I’m almost halfway through Malaparte’s The Skin (which is the last of the books in my Naples reading project); I was quite enjoying it at first, despite its going overboard with the bitter irony (I figured that having been a journalist on the Eastern Front he was entitled to a good dose of bitter irony), but then I hit a chapter of such virulent homophobia I was set back on my heels. It’s especially depressing after the loving portrait of the gay bar in The Gallery, though of course John Horne Burns had the advantage of being gay. Still, I’m plugging along, and being rewarded with the occasional word hitherto unknown to me, like zazou (the French equivalent of zoot suiters, teddy boys, and stilyagi, the latter discussed at LH here); the most linguistically interesting of them so far is roturier. Malaparte refers to “the noble American roturiers who had invaded the Rive Gauche in 1920,” and this turns out to be an (ironic) oxymoron, because a roturier is “a person not of noble birth.” But the interesting part is the etymology; I quote the OED (entry updated March 2011):

Etymology: < Middle French roturier (French roturier) (adjective) not noble (a1272 in Old French), concerning an estate held by a commoner (1312 as rupturier), (noun) peasant (1306), commoner (1447) < roture roture n. + –ier -ier suffix. Compare post-classical Latin rupturarius (1072).

And the entry for roture (updated at the same time) says:

Etymology: < Middle French, French roture status of an estate held by a commoner (a1454 as rousture; earlier in sense ‘newly cleared land’ (1406 as roupture)), estate held by a commoner (16th cent.), status of a commoner, estate for which rent is paid (both 1549), commoners collectively (1611 in Cotgrave), specific use of Middle French roture breach, act of breaking (c1180) < classical Latin ruptūra (compare especially its post-classical Latin senses ‘reclamation of waste land, rent paid for such land’: see rupture n.).

That’s one I wouldn’t have guessed.


I occasionally post about untranslated works, just to remind people of the ocean of literature out there (and hopefully to goose potential translators a bit), and I’ve just learned about another one:

When it comes to Turkish literature, we are lamentably deprived. The gaping lacuna is what is considered by many to be the greatest 20th-century literary achievement in Turkey: Oğuz Atay’s experimental, linguistically complex novel of ideas Tutunamayanlar (The Disconnected). It has been quite a while since it was put up on the UNESCO site as an important literary work in need of English translation, and, just like Germán Espinosa’s masterpiece The Weaver of Crowns, it still remains unavailable for a host of the prospective readers. Granted, the author’s use of different varieties of Turkish such as the heavily arabicised Ottoman Turkish and the purist, reformed Turkish, the so-called Öztürkçe, renders the job of the translator extremely demanding, but not unfeasible. The conclusive proof of that is the Dutch translation of the novel published four years ago. At the moment it is the only translation of Atay’s book into any other language, so, I guess, we should congratulate the Dutch on having the privilege to read the cult classic.

[…] As one of the Dutch translators of the novel Hanneke van der Heijden writes:

The literary form of Atay’s novel was not exactly what readers were used to either: the unbridled stream of consciousness, all kinds of short texts in different genres, that cut across the story, such as a poem of 600 lines plus commentary, a chapter of 70 pages, written without a single comma or full stop – it may remind us, the readers of today, of James Joyce, of Nabokov, Virginia Woolf and other western modernist writers – writers Atay was very familiar with. But, as the critic Ahmet Oktay once remarked, the number of Turkish readers that in the beginnings of the seventies had read Ulysses, was no more than ten.

[…] Hanneke van der Heijden has her own blog dedicated to Turkish literature. Most of it is in Dutch, but the written version of her talk on the translation of Tutunamayanlar is available in English. It’s the best article about Atay’s novel in English you will find on the Web, and I urge you to check it out.

Thanks, Trevor!

Tarlinskaja on Shakespeare.

Marina Tarlinskaja, per Wikipedia, is “a Russian-born American linguist specializing in the statistical analysis of verse,” and Elizabeth Scott-Baumann’s TLS review (from July 31, 2015) of her Shakespeare and the Versification of English Drama, 1561-1642 makes it sound interesting, if not exactly easy reading:

Tarlinskaja’s advocacy of versification as an object of statistical analysis is unswerving if quite briefly stated. She emphasizes how it can help us understand drama: “verse form helps us to understand and interpret dramatis personae . . . Shakespeare’s noble heroes speak in constrained verse, and villains speak in looser verse. Othello gradually changes from a noble hero to a villain, and his syntax and verse form evolve with his character’s evolution”. […]

Linguistic statistical analysis can reveal a fingerprint or style profile in versification, Tarlinskaja suggests, based on features such as strong syntactic breaks after the first hemistich, enclitic phrases, use of pleonastic “do”, and dissylabic “-ion”.

But what impelled me to post about it is this passage:

Tarlinskaja also sheds light on possible historical change. She looks, for instance, at how certain consonant pairs such as “tl”, “bl” and “dr” could create an extra syllable so that “gently”, “doubled” and “children” sometimes had three syllables (as in “For when the west wind courts her gen-tl-y” in The Two Noble Kinsmen).

It reminded me of the extra syllable in rig(a)marole, which we’re currently discussing. Different time period, of course, but a similar development.


Reader Jeff sent me an e-mail to this effect:

I recently wrote the word “rigamarole” on my computer, only to have the machine change it to “rigmarole”. Aghast, I checked, and found the latter is definitely a possible choice. On the other hand, I don’t think I have ever heard it without the a between g and m.

Do we have any info on how this is distributed?

An excellent question! I responded:

Yeah, the official spelling is rigmarole but I think especially in the US an extra syllable gets inserted. It’s had lots of variants; the OED lists:

Forms: 17 riggmonrowle, 17 rig-me-role, 17 rig me roll, 17 rig mi rol, 17 rig-my-role, 17 rig-my-roll, 17– rigmarol, 17– rigmarole, 18 rigmarowl (Irish English (north.)), 18– rigmaroll, 18– rigmorale, 19– rigamarole.

What’s particularly interesting is its etymology; it’s from Ragman roll “The roll used in the game of Ragman.”

The spelling rigamarole is given as an alternative in US dictionaries (e.g., AHD), but I’m pretty sure the associated pronunciation with four syllables is far more common in the US; I certainly say it that way, and so does my wife (I just asked). How do you say it (if you do), and what variety of English do you speak?

Erard on Australian Languages.

My favorite reporter on linguistic issues, Michael Erard, has a fine Science piece about recent studies of Australian languages and the controversies they help address; after surveying some of the problems (the members of the hypothetical Pama-Nyungan family have lots of similarities but few cognates), he writes:

Now, a new generation of researchers is attacking the problem, and a small but growing group is taking its cue from evolutionary biology, which relies on genetic clues to decipher relationships between organisms. They are using computers to sort giant databases of cognates and generate millions of possible family trees based on assumptions about, say, how quickly languages split. The method, called computational Bayesian phylogenetics, forces researchers to explicitly quantify the uncertainty in the models, says linguist Claire Bowern of Yale University, a pioneer of the approach and co-author of the new study. “That’s useful in Pama-Nyungan,” she explains, “because you don’t have good data, and you have to rely on single authors who may not be that familiar with the languages.” Based on a set of parameters, researchers can winnow millions of trees into groups of the most plausible ones.

The first such computational efforts, done by biologists borrowing linguistic data, drew harsh responses from many linguists. “Most look exclusively at words, seen as something like the equivalent of the gene as a unit of analysis in genetics,” says Lyle Campbell, a historical linguist at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. But linguists traditionally determined historical relationships through sounds and grammar, which are more stable parts of language.

Bowern counters that the “instability” of words can actually be a boon, serving as a tracer for how languages change over time. In 2012, she and Quentin Atkinson, a biologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, constructed a family tree for the elusive Pama-Nyungan, using a massive database of 600,000 words to compensate for the low number of cognates. They analyzed 36,000 words from 195 Pama-Nyungan languages and compared the loss and gain of cognate words in 189 meanings through time.

This initial work found that Pama-Nyungan has a deep family tree with four major divisions tied to the southeastern, northern, central, and western regions of the continent. For the study published in Nature, Bowern drew from an expanded database of 800,000 words, which contains 80% of all Australian language data ever published, and looked at cognates from 28 languages across 200 meanings. Then she compared her tree with genomic data from Willerslev’s new survey. […]

To the researchers’ amazement, the genetic pattern mirrored the linguistic one. “It’s incredible that those two trees match. None of us expected that,” says paleoanthropologist Michael Westaway of Griffith University, Nathan, in Australia, a co-author on the Willerslev paper. “But it’s confusing: The [genetic splits] date to 30,000 years ago or more but the linguistic divisions are only maybe 6000 years old.”

He addresses counterarguments (R.M.W. Dixon “says these languages are so unique that new theories of linguistic change must be invented to explain them”; others “argue that the computational models, built for genes that can only be inherited, deal poorly with languages that spread by diffusion”) and finishes by saying that Aboriginal stories describe the birth of languages “much the way Bowern thinks it happened”:

In 2004, Evans recorded an Iwaidja speaker, Brian Yambikbik, explaining how his language might be related to the one spoken on distant islands. “We used to speak the same language as them, but then the sea came up and we drifted apart, and now our languages are different.”

Hokkien Creationism.

Lañitri Kirinputra has a guest post at the Log that is the most interesting thing I’ve read about writing systems in a long time. Back in 2010 I posted about the Pe̍h-ōe-jī system of orthography used to write Taiwanese and Amoy Hokkien; it might be helpful to consult that before plunging into Kirinputra’s discussion of the debate about romanization vs. Hàn-jī (漢字 = Kanji), but it’s certainly not necessary. Here’s a sample:

Anybody who sets out to learn or learn about Hanji-based Hokkien these days will get the impression that pre-ROC Hanji-based Hokkien was, at best:

  1. Utterly unstandardized. To each man his own version. An unholy mess. Internally inconsistent.
  2. Largely made up of sound-only Hanji, or what the Japanese call ateji (当て字): Hanji employed for their sound value, with no regard to their “underlying meaning”.
  3. Well-represented in the experimental mess that was Hanji-based Hokkien in the 1980s and 90s.
  4. Reasonably well-represented in a series of 19th and 20th century dictionaries and rimebooks that allow us to access a cleaned-up version of pre-ROC Hanji Hokkien without having to look at any actual writings.
  5. Reasonably well-accounted for by the scholars of the late 20th century, who used the pre-ROC orthography as a starting point for the Neo-Hokkien they were creating, only replacing the parts that were unworkable.

This is what I used to think too, pretty much, before I found Tō͘ Kiàn-hong’s (杜建坊) essays. From there I looked for and found dozens of pre-ROC Hokkien publications that had been uploaded to the internet. It was a rude awakening. Pre-ROC Hokkien was surprisingly consistent. It spanned 400 years. The later stuff showed a level of orthographic polish and de facto standardization comparable to the Cantonese of today. Most of the late 20th century orthographic mess was not to be found in the pre-ROC publications. (Most of the mess that the Taiwanese Creationist scholars and writers claimed to be cleaning up had in fact been introduced by their own selves!) In turn, the conventions in the pre-ROC publications were only partly represented in the dictionaries and rimebooks of their time. And while scholars of the last 30-some years often cited “popular” (民間 bîn-kan) usage, it turned out what they meant by “popular” most times was in fact select dictionaries and rimebooks instead of popular … usage.

Now I just want to know what kind of a name Lañitri is; Google finds only references to the Log post.

The Bookshelf: Miscellany X.

The review copies have been accumulating, so it’s time once again for a language book roundup!

1) Women Talk More Than Men … And Other Myths about Language, by Abby Kaplan. The author explains her approach on the second page:

First, it is about popular beliefs about language: the conventional wisdom on topics from linguistic sex differences to the effects of text messaging. Sometimes, of course, popular opinion has things more or less right –- but it’s more interesting to examine cases where ‘what everyone knows’ is wrong, and so we will put a special focus on debunking language myths. […]

Second, this is a book about how to study language — not in the sense that it will train you to do linguistic analysis for yourself, but in the sense that it provides a glimpse of the kinds of things linguists do.

The chapter titles are myths, like “A dialect is a collection of mistakes” and “Chimpanzees can talk to us,” and she does a splendid job of debunking; there are a lot of academic references and statistics, which may put off some people, but in a field chock-full of books with little beyond hand-waving and obiter dicta, it’s a welcome corrective. For a fuller discussion, see Stan Carey’s review. This is a fine book that I would recommend to anyone interested in language.

2) The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary, by John Simpson. The former chief editor of the OED describes his experiences with it and provides a great deal of intriguing lexical information along the way. In discussing the decision to have the full text keyed manually rather than being scanned, he says “it transpired that there was no company in Britain big enough and courageous enough to take on the job”; the bold indicates that the word will be treated separately, and on the next page there is a two-and-a-half-page discussion beginning “In the mid- to late eighteenth century, the verb to transpire caused no end of arguments between otherwise healthy individuals” and continuing with an exemplary and funny analysis of how the meaning shifted, including the parenthetical “(should you be the sort of person who finds things ‘wrong’ with language).” As you can tell from those quotes, the author is lively company, and anyone interested in the OED will want this book.

3) Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally), by John McWhorter. The aim of this compact, readable book is laid out in the introduction:

In the wake of conclusive discussions of these grammar rules, such as many of David Crystal’s publications and, most recently, Steven Pinker’s book The Sense of Style, there is little need to dwell on them further. This book will focus on something larger, in a way, than that compact collection of grammatical no-nos: the general sense that when English is morphing along in any way (new accents, new meanings) we are seeing not transformation but disruption. I want to propose a sunny (and, frankly, scientifically accurate) way of hearing the speech around us, as a substitute for a view of English as a collection of words embalmed between the covers of dictionaries.

If you’re in the market for books like this, you’re probably already familiar with the genial McWhorter and his pleasantly colloquial style; this has some good (if often familiar) examples and a healthy attitude toward language change and usage.

And finally, a couple of books on one of my favorite topics, bad language:

4) What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves, by Benjamin K. Bergen. The publisher’s blurb says:

In this groundbreaking yet ebullient romp through the linguistic muck, Bergen answers intriguing questions: How can patients left otherwise speechless after a stroke still shout Goddamn! when they get upset? When did a cock grow to be more than merely a rooster? Why is crap vulgar when poo is just childish? Do slurs make you treat people differently? Why is the first word that Samoan children say not mommy but eat shit? And why do we extend a middle finger to flip someone the bird?

And the book lives up to that description. It’s got charts showing unacceptability levels for bad words in New Zealand, England, and the US; one illustrating the fact that “People rate made-up words as more profane when they have more consonants, either at the beginning of the syllable or at the end” (“deeve” is felt to be worse than “dee” and “smurb” than “smurr”); an illustration showing one dog labeled “LUCK” and another labeled “FUCK”… oh, it’s a lot of fun, and scientifically sound too!

5) In Praise of Profanity, by Michael Adams. I’ve reviewed books by Adams before (Slang: The People’s Poetry in 2009 and From Elvish to Klingon in 2011), and I’ve come to find him a reliably interesting author; as I said in that first review, he thinks clearly and writes vividly. He quotes graffiti (“NoticeI will suck off 2 boys’ (over 16) cocks next Sunday”), Miss Manners, Jesse Sheidlower (another LH favorite), the poetry of William Dunbar and John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (“Whence rows of mandrakes tall did rise,/ Whose lewd tops fucked the very skies”), and the comedy of Sarah Silverman. He ends with a coda about the excellent word clusterfuck as discussed at a conference banquet at Pembroke College, Oxford: “We concluded that it’s just about a perfect word structurally; it’s perfect just in the aesthetics of its form.” If that sounds like the kind of thing you like, or someone you want to give a present to would like, you can’t go wrong with this delightful book.

How Did Latin Become A Dead Language?

Jules Suzdaltsev (“a big fancy journalist, editor, and host from Los Angeles, California”) has a three-minute video purporting to explain what happened to Latin. I post it not because I expect anyone here to learn anything from it (summary: Latin split into what we call the Romance languages) but because it manages to say such odd, silly, irrelevant, or just plain wrong things in such a short stretch of time. “Part of the reason that Latin passed out of common usage is because, as a language, it’s incredibly complex”: no, actually people can go on speaking incredibly complex languages indefinitely; visit the Caucasus sometime. At the start he seems to be saying that Latin spread throughout the Empire because it was the chosen language of the Catholic Church. His map shows Romanian as not being spoken within the Empire. He says the meaning of something said in Latin “is always clear, although difficult to parse in a sentence.” He gives the Italian, Spanish, and French descendants of Latin tres ‘three’ and says they’re “all similar, but culturally distinct.” Wha? I watched it twice just to make sure I had heard what I thought I heard. Anyway, this guy may be a fine fellow but I wouldn’t advise going to him for linguistic history. (Thanks, Trevor!)


I’ve been wandering about much of the day in a stuporous state brought on by the dank, muggy weather, and I’ve just learned the perfect word for it thanks to an article by Betty Kirkpatrick (former editor of the Chambers dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus) at The Caledonian Mercury:

Many Scots words are so fit for purpose, as they say in modern parlance, that it is difficult to find an adequate English translation for them. Such a word is dwam, usually to be found in the phrase “in a dwam”.

Dwam in this sense is often translated as daydream but this strikes me as a bit too poetic for dwam and not accurate enough. A daydream suggests, and is often defined as such, pleasant thoughts and fantasies indulged in while awake.

Dwam does not suggest anything so creative. […] When you are in a dwam you may be thinking about something, not necessarily something pleasant, other than the subject in hand. However, you are just as likely to be thinking about nothing at all.

The other translation frequently given for dwam is stupor, but this is often defined as a state of near-unconsciousness and a dwam in the sense I am thinking of is nowhere as deep-seated as that. Furthermore, dictionaries frequently indicate that a stupor is often brought on by drugs or alcohol. Not so dwam. It does not necessarily have any connection with illegal substances, although the odd dram-induced dwam is not unknown.

Dwam, with the alternative spellings dwalm and dwaum, when it first came into being, was used to refer to a physical condition. Germanic in origin, it has associations with Old English dwolma, a state of confusion. As a verb it meant to faint or swoon or to become suddenly ill. It also meant to decline in health. As a noun it meant a fainting fit or a sudden attack of illness. […] “In a state of abstraction” is quite apt but it is a bit of a mouthful. “Staring into space” and “lost in thought” both cover the situation quite well, but are not as concise nor as graphic as be in a dwam.

(I’ve added italics for clarity; there are none at the linked page.) Here‘s the DSL entry, for those who want more; there’s no OED entry, so it’s pure Scots it’s in the OED under dwalm (see below). Thanks, Eric!

Globalization of Latin American Writers.

Adam Critchley interviews Mexican author Álvaro Enrigue about “his conviction that translated work is finding a widening world audience,” and there’s plenty of interesting stuff, beginning with this:

I think there has been a change in perspective among readers, both in the US and the UK, regarding the notion of translation.

I think reading a work in translation used to be seen as reading a “false” book, but the new generation has modified that outlook, and this is not simply due to a renewal of readers but of editors. We’re seeing a new generation of editors, who now tend to be younger than writers. And many of these young editors are women, and that has introduced an aspect to the market reflected in seeing more translations read.

I’m glad to hear it! But the next paragraph showed me an abyss of ignorance in my own head that I had been unaware of:

There was also an impressive shift from the 20th to the 21st century in the quality of translations. I moved to the US in 1998 and in those days if you wanted to read Spanish-language writers in translation the only options were [the Spaniards] Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Marías. There was absolutely nothing else. But now a writer under the age of 30 who publishes a decent novel in Mexico or Peru, for example, can find a publisher in the US or the UK.

I still had the idea, left over from the ’60s and ’70s, that Latin American writing was a big thing in the US — el boom, ¿no? Turns out el boom was a long time ago… (Thanks, Trevor!)