Zanjeer.

Today I watched the 1973 movie Zanjeer, an enjoyable police/revenge movie with a minimum of song-and-dance numbers. (Sorry, Bollywood fans, I just don’t like song-and-dance numbers.) What makes it LH material is the linguistic situation. I wasn’t surprised to hear a lot of English spoken; it seemed natural in police stations (relic of the Raj) and at posh parties (prestige). But this did surprise me: before the hero, Angry Young Man Vijay Khanna, goes out to take his long-delayed revenge, there is a brief scene with his romantic interest, Mala (an orphan knife-sharpener whom he rescued from the street). He says there is something he has thought a million times but hasn’t dared say, and now he has to say it. She assumes an expectant look (knowing as well as we do what is coming), and he says, “I love you.” Like that. In English. Perhaps someone more familiar with the conventions of Indian cinema than I can tell me whether that is an attempt to avoid the specification of class, intimacy, register, or what have you that would be required in Hindi/Urdu and whether it’s at all plausible in the situation. (I thought, of course, of aristocratic Russian couples communicating in French, but that was long ago and in another country.)

Etymological lagniappe: I wondered where the word zanjir ‘chain’ came from; my language shelves quickly told me it was Persian, but it took Google Books to find for me this footnote from Languages of Iran: Past and Present, edited by Dieter Weber: “A similar case is possibly provided by the Parthian spelling of zyncyhr ‘chains’ (Pers. zanjir). The routine etymology (*zaina/i-ciθra-) is proved false by Sogdian zyncry’kh (P 2, 1063), in Man. script jyncry’.” (I presume “Man.” stands for Manchu.)

Some Links.

1) William Alexander’s “The Benefits of Failing at French” is an amusing NY Times op-ed piece about his unsuccessful efforts to learn French as an adult and the consolation he derived from an unexpected quarter. He had taken a cognitive assessment test and “scored below average for my age group in nearly all of the categories”; now:

After a year of struggling with the language, I retook the cognitive assessment, and the results shocked me. My scores had skyrocketed, placing me above average in seven of 10 categories, and average in the other three. My verbal memory score leapt from the bottom half to the 88th — the 88th! — percentile and my visual memory test shot from the bottom 5th percentile to the 50th. Studying a language had been like drinking from a mental fountain of youth.

He says “researchers … hypothesized that language study should prove beneficial for older adults, noting that the cognitive tasks involved — including working memory, inductive reasoning, sound discrimination and task switching — map closely to the areas of the brain that are most associated with declines due to aging.” Plausible, and certainly comforting to those of us who are both aging and learning languages, but probably overblown. Still, an enjoyable read.

2) Resources for Coptic Phonology (via Memiyawanzi). If you’re interested in Coptic you’ll be glad to know about this.

3) David Nash’s post “What flows from ngaka-rna : how naming books spread a Dieri word” at Endangered Languages and Cultures examines how “the Dieri (Diyari) intransitive verb ngaka-rna ‘flow (of water), blow (of wind)’” got confusingly written, misunderstood, and picked up as a popular toponym:

The reference to flowing or running water has clearly appealed to many agencies when they were selecting a name, because ‘Akuna’ or ‘Akoonah’ has been applied to over forty suburban streets, avenues, drives, closes, courts, and a rural lane. [...]

In short, in modern Australian usage as a ‘euphonious’ name Akuna or Akoonah, the word ngakarna has been anonymised from its linguistic and geographic origins. It has further been dislocated from its part of speech and authentic pronunciation (beyond the demands of English loan phonology). All that remains is some connection to flowing water (and even that has been lost where it has been glossed as ‘to follow’), and this now esoteric attribute is appreciated now only by the few who have informed themselves of it.

Thanks for the link, Yoram!

Opening Paragraphs.

I’m at one of those moments of changeover when I’ve finished up a bunch of reading projects and am starting afresh. To accompany the World Cup I was reading three (excellent) books on football/soccer, and I’ve now finished the last of these (Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round); furthermore, I’ve finally given up on Zagoskin’s Брынский лес (The Bryn Forest), a historical novel that has interesting descriptions of the Kremlin and nearby parts of Moscow in 1682 but otherwise is a stamped-from-cardboard panorama of heroic youth, a fair maiden with a mysterious past, and devotion to God’s chosen tsar (Peter the Great in this case) and the True Orthodox Church (as opposed to those nasty Old Believers) that I stopped trying to force my way through. So I’ve now simultaneously started one of my birthday gifts, Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and Alexander Veltman’s novel Приключения, почерпнутые из моря житейского (Adventures drawn from the sea of life, published 1846-48 in installments and in book form in 1848 as Саломея [Salomea]). It’s great to be reading enjoyable fiction again, and to celebrate I’ll quote the first paragraph of each novel. The Sloan:

Lost in the shadows of the shelves, I almost fall off the ladder. I am exactly halfway up. The floor of the bookstore is far below me, the surface of a planet I’ve left behind. The tops of the shelves loom high above, and it’s dark up there—the books are packed in close, and they don’t let any light through. The air might be thinner, too. I think I see a bat.

The Veltman:

A daddy and a mommy had two little daughters. Period. This isn’t about them. Perhaps the reader has met Dmitritsky somewhere? A stately enough man, pale face, green eyes, covered in crosses and decorations, served both here and there, was in all the wars and campaigns, on dry land and at sea, in all countries and realms, knows everybody, is acquainted with everyone… Nothing of the sort! It’s all lies! Let’s open at random some page or other from his life. Here he is riding into the capital to look for happiness right and left — and he keeps getting angry.

У одного папеньки и у одной маменьки было две дочки. Точка. Не об них дело. Читатель, может быть, встречал где-нибудь Дмитрицкого? Довольно статный мужчина, бледное лицо, зеленые глаза, весь в крестах и знаках отличия, служил и там и сям, был во всех войнах и походах, на суше и на море, во всех странах и землях, всех знает, со всеми знаком… Ничего не бывало! все это ложь! Раскроем наудачу какую-нибудь страницу из его жизни. Вот он едет в столицу искать счастья направо-налево — и все сердится.

Both paragraphs exude a joy in storytelling that makes me laugh and want to read more.

Blimba.

In a chapter on African football/soccer, David Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer has this sentence: “Muti, ju-ju, m’pungu, blimba are just some of the many words in African languages for the complex of beliefs that are held in the supernatural, in the animist realm of the spirit and in practices of witchcraft, magic and divination.” The only one of these terms I was familiar with was juju (as it’s spelled in the US), “a fetish, charm, or amulet of West African peoples,” which is probably from a source related to Hausa jūjū ‘fetish, evil spirit’ (though the OED entry, from 1901, says “generally thought to be < French joujou toy, plaything”). Muti, it turns out, is familiar enough in the English of southern Africa to have its own OED entry; its meaning is very similar, and it’s from Zulu umuthi ‘tree, plant; medicine, medicinal charm’ (umu-, singular noun prefix + -thi ‘tree’). Mpungu, according to this site, is “a KiKongo word that refers to power generated by something.” But I can’t find anything about blimba. I’ve tried “balimba,” “bulimba,” and “bilimba” (since the book has its fair share of typos), but no luck. So I thought I’d turn to the Varied Reader: any of you have any idea what he’s referring to?

Word Crimes.

I have, of course, been sent the link to Weird Al’s new “Word Crimes” video, a parody of last summer’s hit “Blurred Lines.” My response: “I enjoyed the parody but deplored the prescriptivism.” I didn’t have much more to say, and wasn’t planning to post about it, but I liked Lauren Squires’s guest post at the Log enough to link to it here and quote a couple of paragraphs (the “third” comes after discussions of Al’s use of “grammar” in a way that annoys linguists and the notion of “Proper English” as a tool of discrimination):

Third—and the motivation for this post—is that the view of “grammar” as “you must learn the rules or else be ostracized” just makes grammar no fun at all! Studying language—really digging into it, uncovering its remarkably complex yet orderly structure, investigating what makes it different across speakers and communities—is SUPER FUN! Giving people a list of rules of things to do in order to not be criticized is NOT FUN! I want my students to think language is FUN, and to have FUN thinking about language!

So as a teacher, I want to say: Weird Al can think what he wants about language, and you the audience can laugh along or not, depending on your views on language or taste in music or whatever. But please do not mistake the video itself for an educational video. It will not teach students about language. It will not teach students about grammar. I’ve seen many comparisons to Schoolhouse Rock, but would any student who didn’t already know what a “preposition” was leave Weird Al’s video understanding it? No. Rather, on its face, this video teaches people that there is a right way to speak/write, and if you don’t do things that way, you’re a bad person (or a sewer person? or a person with a disability?) who should not breed. Nothing about how language works, or why these “rules” are what they are.

She presents a list of 25 Questions for Teaching with “Word Crimes” that may be of interest. I would like to add an important point: yes, Weird Al is a parodist and not an educator or editorialist (sample comment by Kyle Gorman: “Weird Al is a parodist—there’s no way the character he is performing is his sincere self—who is no more ignorant of linguistics than society at large”), but that is a red herring here. It is clear from his statements in interviews (e.g., “When I came up with the idea for ‘Word Crimes’ I thought, ‘That’s great, because I’m pretty obsessed with grammar anyway.’ I’m always correcting peoples’ grammar”) that he stands behind the attitudes expressed in the video, though they are presumably exaggerated for comic effect. Also, “no more ignorant of linguistics than society at large” means “completely ignorant.” Maybe someday we can change that!

“Jesus” in Dungan.

Victor Mair has a fascinating post at the Log about Dungan, a variety of Chinese (or Sinitic, if you prefer) spoken in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and written in Cyrillic:

Naturally, separated as they were from their homeland and its speech community, the language of the Dungans has undergone considerable change, especially through the borrowing of terms from Russian, Persian, Arabic, Turkic, and other languages. Even more radical was the adoption of the Cyrillic alphabet for their writing system (nearly all of those who fled were illiterate in Chinese characters).

For a brief introduction to the Dungans and their language, see “Dungan: a Sinitic language written with the Cyrillic alphabet”.

For those who want to hear what Dungan sounds like, there is now an excellent opportunity, since the movie “Jesus” has been dubbed into Dungan. For someone who knows Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), it’s amazing to listen to — sometimes partially understandable, sometimes dramatically affected by Turkic and Russian.

He gives links to both the full movie and the movie broken into clips, and the reactions from commenters who know Chinese are very interesting. Here’s the first, from Natalia:

I am fluent in MSM, and Dungan sounds like someone is narrating or several persons are having a conversation in the next room just out of hearing range.

The rhythm and cadence of the speech is familiar, and I can catch specific words or phrases. However, the speaker will suddenly use an unfamiliar phrase in that same rhythm and I am once again wondering if my ears have stopped working.

And Matt Anderson writes:

That whole site is a great resource. I just watched the same 30 second clip in each of the Sinitic topolects, in rough order of intelligibility (from my perspective), starting with Mandarin varieties and moving on through Cantonese, Xiang, Shanghainese, Hakka, and Mindong & Minnan varieties, etc. Watching it over & over like that allowed me to pick out a lot more from some of the topolects than I would otherwise have been able to, but it really does reinforce how insane it is to consider all this diversity to be part of the same language.

I’ll be curious to know what Bathrobe makes of it!

The Languages of Czernowitz.

Christopher Culver posts this great quote from Gregor von Rezzori’s memoir Blumen im Schnee (translated as The Snows of Yesteryear) about “his childhood nanny Cassandra, hired out of some remote village in the Carpathians” (Rezzori grew up in Czernowitz, now Chernivtsi):

She spoke both Romanian and Ruthenian, both equally badly—which is not at all unusual in the Bukovina—intermixing the two languages and larding both with bits from a dozen other idioms. The result was that absurd lingua franca, understood only by myself and scantily by those who, like her, had to express themselves in a similarly motley verbal hodgepodge. Even though it may be questioned whether I was actually fed at Cassandra’s breast, there can be no doubt that linguistically I was nourished by her speech. The main component was a German, never learned correctly or completely, the gaps in which were filled with words and phrases from all the other tongues spoken in the Bukovina—so that each second or third word was either Ruthenian, Romanian, Polish, Russian, Armenian or Yiddish, not to forget Hungarian and Turkish. From my birth, I heard mainly this idiom, and it was as natural to me as the air that I breathed.

We need more of this kind of mixing (mongrelization, if you will), not less. Culver ends his post with this sad reflection: “From my experiences walking the streets of the city, it’s pretty much down to just Ukrainian, Russian and Romanian now. And while the intermixing of languages was simply accepted as a fact of life back then, today in at least southern (Romanian) Bucovina, the observation that a word in Romanian is of foreign origin is often taken as an insult.”

Neoguri.

Victor Mair has a post at the Log called “Neoguri: raccoon or raccoon dog?” which discusses a typhoon name; it begins:

The typhoon that struck Okinawa a few days ago and is now passing by Tokyo is called Neoguri. It gets it name from a Korean word meaning “raccoon dog”.

The Japanese refer to it as Taifū 8-gō Neoguri 台風8号ネオグ リ (“Typhoon No. 8 Neoguri”), but most often without the “Neoguri” (see below for discussion of Japanese typhoon designation practices). However, the Chinese are calling it Huànxióng 浣熊 (“raccoon”), which is a clear mistranslation. The Chinese name for the raccoon dog is hé 貉 or háozi 貉子.

Bathrobe, who called Neoguri to my attention, writes: “Chinese has got itself in knots over naming precisely because of Chinese characters.”

The crux of the matter lies in the fact that, for Chinese, lí 狸 means (“raccoon”), while for Japanese it is the celebrated tanuki 狸 (“raccoon dog”), about which we will have much to say in this post.

It’s fascinating stuff, and if you go to the post you will learn a great deal about the animals involved, as well as how to pronounce the Korean word I used as a title. But the reason I decided to post it was that Mair sent me an e-mail calling my attention to this comment from Ives Goddard, who, as that Wikipedia article says, “is widely considered the leading expert on the Algonquian languages”:

The etymology of raccoon is unknown. The spellings of the Virginia Algonquian word include aroughcun, rarowcun, etc., etc. (John Smith) and arathkone and arrathcune (Wm. Strachey). There is no easy way to connect this to Unami Delaware (the Phila. area language) náhënëm (ë = schwa). Someone has evidently tried to do this (knowing that PA *hk > Del /h/) and has come up with a very bad and in fact completely incomprehensible PA reconstruction (“*ahrah-koon-em”) that appears online as if it were a real word an appalling number of times. I have no idea what the morphemes are supposed to be (except perhaps for the irrelevant -ëm). Can anyone trace this to the source that originally proposed it?

My only news on this word is that I have now been able to persuade the OED to use the spelling “raccoon” rather than the older British(!) and Canadian norm “racoon.”

Isn’t it great that people can discuss an Algonquian etymology and have the leading expert in the field drop by to shed light? I love this multiply connected world!

Around DH in 80 Days.

Michael Hendry sent me this link, to “a story about a project to crowdsource (with more accuracy than that usually implies) the proofing and on-line publication of all 90 volumes of Tolstoi’s works,” and then added “a lot of the other things on the site (Around the Digital Humanities in 80 Days) look like they would be of interest to Hatters.” He’s absolutely right; here is the page listing the “days” they’ve put online so far, and I’m pretty sure everyone will find something of interest. “Deepening Histories of Place” is a “multi-institutional digital cultural project for Aboriginal knowledge management”; “Aluka” is “an international collaborative working to build a ‘digital library of scholarly resources from and about Africa’”; “Book of the Dead | Totenbuch” is a project to edit the text of the Egyptian Book of the Dead; “Sefaria” is a crowdsourced project “to make a ‘free living library’ of all texts in the Jewish canon in their original languages (mostly Hebrew or Aramaic), with translations to English.” There’s lots more where those came from — check it out!

Title Case for Bird Names.

Martha Harbison has a painfully funny piece in Audubon about the history and significance of that magazine’s decision to mandate title case for bird names (e.g., “Bald Eagle” rather than “bald eagle”). Here’s a sample:

A group of magazine editors, scientists, and communications professionals, convened by Audubon’s VP of Content, Mark Jannot, was asked to hash out, once and for all, whether Audubon would use title case (that is, capitalizing the first letter of each word) for common bird names. You can read Jannot’s account of ruffled feathers and rooster-like posturing here. (Spoiler: Audubon is switching to title case across all of its channels, including stories published in Audubon magazine.) The entire dustup was an eye-opener for me, a lifelong birder but a relatively recent hire at Audubon. Before that meeting, I thought magazine copy editors were the most rule-crazy, uptight cranks going when it came to orthography. Little did I know that ornithologists share that trait. Listening to each camp snipe at the other, over rules that nobody else in the world cares about, made me question my allegiance to either side.

As someone with more than a decade’s experience working in magazine editing, grokking the impulses of copy editors is easy: Any given rule is either in the style manual (one of a half-dozen stylebooks—but, in any given copy editor’s case, only a particular one of the those) or it’s not (and therefore it’s not a rule). To understand the ornithologist’s fervor for majuscules required some research, so I dug up a copy of the very first Check-List of North American Birds, published by the American Ornithologists’ Union in 1886. I read the entire Code of Nomenclature [...]

I personally agree with Anselm Atkins, “a longtime birder, ex-Trappist monk, and former academic,” who complained about title case, saying: “let us surrender to the dictionary. Until we do, we ornithologists, with our Important Capitals, continue to look Curiously Provincial.” But I’m not a birder, so I just watch with bemusement from the sidelines. (Via MetaFilter, where birders are defending their Important Capitals.)