headache for the diplomats, then spare a thought for the French translators, who have struggled for words to convey the full force of the venom. "Cheese-eating surrender monkeys"—a phrase coined by Bart Simpson but made acceptable in official diplomatic channels around the globe by Jonah Goldberg, a columnist for the rightwing weekly National Review (according to Goldberg)—was finally rendered: "Primates capitulards et toujours en quête de fromages". And the New York Post's "axis of weasel" lost much of its venom when translated as a limp "axe de faux jetons" (literally, "axis of devious characters" [actually, I believe, 'axis of hypocrites'—LH]).
(From a Guardian article by Gary Younge and Jon Henley, February 11, 2003; at the end of the article appears the following delightful correction: "The description of the French as 'cheese-eating surrender monkeys' was not coined by Bart Simpson. It comes from the Simpsons character Groundskeeper Willie, the Scottish immigrant who takes care of custodial matters at the elementary school.")

Fair balance. I will hereby provide equal time in the arena of memorable insults; wood s lot directed me to a Ben Tripp article from Counterpunch that contains this remarkable sentence: "You see, if there's a clear loser in the pending savagery, it's George W. Bush and his administration of barking scrotum monsters." Barking scrotum monsters! Now, that deserves a niche right up there beside the primates capitulards.

Addendum. Jumping Jehoshaphat, in just a few days those damn monkeys have overtaken the Romanian gymnasts in my referrer logs and at the present rate will soon threaten the all-time champ, Charlie Ravioli! I guess the secret to getting hits is to mention as many catchphrases of the day as humanly possible. This may seem obvious to you, but my brain was formed during the ENIAC era, so it takes me a while to catch on. Excuse me while I run out to buy some popular periodicals to find out what people are talking about. I trust the Saturday Evening Post is still the cynosure of the common man...
LANGUAGE IDENTIFIER. Only 47 languages, but they include Albanian, Basque, Breton, and Maltese, so it's fun; it may even be useful. (Via La Grande Rousse.)

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

NAXI. The Naxi (or Nakhi; the x/kh is palatal, as in German Chemie or Russian khitryi) are a people of western Yunnan in China. A thousand years ago they were a power in the area, the dominant people of the bend of the Yangtze, but since the Mongol conquest of the fourteenth century they have been politically subject to China (though culturally under the influence of Tibet), and they have lost their former prosperity. But they have retained a rich literary tradition that is expressed in a unique pictographic script that is almost, but not quite, a real writing system; you can read about it here and here and see a beautifully reproduced specimen here. And they made an impact on Ezra Pound, who began Canto CIV:
Na Khi talk made out of wind noise,
    And North Khi, not to be heard amid sounds of the forest
but to fit in with them unperceived by the game...
and quoted a Naxi love story in Canto CX ("The nine fates and the seven,/ and the black tree was born dumb...").
LANGUAGES GALORE. Two links from Open Brackets: the numbers from 1 to 10 in 4,500 languages, and the Language Museum with samples of 2,000 languages.

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

A DRAG PARADIDDLE AND A PATAFLAFLA. I knew the term "paradiddle" (though I had only a vague notion of what it was), but I had no idea there was such a variety of striking* terms for what drummers call "rudiments." I found this list at The Discouraging Word; unsatisfied with the mere terms, I wanted to know what they meant, and found this site, where you can see and hear musical examples.
*When people say "no pun intended," of course they mean "pun intended."

Addendum. The Discouraging Word welcomes letters (Feb. 7 entry); in their (encouraging) words, "You should also send us examples of especially good or bad language use or, as faithful reader languagehat did with evident relish last week, point out our errors or other infelicities." With relish, yes, but also respect and affection!

Monday, February 10, 2003

SZAJKÓHUKKY. That's Jabberwocky in Hungarian; here are several dozen translations of Lewis Carroll's immortal poem, including one into Jerriais, the French dialect of Jersey. (Via Where Threads Come Loose.)

Sunday, February 09, 2003

THELONIOUS AND TIFFANY. Two interesting name derivations:

I've loved the music of Thelonious Monk for many years, but I just discovered that his given name is a Latinized form of the Low German name Till (best known from Till Eulenspiegel), which in turn is a medieval nickname for Dietrich and other names beginning with Diet- (meaning 'people, race'; deutsch 'German' is from the same root); there was an 8th-century St. Tillo who evangelized in Belgium and France. According to Thomas Fitterling in his biography of Monk, "German missionaries could have brought the name to the Carolinas in the Bible Belt." Other derivatives of Dietrich are Terry (brought to England, as Thierri, by the Normans) and Derek (brought by Flemish settlers engaged in the cloth trade).

And while I was investigating that (in Hanks & Hodges' wonderful Dictionary of First Names), I discovered that Tiffany is "the usual medieval English form of Greek Theophania 'Epiphany'... This was once a relatively common name, given particularly to girls born on the feast of the Epiphany (6 January), and it gave rise to an English surname. As a given name, it fell into disuse until revived in the 20th century under the influence of the famous New York jewellers, Tiffany's, and the film, starring Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)."
WHITMAN ON LANGUAGE AND HATS. From the Preface to the 1855 Leaves of Grass:

...take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men...

The English language befriends the grand American expression—it is brawny enough, and limber and full enough. On the tough stock of a race who through all change of circumstance was never without the idea of political liberty, which is the animus of all liberty, it has attracted the terms of daintier and gayer and subtler and more elegant tongues. It is the powerful language of resistance—it is the dialect of common sense.

Saturday, February 08, 2003

DEFINITION. WAR consisteth not in Battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battle is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of War, as it is in the nature of Weather. For as the nature of Foul weather lieth not in a shower or two of rain, but in an inclination thereto of many days together: so the nature of War consisteth not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is Peace.
–Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan XIII

Friday, February 07, 2003

SLOVENES IN AUSTRIA. Considering how few people outside the Balkans know anything about Slovenia (or enough to distinguish it from Slovakia), I doubt many people are aware of the problems faced by Slovenes living as minorities in neighboring countries. (I'm using "Slovene" to mean someone who speaks Slovenian or is otherwise identified as culturally Slovenian; a "Slovenian" is a citizen of Slovenia.) Renee has alerted me to a news item about four employees of Radio Dva, the Slovenian-language radio station in Carinthia (the southernmost state of Austria, bordering Slovenia), who have gone on a one-week hunger strike to protest the end of government financing for the station. This surprised me; I knew about the Slovene minority in Austria, but didn't realize they were facing discrimination serious enough to provoke a hunger strike. Here is an account of their grievances; for more information, there is an article by Brigitta Busch, "Slovenian in Carinthia—a sociolinguistic survey," in The Other Languages of Europe. And this report on Slovenes in Italy includes some comparative discussion:
[I]t is not the only Slovene minority outside the independent state of Slovenia, nor the worst served. In some ways the 50,000 Slovenes living in Austria are even more crushed, not to mention the almost entirely neglected community of Slovenes living just across the border from Slovenia in Hungary [and that in Croatia as well—LH].... [On the situation in Italy:] Italian supremacist graffiti are rife, and a crew-cut group with Nazi-like banners parades unhindered regularly in one of Trieste's city squares. It is not a good idea to speak Slovene until you are clear of the city centre.
TEST YOUR VOCABULARY! From Teresa's Making Light comes this arcane and daedal test consisting of 200 pairs of words that must be marked as either (approximately) the same in meaning or (approximately) opposite. (They don't mark off for wrong answers, they just tell you the number you got right and list the ones you got wrong, so you can go back and review them; I urge you to take advantage of their "wild guess" column to mark the ones you're not sure of, so that you can find out which of your guesses were lucky ones.) It takes a while and is humbling—I have a damn good vocabulary, but I had to guess more often than I was at all comfortable with—but it will increase your word power (if you follow it up with the use of a good dictionary to remedy your blank spots). One caveat: I strongly disagree with item 159, based on the fact that I know perfectly well what each term means but got it wrong anyway; it's simply too ambiguous to be a useful item. (Also, if you have the same problem I did reading one of the words in 169, use View Source.) But never mind that; for anyone who loves vocabulary, it's a blast!

Thursday, February 06, 2003

WHEN TELEPHONE NUMBERS MEANT SOMETHING. Roger Angell, in this week's New Yorker, discusses the old-time telephone exchanges, with their evocative names:
Growing up, I began to apprehend that Manhattan telephone exchanges, which were geographically assigned, were a guide map and social register to my delightful city. West Side school friends of mine could be reached at the MOnument or CAthedral or RIverside exchange. My father worked at the WHitehall exchange, down near Wall Street, and my mother at the mid-West Forties' BRyant 9. BUtterfield 8 was just south of us on the Upper East Side, with TRafalgar, REgent, and RHinelander not far away. When my parents were divorced and my mother moved to East Eighth Street, she became a SPring 7, and neighbors and stores and movie theatres in that neighborhood had lively ALgonquin, CHelsea, and WAtkins handles. If you called up one of the Times Square movie theatres, to find the next showtime for "Cimarron" or "Rasputin and the Empress," the exchange was probably LOngacre.
(In explanation of that last name, I should point out that Longacre Square was the original name for Times Square, before the Times moved there.) There is a site that collects such exchange names; here is their New York list.
MARKUP FOR FOREIGN WORDS. This stuff is way beyond me, but there's a two-step discussion going on over at Jonathon Delacour's the heart of things (with its lovely rendition of the 'heart' character) about the proper way to mark up transliterated/foreign words (his example is Japanese nejimakidori): lang attributes? span tags? cite? (this last apparently a no-no)... me, I just use itals, but if this sort of thing is your idea of a good time, for heaven's sake go on over there and help out the gang, so that by the time it all means something to me I'll know how to do it.

Wednesday, February 05, 2003

THE WRITTEN WORD. "The visual and tactile aspects of the written word are explored in this exhibition. Although the subject is words, we have avoided textual content in favor of physical context. In presenting written texts that differ from the familiar, we intend to show that, far from being a uniform box of rows and columns, the written word has been recorded historically in a variety of shapes, sizes, and materials." Gorgeous, amazing stuff (via the always amazing Plep).
NUCULAR. I would like to thank Don Blaheta, a linguistics grad student at Brown, for posting an explanation of why "people who persist in going on and on about how dumb the President is for being unable to say the word 'nuclear'" are wrong. As he says,
There are excellent linguistic reasons why people (and it's a whole lot more people than just the President) do this. The process is called metathesis, and it is one that happens in many languages. It tends to happen where the reversed syllable ends up making the word easier to pronounce—in the case of "nuclear", the standard pronunciation has a front vowel between two back vowels, but the metathesised version has all back vowels. Another commonly-cited example in English is the word "comfortable", where the T and R are switched, allowing the following schwa vowel to drop out entirely and reducing the word to three syllables. Crucially, this is a regular phonological process affecting speakers of many languages, and not something that is indicative of intelligence.
Well said, and the next time I get into a discussion of the matter I'll just point to your crystal-clear statement.
ECRIVAINS. Via La grande rousse, excellent sites for Flaubert and Perec (the latter including a lexique perecquien; by the way, the name Perec is originally Polish/Jewish, and is the equivalent of the Anglicized Peretz).
THE LYRIC IMPULSE. It's funny 'cause it's true:
All lyric poems are narcissistic. They are the earliest form of the personal ad. They've been saying for more than a thousand years, "I'm a sensitive, vulnerable, misunderstood, barely solvent, lovable little fellow who would like to meet a person of exquisite taste who is not averse to an occasional roll in the hay." –Charles Simic
(Via Giornale Nuovo, which I found through Caterina; it's written by misteraitch, who lives "in an apartment in an hotel in a town on the Baltic coast of southern Sweden" and posts all manner of good and beautiful things.)

Tuesday, February 04, 2003

CUNNOS HABERE DUOS. Avva posts the first attested use of one of the less frequent but more amusing four-letter words; the entry is in Russian, but even those without the use of that remarkably obscenity-rich language will enjoy the Fletcher translation of Martial whose last line provides the historic reference—it is given both in transcription and in an image of the original book. (It should be noted that this word was, as the OED puts it, "Erroneously used... by Browning Pippa Passes iv. ii. 96 under the impression that it denoted some part of a nun's attire"; let this be a lesson to all of us to always look up words we don't understand.)
ON TRANSLATING NAMES. Baldur asks a good question: what should a translator do about personal names that bear a meaning in the original language? I reached his entry via Dorothea, who says:
It’s a wicked translation problem. Translate the names by meaning, and you make the original sound like a bigoted nineteenth-century impression of Native Americans. Worse, you give the names’ meaning too much prominence in the reader’s mind; as Baldur says, these names are names first and meanings second....

The opposite danger, though, is considering meanings—well, meaningless. If you don’t translate the name, how do you get across its echoes?

One possibility is the name-pair, the name in the original language paired with a translation.... The downside is that this is slightly misleading; it’s easy for the reader to believe that the translation is part of the name in the original.... (In an electronic edition, I would be tempted to include the translated name as a pop-up note or in a lighter text color. The latter might be possible in print also; depends on the publisher.)...

If all else fails, there’s always the footnote. In this specific case, though, I myself would prefer an annotated name glossary; it’s a darned shame to have to hunt through the entire book for the first instance of a name just to find out what it means.
Obviously, each case is different and has to be addressed on its own merits, but I wonder if readers have general thoughts on the subject? For me, this is a case where the internet has obvious benefits: a scrollover note on the name's meaning would be unobtrusive in a way that can't be matched in print. (Personally, there are few things I love better than an annotated glossary, but I recognize that it's a love not shared by the majority.)

Monday, February 03, 2003

MAKIT WI MACINTOSH. This pleasing page renders the phrase "Made with Macintosh" into various languages; I probably wouldn't link it just for that, but its creator, Carl Edlund Anderson, takes the trouble to explain the translations linguistically; sample: "This [Proto-Germanic "Tawidu mith Macintosh"] is a guess but there are very few native speakers around to complain! This expression is suitable if the word for the "made" object is feminine—as the proto-Germanic *síðó would be were it used to mean "page" (in the sense of "home page"). The verb *tawjan was used in a runic inscription from South Jutland c. AD 400 to describe the crafting of a pair of golden horns, so it seemed fair to use it to describe making web pages as well." I like your style, Carlaz!

Sunday, February 02, 2003

GREAT AND DEAR LEADERS. William Safire's column in today's NY Times Magazine has a useful discussion of the well-known bynames of the late Kim Il Song and his son and heir Kim Jong Il:
In 1994, Kim Il Sung (Great Kim) died and was succeeded by his son, whom Western writers continued to refer to, tongue-in-cheekily, as Dear Leader. But the son, Kim Jong Il (Dear Kim, in Kempton's simplifying formulation), soon changed his sobriquet to fit his new position.

He stopped having himself called Dear Leader (in Korean, ch'inaehanum chidoja) and assumed his father's informal title, Great Leader (widaehan, ''great,'' yongdoja, ''leader''). But that was confusing whenever the two men were spoken of in the same sentence. To which one—the late Great Kim or the former Dear Kim, now elevated to titular greatness—did the compound proper noun Great Leader refer?

Solution: subtly demote the dead Old Man. The deceased Kim Il Sung, formerly widaehan yongdoja, is now remembered in North Korea as widaehan suryong, ''major chieftain, big boss,'' important, but a linguistic cut below Great Leader. It is the son, whose leadership title is no longer encumbered with childlike endearment, who has taken his father's widaehan yongdoja, the top of the Communist Korean pecking order.
For more, I direct the reader to Andrei Lankov's article (originally published in Russian in 1995, thus now somewhat outdated) on North Korean official propaganda; this paragraph has further linguistic information:
When Kim Chong Il's ascent to supreme power had just begun, he was given a title which might at first seem a little strange—the "Centre of the Party" (Kor.: Tang chungang), although finally the title "Dear Ruler" (Kor. ch'in'ae'ha'nun chidoja) has prevailed. Even if the names of Kim Il Song or Kim Chong Il are not mentioned specifically, every North Korean knows what titles go with whom and would never mix the "Great Leader" (Kim Il Song) with the "Dear Ruler" (Kim Chong Il). Special words and even grammar forms have been established which may only be used in relation to these two personages. Their names along with any quotation from their writings are always printed in a special bold font. Starting from the primary school, North Koreans are taught how to make correct sentences in which the leader and his son are mentioned. According to this "court grammar", these two sacred names must not be put in the middle or, God forbid, at the end of a phrase, but always at the beginning.
Safire, by the way, goes on to provide further Korea-related details (on the origins of the word "Korea" and the descriptive "Land of the Morning Calm"; I was especially proud of him for sticking with "etymology unknown" with regard to gook—I know how he loves dubious etymologies). But it wouldn't be a Safire column without at least one mistake, and although this one is minor, it's interesting fodder for discussion. He refers to "the naming of Japan, or Nippon, from ni-pon, 'sun-rise,' which we recognize as 'the Land of the Rising Sun.'" The attempted clarity of the hyphenated ni-pon betrays an understandable, but false, assumption; in fact, the first part of the compound is not ni but nichi, which represents the Japanese reading of the Chinese character for 'day, sun'; the character was pronounced *nyit in Old Chinese, which was borrowed into Japanese as nichi and later (when the pronunciation in Chinese had changed) as jitsu (it is also read as hi as a native Japanese word, and the Chinese word itself is now pronounced r in Mandarin... but that's another story). It happens that when syllables ending in -chi are combined with a syllable beginning with a voiceless consonant, the -chi drops out and the consonant is doubled, hence {nichi + pon} = Nippon. It's all too complicated for a newspaper column... but that's what Languagehat is for.
WHY SO DAMN MANY LANGUAGES? In a comment thread at Oh, For a Muse of Fire!, I ran across a paragraph that so delighted me I had to share it here, with the permission of its author (who is also the prize-winning author of a number of sf/fantasy novels), Jo Walton:
I can also remember—when I was too young for school—trying to read a book of sermons in Latin, and discovering that there were more languages in the world than just Welsh and English. I can remember thinking that surely, two would be enough for all sensible purposes?

Friday, January 31, 2003

SIX MONTHS OF LANGUAGEHAT. It feels a little silly celebrating a semianniversary, but everybody knows blog years are like dog years. (However, a book cannot be blog-eared. But I digress.) I worked hard on my first post (wanting to avoid the "Testing... testing... hey, this thing works!" syndrome), and I've tried to keep up an interesting mix of material somehow related to language (or, on occasion, hats). I'd like to take this occasion to thank everyone who's sent e-mails or left comments—and may I remind you all that my comment boxes, unlike some others, do not require an e-mail address, so even the shyest of you can freely indulge in commentary, silliness (hi quonsar!), or a combination of the two (I'm thinking of the mysterious aa's contributions to my Bad Etymology thread)—and I'll direct specific thanks to Songdog for helping me get started and saving me repeatedly from template disaster, to Renee and Pat for early encouragement, to Avva for collegiality and postcards, to the Mermaid for kind words and many stolen links (how do you find all those great links?), to Moira for inspiring me to add poetry to the mix, and to all those who cannot be mentioned because the revelation of their names would upset the balance of the space-time continuum: you know who you are.

When I began, my readership could be counted on the fingers of both hands—and the fact that the second hand was needed was due entirely to Pat's and Merm's brilliant mutual-backscratching invention, Linguablogs. It rose steadily to an average of several dozen a day, then shot upward this month because of a combination of the excellent Pepys' Diary site, to which I quickly became addicted, and the Jan. 28 MSNBC recommendation ("One of the most exciting blogspotting finds I’ve made while judging Bloggies is the large and active community of linguabloggers..."). I hope to keep everyone entertained for at least another half-year, if only with the spectacle of language names more bizarre (hi aa!) than you ever thought existed (Guugu Yimidhirr, anyone?). Y'all come back now, y'hear?

Thursday, January 30, 2003

HOW NOT TO SUPPORT A LANGUAGE. An article (via MetaFilter) on the Irish government's plans to finally do something about the country's notoriously poor signage ends thus:
"Never mind the countryside. I still get lost in Dublin," said Irish Times columnist Kevin Myers, a road-sign crusader who argues that the Irish have never understood the functional point of signs.

"You've got extraordinarily misleading signs and signs that tell outright lies, and most of these are new," he said. "Dublin Corporation is putting up signs at the moment that are designed to baffle anyone from outside Ireland."

"They refer to Dublin as 'an Lar,' which is Gaelic for the city centre — and it's a term that nobody uses because we all speak English here," Mr. Myers said. "Everybody in Europe would understand the word 'centre,' so naturally we can't use that. The powers that be are intent on putting up signs in a dead language for pseudo-cultural purposes and doing nothing to help visitors."
Incidentally, if anyone is as curious about the word lár 'center' as I was (I would have expected *cédar if they had borrowed Latin centrum), it originally meant 'floor,' and is in fact cognate with the English word; the transitional meaning is 'middle (of a hall).'
GUUGU YIMIDHIRR AND OTHER DELIGHTS. I really shouldn't go to the Strand; every time I do, I spend money. But if I didn't, I wouldn't find things like the first two volumes of Dixon and Blake's Handbook of Australian Languages at a ridiculously low price. The first volume includes descriptions of Guugu Yimidhirr (also called "Koko Yimidir" and other variants; the name means 'this way of talking, this kind of language,' guugu being the word for 'talk, language'), Pitta Pitta, Gumbaynggir, and Yaygir; the second includes Wargamay, Anguthimri (Mpakwithi dialect), Watjarri, Margany and Gunya (closely related Mari dialects), and a final, sad chapter describing the exiguous information available about the long-extinct languages of Tasmania. Most chapters include detailed descriptions of phonology, morphology, and syntax, as well as the all-important texts and vocabularies. I've always been fascinated by Australian languages, but all I've had to go on so far is the Lonely Planet Australian Phrasebook; excellent as that little volume is, this opens up a whole new realm.

First sentence of first Guugu Yimidhirr text: Yii milbi dhana gunbu dumbi 'This is a story (milbi) about how they had a great dance': "The expression gunbu dumbil, literally 'dance break', is the normal idiom for 'have a dance, have a corroborree.'" I can't wait to dive in.
ODORATIVE VERBS IN NENETS. From a recondite Yahoo search ("stress in evenki language") that showed up in my referrer log, I arrived at a grammatical sketch of Tundra Nenets (part of Tapani Salmanen's homepage, which includes links to other Nenets-related websites). This is a pretty detailed look at Tundra Nenets; if you want to know more, you'll probably have to either study with Prof. Salmanen or take a trip to the tundra. But what led me to tell you about it here is the fact that, along with more common types of denominatives (verbs based on nouns, e.g. søwa 'cap' => søbyiq- 'to have a cap, to use as a cap'; cf. English "to cap"), Tundra Nenets has a series of odorative verbs, e.g. xalya 'fish' => xalyayø- : 3sg xalyayi 'to smell of fish'. A pungent language!

Wednesday, January 29, 2003

NO PURITY HERE. I recently ran across the following highly expressive quote:
"The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."
—James D. Nicoll
I am delighted to report that LINGUIST List has solved the question of exactly when (1990) and how it originated. A tip of the Languagehat hat to all concerned.
WAGGISH. Another blog with meaty discussions of literature (recent entries on Kobo Abe, Olaf Stapledon, and Ismail Kadare) and music (Bill Dixon, Pierre Boulez) (and I'll bet not many of you faithful readers out there are familiar with all five names!) is Waggish.org. I have no idea who's behind this cultural smorgasbord, but I offer them my deepest esteem for bringing to my attention the gorgeous and intricate graphic scores of Barry Guy; I had known him as a wonderful bassist and composer (of avant-jazz among other things), but had no idea he did this sort of thing. I've already added it to the "Visual pleasures" section of my blogroll. (I found Waggish via the delightful Geegaw.com.)

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

CHEONG. Or jeong. That's the Korean word/concept at the center of this brilliant post by Stavros (of the always worthwhile Emptybottle.org). If anyone out there knows the Chinese etymological equivalent so that I can find out more about the word (Korean isn't my strong point), please let me know, but everyone should go and read the essay on sentimentality, Jung, jeong, love, Korea, and all that jive.

Update. OK, I went to the Donnell branch during my lunch hour and determined that the Chinese equivalent is ch'ing (or qing; heart radical plus ch'ing 'blue/green' phonetic) 'feeling, emotion, sentiment, &c. &c.'; the Japanese derivative is jo (long o), defined the same way. So now my question is, does anyone out there know enough about the three languages, or any two of them, to give an idea of how the specific usages of these superficially identical words differ?

Monday, January 27, 2003

DERELICTION OF DIALECT. I've started reading a James Buchan novel called The Persian Bride, a tale of derring-do set in '70s Iran. Now, Mr. Buchan (no, not that Buchan) is a Brit (according to the jacket flap he lives with his wife and three children on a farm in Norfolk, England) with a good sense of language for a newspaperman. But that is not to the point. The point is that he can't pull off American dialogue. He creates an Iranian military man who is introduced thus:
"You think I give a damn, boy?" He spoke easy Texan English. "I've got an air force to run. It's Judge goddam Bordbar. Christ, I hate civilians."
So far, so good. But a couple of pages later this Tex-Iranian says "It's sorted out," meaning taken care of, dealt with. This idiom is not American, and it immediately dispels the illusion so carefully conjured up by the author. This is not an isolated case—I have never read an author from across the Atlantic who could write consistent American dialogue. It's easy to put in words and phrases you know are American; it's impossible to recognize all those that aren't. I'm sure the same is true in reverse, with American authors painstakingly putting in lorries and boots and lifts and then giving the game away with some locution no Englishman would utter. So why don't publishers have manuscripts vetted by readers familiar with the relevant dialect? (And then there are foreign names, which are even more of a problem, with English-speaking authors creating Russians named Esmeralda Hofstein Ivanovna or Arabs named Abdul Ibn-Istanbul or something. Why go to all the trouble of researching the tiniest practical details of some foreign location and blow it by mangling names? It drives me mad, mad I tell you. But we won't go into that. Sufficit diei malitia sua)

Sunday, January 26, 2003

WORD OF THE DAY. Pricklouse 'tailor.' From the OED:
pricklouse (‘prIklaUs). Now dial. Also [19th century] prick-the(-a)-louse. A derisive name for a tailor.
1500-20 Dunbar Poems xxvii. 5 Betuix a tel3our and ane sowtar, A pricklouss and ane hobbell clowttar [telyour 'tailor'; souter 'shoemaker, cobbler'; hobble 'cobble, mend (shoes) roughly'; clooter 'patcher, cobbler']. 1668 R. L'Estrange The Visions of Don Francisco Quevedo Villegas (1708) 151 The poor Prick-Lice were damn'dly startled at that, for fear they should not get in. 1709 O. Dykes Eng. Proverbs with Moral Reflexions (ed. 2) 117 What an ignorant Presumption..for an impudent Prick-lowse to set up for a Lawyer, or a Statesman. A. 1796 Burns Answ. to Tailor ii, Gae mind your seam, ye prick-the-louse, An' jag-the-flae. [jag 'prick, pierce' (hence the nickname "the Jags" for the Partick Thistles, a Glasgow football team familiar to fans of the wonderful Jack Laidlaw detective novels of William McIlvanney); flae 'flea' (ie, "jag-the-flae" is modeled on the traditional "prick-(the-)louse")]
Since the first quotation is from William Dunbar, let me here put in a plug for him as one of the great early modern poets; he wrote in Scots rather than southron English, but it's worth making the effort for such a brilliant poem as Lament for the Makars ("maker" was the traditional Scots term for 'poet'), with its refrain "Timor mortis conturbat me" ('The fear of death disturbs me'). And from this brief biography we learn that he
has the curious distinction of having been responsible for the first printed use of the word "fuck" (1508), thus establishing a long and noble tradition of which some critics of Kelman or Welsh appear to be quite unaware....

"The Flyting" is a verse-quarrel with the poet Walter Kennedy, and contains such choice insults as "wan fukkit funling" and "cuntbitten crawdon". Perhaps it was language such as this which had something to do with Scotland becoming the first country to try and make swearing illegal (1551). We might add as a parenthesis that the later English puritans, undeterred by the complete failure of the Scottish law, followed suit by making swearing at one's parents a capital offence (1649). Much later, Mussolini put notices up saying "For Italy's honour, do not swear", but look where it got him. Before leaving this interesting topic, it should be added that the powerful word which Dunbar put into print in 1508 was not decriminalised until 1960, only appearing in dictionaries after 1965, but by 1982 it was thought necessary to declare "fuck" unparliamentary language. Nevertheless, a hundred years earlier it had already showed up unexpectedly in "The Times" of all places, probably due to a mischievous compositor, in a Parliamentary report which stated: "The Speaker then said he felt inclined for a bit of fucking."

Friday, January 24, 2003

GENERATIONAL SHIBBOLETH. From ru_slang I got to this article (in Russian), which alleges (Russian readers can tell me how accurately) that the phrase na samom dele 'in reality, in (actual) fact' characterizes the positive, confident generation of intellectuals who grew up in the '60s and '70s, whereas kak by 'as if, as it were' characterizes the uncertain, postmodernist generation that grew up in the '80s and '90s. Example: On prishel 'He came'; Na samom dele on prishel '[There is an objective reality, and] he really came [—I know what I'm talking about]'; On kak by prishel 'It seems that he came [but reality is so fluid and indeterminate that there's no guarantee of anything].' Interesting.
LIBRARY SALE. I never cease to be amazed at what I find at library sales. Today I dropped by the Mid-Manhattan, and within a few minutes had found (and, of course, bought, for a total of $3) a dictionary of Romansch (Oscar Peer's Dicziunari rumantsch: ladin–tudais-ch, Lia Rumantscha, 1962) and a textbook of Moroccan Arabic (Henry Mercier's L'Arabe par l'image: textes ethnographiques, Les éditions la porte, Rabat, 1946). Neither was in the foreign-language section; I just have a nose for these things. And for an extra dime I couldn't resist a copy of Quotations from Chairman LBJ (Simon and Schuster, 1968), a true relic of the age (and of my youth).
POETRY/JAZZ BLOG. Wood s lot points me to Jonathan Mayhew's blog, which has been going since last September (and all of which is on a single page, so it takes a while to load: yo, Jonathan, how about showing a week at a time?); he discusses both poetry (he teaches and translates) and jazz (he drums—yes, I'm sure he knows the jokes as well as you do, so you can stop right now), and has interesting things to say about both. At the moment he's engaged in a series of entries describing his twenty favorite poets, and the first name that hit my eye when the page finally appeared was that of Lorine Niedecker, who's one of my favorites as well, so I was hooked. He doesn't have comments; if he did, I would have left one responding to this (from Monday, September 23, 2002):
The idea of translating in order to arrive at “what the poet would have written / had she written in English.” This is a cliché, of course. More than that, it is radically false. How do we know what kind of English Homer would have written? How would Mozart have phrased his solos on 52nd street in the 1940s? A sonnet in English might have a totally different rhythmic feel from a sonnet in Italian: yet many would accept this exchange as “formal equivalence.”
This (it seems to me) is very forced. Of course we can't "know what kind of English Homer would have written"; the point is that thinking in those terms can help us avoid falling back on our own linguistic habits and making everyone we translate sound like us. This, on the other hand (from Wednesday, September 25, 2002), strikes me as brilliant:
A brief poem by Antonio Machado, “Sobre la tierra amarga,” contains four words of Greek etymology: laberínticos, criptas, melancólicos, quimeras. I contend that these should be translated with their English cognates: labyrinthine, crypts, melancholy, and Chimeras, not, as one translator does, with maze, vaults, wistful, and fantasies. The Greek words form an “underlying network of signification,” to use a phrase from Antoine Berman: they have specific historical and linguistic resonance. A labyrinth contains a Minotaur in a way that a maze does not. A crypt is a tomb or something hidden, as in a “cryptic message.” A vault might be found in a bank. Burton did not write an anatomy of wistfulness. A Chimera is a specific mythological beast, etc... (Of course fantasy is also a Greek word, but not the one Machado chose!) Should the translator always go for the cognate? Of course not, but when the cognate is a richer, more resonant, or more specific word, the easiest solution becomes the best solution.
He mentions a story I'll have to read:
Harry Mathew's story "The Dialect of the Tribe" is the perfect Borgesian parable of translation. It speaks of a language that can be translated successfully while not revealing any substantive meaning. The story gradually fades out of English, as the narrator uses more and more words from the tribal language he is elucidating.
And this endears him to me: "I prefer irregular past tenses in English whenever possible. For me, the past tense of dream is "dreamt," not "dreamed." snuck, not sneaked, etc... "

(Oh, by the way, Jonathan—I have a copy of Robert Grenier's a day at the beach...)

Thursday, January 23, 2003

BAD ETYMOLOGY. I'm used to seeing dubious or just plain wrong etymologies, both online and off-, and usually I just ignore them. This site, however, is so bad that I feel the need to give it a public thrashing. It purports to list borrowed words by their languages of origin (and it's the number one Google hit for "borrowed words," so I'm not just picking on some obscure site no one will ever see). Let's take Akkadian, for which the entry is:
Babel (ancient city - from babul, gate of God), Babylon (ancient capital city - from babul, gate of God), cherub (gracious), dragoman (interpreter), Orion (constellation - from Uru Anna, light of heaven), ziggurat
Now, ziggurat is an Akkadian word; no problem there. Babel and Babylon are also from Akkadian, but the etymon is wrong. Here's the best description I've found on the early development of the name: "The Sumerian name for this small village was Ka-dingir-ra. In Semitic Akkadian it was called Bab-ilim. It seems that the name came not from Kadingirra, but from another name for the town, Babil, the meaning of which is unknown. Later the plural name Bab-Ilani 'the Gate of the Gods' was used." It's normal (if oversimplified) to say that Babylon is from Akkadian Bab-il/ilu/ili/ilani (take your pick) and define this as 'gate of God,' but "babul" seems to have been pulled out of a hat (perhaps by vague association with Kabul). The other entries are sheer fantasy. "Cherub" is, of course, from Hebrew. "Dragoman" is (via Italian and Greek) from Arabic tarjuman, which is from Aramaic turgemana. And Orion, as any schoolboy knows, is a Greek mythological figure; this etymology is probably taken from the Online Etymology Dictionary, which says "perhaps from Akkadian Uru-anna 'the Light of Heaven,'" but that's a very big "perhaps"—what a Greek hunter would be doing with an Akkadian name is anybody's guess, and "etymology unknown" is the only safe statement.

The Afrikaans entry lists "slim," which is from Dutch or Low German. The Albanian entry reads, in its entirety, "Carpathian (Eastern European Mountain Range - from karpë, rock)," which is ridiculous; "Carpathian" is from Greek, and while the Greek name may well have come from a local Thracian or Illyrian word related to Albanian karpë, that's like saying "Caucasus" is from "high" because there's a possibility the name is related to the Germanic root of the English word. Under Algonquin is listed "Oregon," which is of very disputed etymology; one theory is that it resulted from a French map engraver's having put the last four letters of "Ouariconsint" (the Wisconsin River) on a separate line, thus creating an apparent "Ouaricon" River, and "Wisconsin" is probably from an Algonquin name, but that's really pushing it. The next language listed is "American English," and I won't bother going through the words, because the whole category makes no sense—even if "raincoat" and "typewriter" were first used in the U.S., how can they be considered "borrowed"? An almost equally pointless category is "Anglo-Saxon" (more properly called Old English); most of the basic English vocabulary is "from" Old English in the sense of having developed from it by sound change, but the only words that could be said to be borrowed from it are scholarly ones like "witenagemot," and none of them are listed. Under Amoy is listed "ketchup," which is from Malay; under "Avetsan" (i.e., Avestan) is "bronze," which is from Italian (via French); under Basque is "bizarre," also from Italian; the sole entry for Beja is "bedouin," which is from Arabic; and under Breton is a whole raft of words, none of which have anything to do with Breton ("branch," "carry," "hurt," for heaven's sake?). I could go on, but why bother? Furthermore, the page is littered with misspellings, for example racoon, cumquat, attrium, and the aforementioned Avetsan. I don't blame the people who compiled the list, who are simply enthusiastic amateurs who love words and had no means of judging the validity of the etymologies they ran across, but it's depressing to think this is what people looking for information online will find and cite.

Here is a much more reliable list: only one word per language, but at least you can be pretty sure that word is correctly listed.

Addendum. A correspondent has brought to my attention this silly site, which purports to list "some of Shakespeare's many coinages!" What they mean, of course, is "words first attested in Shakespeare," but that doesn't sound nearly as sexy. And some of them aren't even that; "accused," for instance, is centuries older:
1297 R. Glouc. 523 "Sir Hubert de Boru.. Acused was to the king of mani luther prise ['wrongful takings']."
Do these people really think Shakespeare made up the word "alligator"?
THE ANAGRAMMATIST. This week's New Yorker has a "Talk of the Town" piece by Dana Goodyear on Demetri Martin, a Greek-American comedian obsessed with language games. Along with creating "one of the longest, non-computer-generated, sensemaking palindromes in English" (called "Dammit, I'm Mad"), he has composed the wonderful "All the Words Printed on a Bottle of Rolling Rock Beer in a Different Order":
Women, your ability to operate extra tender springs from birth.
Good machinery comes as your contents cause enjoyment.
Cash, beer, a car: rock and rolling.
During "it," the general warning:
"We may risk pregnancy according to old problems."

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

WORD OF THE DAY. Puckfist: 'an empty braggart.' Here's an abbreviated version of the OED entry:
puckfist ('pVkfIst). [app. f. puck sb.1 + fist sb.2 Cf. puff-fist, -foist, which appears about the same date.]

1 The Puff-ball, Lycoperdon Bovista. Also abbreviated puck.
1601 B. Jonson Poetaster iv. v, I'll blow him into aire, when I meet him next: He dares not fight with a puck-fist. 1893 S.E. Worc. Gloss. s.v., I shud like a drap o' drink, fur I feels as dry as a puck-fyst.

2 A term of contempt for an empty braggart.
1599 B. Jonson Ev. Man out of Hum. 1, To be enamour'd on this dusty turf, This clod, a whoreson puck-fist. 1605 Tryall Chev. iv. i. in Bullen O[ld English] Pl[ays] III. 328 Giue me leaue to incounter this puckfist, and if I doe not make him cry Peccavi say Dicke Bowyer's a powdered Mackrell. 1637 Shirley Example ii. i, Lady, he is no man..A very puckfist. Jacinta. What's that, I pray? Vain. A phantom, a mere phantom. 1821 Scott Kenilw. xviii, A base besognio, and a puckfist.
attrib. 1615 J. Taylor (Water P.) Urania xxiv. Wks. (1630) 3/2 Then loue him; else his puckfoist pompe abhorre.
[The serendipitous finding of this word was inspired by the ever-inspirational Caterina. And in case you were wondering, a besonio (or besognio) is 'a raw soldier; (term of contempt) a needy beggar, a base worthless fellow.']

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

DIVERSITY. Nature investigates why "Species and languages flock together: Cultural and biological diversity are highest in the same places." [Via Enigmatic Mermaid, via Plep.]
ANTHONY HECHT. One of my favorite modern poets is Anthony Hecht, an unprolific formalist with a bleak outlook on life whose verse goes down like good strong black coffee. The NY Times has a piece on him today that explains something of his bleakness; after the usual unhappy childhood Hecht was
a 20-year-old Jewish soldier in the 97th Infantry Division and arriving one day at the Flossenburg camp in Germany, where the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed for treason. What Mr. Hecht saw horrified him: starving prisoners, dying at a rate of 500 a day from typhus. He had a smattering of German and French and was assigned to translate the prisoners' accounts of the atrocities and the responses of their German guards, who had been captured. For years after, Mr. Hecht dreamed about the camp, waking up screaming...
More important than the biography, of course, is the work.
He is a poet's poet, a composer of what the poet and novelist Nicholas Christopher, a former student, calls symphonic verse, of dazzling surfaces and profound rhythms. "Reading his work is like hearing really powerful music," Mr. Christopher says, "Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky."

Still, over the years Mr. Hecht has been criticized for being ornate, obscure, old-fashioned. "At times he's been unpopular," says J. D. McClatchy, the poet and editor of The Yale Review. "He's not beating drums like Ginsberg. He's not detached like Wilbur, or confessional like Lowell. He went his own way. At the end he may last longer."

The library where Mr. Hecht sits is an expression of the man and the work — serene, with fluted pilasters and a frieze around the ceiling with lines from his "Death the Poet," written in gold leaf:

Those grand authorial earthshakers
Who brought such gladness to the eyes
Of the knowing and unworldly-wise
In damasked language long ago?
Call them and nobody replies.
Et nunc in pulvere dormio.
And now they sleep in dust.
The Latin is a variant of a line from (not surprisingly) the Book of Job: "ecce nunc in pulvere dormiam et si mane me quaesieris non subsistam." Job 7.21 (Behold now, I shall sleep in the dust: and if thou seek me in the morning, I shall not be.)

Several poems are online here, here, here, and here.

Monday, January 20, 2003

MONTREAL ENGLISH. English in Montreal is becoming a unique dialect, according to Charles Boberg in this article from the CBC site (via Pat).
It's so special because it's the only major city in North America where English is a minority language," says Boberg.

A Montrealer, for instance, might say she's looking for "a three-and-a-half close to a dépanneur" instead of a "one bedroom apartment near a corner store."

"You had the same sort of intimate contact between English and French in 11th century England as you do today in Montreal," according to Boberg.

"And that was responsible in the 11th century for the conversion of English from a basically pure Germanic language to a kind of a hybrid language."
More in this McGill Reporter interview.

Addendum. Desbladet rips Boberg a new trou; I should have remarked on the silliness of Boberg's last statement about a "hybrid language," and I am glad that Des has done it for me in his inimitable style. Another example of the latter, from his post on a Whorf quote translated as « ce que nous appelons la "pensée scientifique" n'est qu'une spécialisation du langage indo européen de type occidental... »:
Finno-Ugric-speaking persons! Desist from your desultory, doomed attempts to mimic the superficial trappings of European culture! Return, instead, to your caves and play "Pin the Definite Article on the Indo-European Noun Phrase" and other such traditional drinking games. As a sign of goodwill, here are some shiny glass beads which you can trade for "wodka". (It's made from potatoes, you know.)
Everybody go read him—just don't let him catch you saying something dumb!

Sunday, January 19, 2003

MY KIND OF POLITICS. In reading Isabel de Madariaga's Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great (heavy going at times, but much more informative than the many lurid biographies of Catherine) I discovered to my delight that the two main parties in mid-eighteenth-century Sweden were the Hat Party and the Cap Party. Here's a quotation from an online biography of Gustavus III:
To the conflicting interests of peasants, nobles, priests, and officials was added the struggle between the aggressive, pro-French, and aristocratic Hat party and the more conservative, pro-Russian Cap party.
I don't know which I would have supported, but the choice would have been more entertaining than Republican vs. Democrat.