Sinewy Saxonisms.

In my leisurely cruise through Moby-Dick, I have reached Chapter 87, “The Grand Armada,” and I enjoyed this lexicographical footnote so much I thought I’d pass it on. The footnoted sentence reads, “Stripped to our shirts and drawers, we sprang to the white-ash, and after several hours’ pulling were almost disposed to renounce the chase, when a general pausing commotion among the whales gave animating token that they were now at last under the influence of that strange perplexity of inert irresolution, which, when the fishermen perceive it in the whale, they say he is gallied.” Whereto the following is appended:

   *To gally, or gallow, is to frighten excessively, – to confound with fright. It is an old Saxon word. It occurs once in Shakspere: –

        The wrathful skies
Gallow the very wanderers of the dark
And make them keep their caves.
                        Lear, Act III. sc. ii.

   To common land usages, the word is now completely obsolete. When the polite landsman first hears it from the gaunt Nantucketer, he is apt to set it down as one of the whaleman’s self-derived savageries. Much the same is it with many other sinewy Saxonisms of this sort, which emigrated to the New-England rocks with the noble brawn of the old English emigrants in the time of the Commonwealth. Thus, some of the best and furthest-descended English words – the etymological Howards and Percys – are now democratised, nay, plebeianised – so to speak – in the New World.

The OED defines it as “To frighten, daze, scare, startle. Now [1898] only dial. and in the whale fishery”; the citations are:

1608 Shakespeare King Lear ix. 44 The wrathfull Skies gallow, the very wanderer of the Darke, and makes them keepe their caues.
1700 Let. 8 Apr. in T. Brown 3rd Vol. Wks. (1708) ii. 102 The People look’d as if they were gallied.
1823 New Monthly Mag. 7 231 We were one and all mortally gallied at the sight.
1840 F. Marryat Poor Jack vi. 29 They [sc. bull whales] are..easily ‘gallied’, that is, frightened.
1874 C. M. Scammon Marine Mammals N. Amer. iii. iii. 227 The whale is approached in the most cautious manner, to avoid ‘gallying’ it.
1883 W. H. Cope Gloss. Hampshire Words ‘Galley them pigs out o’ the peasen.’
1888 F. T. Elworthy W. Somerset Word-bk. Gally, to frighten. (Very common.)

Alas, it hasn’t been updated, so the only etymology is “Old English a-gælwan to alarm.”

On Multilingual Libraries.

David Crystal says he wanted to call his post “On multilingual libraries,” but he only knew of one, “the one I visited last Thursday in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. There ought to be one in every city where there are multilingual communities — which means all of them.” It astonished me that as far as he knew there was only one in England; as John Cowan points out in the first comment, the Queens Public Library has 12% of its holdings in languages other than English, for a total of about 60 languages, and of course my beloved Donnell Branch of the NYPL was a model in this regard (and cursed be those who moved its bones!). There is much of interest in both article and comments, though (as John points out) there is also some tosh about the alleged cognitive advantages of bilingualism.

Linguistic Diversity of Ancient Arabia.

I don’t often recommend podcasts, but “Episode 82: What Writing Can Tell Us About the Arabs before Islam” of the University of Texas at Austin’s “15 Minute History” series was so interesting I listened to the whole thing and wished there were more. Host Christopher Rose, of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, interviews Ahmad al-Jallad of the University of Leiden; among the topics discussed are inscriptions from Najd and Hijaz that we can’t read, in languages that were very different from Arabic and don’t have modern descendants (farther north, in Jordan and Syria, the language was much closer to Arabic); the language of Tayma, which has a striking similarity to Aramaic and Hebrew as against Arabic; the transition from South Semitic script to “Arabic” script, which comes with the Nabataean kingdom (which spoke Arabic but administered in Aramaic) in the 3rd-5th centuries — it was essentially a transition to a cursive script, which implies writing with ink (it developed in an administration tradition, where the texts were very formulaic, so you don’t need full writing; by contrast, South Arabian script was used for memorial purposes and graffiti, not administration); the myth of the “isolation” of Arabic, especially among nomads (in fact there are bilingual inscriptions in Old Arabic and Greek); the fact that the Koran, unlike other early Arabic writings, does not show marks of Aramaic (e.g. bar ‘son’); and the need to explain the Arabicization of Arabia — a question that couldn’t have been asked a couple of centuries ago. It’s only a quarter of an hour long, and well worth your while. Thanks, Trevor!

(A point of interest in terms of English linguistics is the frequent use of “so” to begin responses; this is almost ubiquitous these days, but I mention it for the benefit of those who aren’t aware of the phenomenon or want a convenient source of examples.)

CREWS Project.

Contexts of and Relations between Early Writing Systems (CREWS) is a project hosted at the Faculty of Classics, Cambridge:

The aim of the CREWS project is to take an innovative and interdisciplinary approach to the history of writing, developing new methodologies for studying writing systems and their social context. The project researchers will be working on specific case studies relating to inscriptions of the ancient Aegean, Eastern Mediterranean and Levant (c.2000-600 BC). By looking at the ways in which writing systems were developed and used, we can study not only the systems themselves and the languages written in them, but also the cultural settings in which they were adapted and maintained.

By focusing on the Mediterranean in 2nd and 1st millennia BC, the project will be able to investigate writing during a period when we know there were high levels of contact between different areas. Against this backdrop of linguistic and cultural interconnections, a study of how writing was passed on and adapted for new uses has the potential to give new insights into social history. Writing is more than just a vessel for recording language: it is a tool that is shaped by and contributes to the society in which it exists. […]

The CREWS project begins on 1st April 2016 and runs for five years, until 2021.

I discovered it via Stan Carey’s latest Link Love post, which links to this CREWS post on alphabetical order; there are lots of other enjoyable links there as well.

English at Rakuten.

Geoffrey Pullum has a Lingua Franca article called “The Social Consequences of Switching to English” that is bound to raise hackles, but it’s so interesting I can’t resist posting it. He writes about the consequences of a decree by Hiroshi Mikitani, the chief executive of Rakuten (which runs Japan’s largest e-commerce website):

Mikitani was ruthless: He simply announced that the whole company was switching its operational language. No negotiation. Japanese out, English in. Don’t speak English? Tough. Deal with it. Take night classes.

Soon after the switch he conducted a board meeting entirely in English, and each time a nervous executive in a navy-blue suit asked cautiously if he might explain something in Japanese, the answer was no: Say it in English, or don’t say it. The board meeting took twice as long as a normal one.

That was five years ago. Today, Mikitani says, the culture and even the dress code are showing all the signs of having been altered by the imposition of the English language. It makes the Whorfian idea, that your native language determines how the world looks to you and thus constrains your thinking, look tame. Mikitani postulates that the language you adopt will change your whole relationship to the world, from your clothing to your interactions with your superiors in the workplace.

English “has few power markers,” he points out. “Its use can therefore help to break down the hierarchical, bureaucratic barriers that are entrenched in Japanese society and reflected in Japanese conversation, which could boost efficiency.” […]

At Rakuten the complicated management of respect levels fell away after the switch to English, says Mikitani, and good riddance to it. He had wanted to “break down the hierarchical, bureaucratic barriers that are entrenched in Japanese society,” and he claims the anglophone policy jump-started that. “A new casual vibe permeates our office, with employees happily shunning the monotonous navy suit typical of the Japanese workplace,” he says; he speaks of the language policy “breathing new life into a moribund business culture.”

This is, of course, the boss’s point of view, and I’m surprised Pullum accepts it so uncritically, but it may be reasonably accurate — I have no way of knowing, and I’m curious what my better-informed readers think. (For the record, I deplore the idea of a boss insisting all employees switch languages, however tempting the boost in efficiency.)

In other news: Abandoned towers of books appear in New York City.

Dan Chaucer.

One of Edmund Spenser’s best-known lines is “Dan Chaucer, well of English undefiled” (or, if you prefer Ye Olde Spellynge, “vndefyled”). It’s a nice line, even if Chaucer’s English was as thoroughly defiled as any other (it’s ye olde rose-colored view of the past), but it never occurred to me to wonder about the “Dan” part until now — Chaucer’s given name was, after all, Geoffrey. It turns out Dan is an archaic title, equivalent to Master or Sir and descended (via Old French dan, nominative dans, danz) from Latin dominus ‘lord.’ There is, however, a problem: Dan, like Sir, was prefixed to the given name, not the surname; here are the first few citations from the OED entry (from 1894):

1303 R. Mannyng Handlyng Synne 73 Dane Phelyp was mayster þat tyme.
1340 Ayenbite 1 Þis boc is dan Michelis of Northgate.
c1386 Chaucer Monk’s Prol. 41 My lorde the Monk quod he.. Wher shal I calle yow my lord daun Iohn, Or daun Thomas, or elles daun Albon? Of what hous be ye?

So why not Dan Geoffrey? Fortunately, Thomas Pyles wrote a short article on this very subject, “Dan Chaucer” (Modern Language Notes 57.6 [June 1942]: 437-439), available through JSTOR; I’ll quote some salient bits. After pointing out that “later in the poem he does use what would seem to be the more orthodox form, i. e., ‘Dan Geffrey’ (vii, vii, 9),” he says:

It seems most likely that Spenser was using the title dan, already old-fashioned, to connote antiquity, dignity, learning, and respectful affection for his avowed literary idol, and that the usage which we should expect to find (by analogy with earlier non-academic and with present-day sir, as well as with earlier dan) was not fixed in his day. […]

There can be little doubt, then, not only that all subsequent “Dan Chaucers” are simply reflections of Spenser’s usage, as has been stated above, but also that all subsequent uses of dan with surname stem from his famous “blunder” (if it may be so called). In the 18th century, dan, though quite obsolete, was apparently well known, thanks to Spenser, and was bestowed by the poets upon their fellows in facetious and somewhat affected manner. Thus, Prior refers to “Dan Pope” (“Alma,” ii, 120), and Pope in turn refers to “our friend, Dan Prior” (Imitations of Horace, Bk. Ii, Sat. vi, line 153). The final stanza of the “Bouts Rimés on Signora Domitilla,” attributed to Swift and usually included among his poems, also contains a reference to “Dan Pope.”

In any event, it seems certain that Spenser’s use of the title, unorthodox though it may be, has established for “Dan Chaucer” a position of affectionate regard in the hierarchy of “dans” second only to that held by “Dan Cupid.” Surely Dan Chaucer (for the writer is quite willing to do his bit in perpetuating so worthy a solecism) would have desired no more exalted station.


No, not the English word, short for condominium, but the Latin verb: condō, condere, condidī, conditum. Many people are familiar with it from the phrase ab urbe condita ‘from the founding of the city’ (the founding of Rome is traditionally dated to 753 BCE), and I (a diligent but long-lapsed Latin student) thought of it as meaning ‘to found.’ Then, in the course of reading a very interesting analysis of the Octavia, a late-first-century play of unknown authorship about Nero’s murder of his wife Claudia Octavia (with his murder of his mother Agrippina as an important subplot), I was startled to see Agrippina’s last words, ordering Nero’s henchman to bury his sword in her womb (caedis moriens illa ministrum/ rogat infelix,/ utero dirum condat ut ensem), mentioned as a reminiscence of Vergil — not only is there the famous use of condere at the Aeneid’s beginning and end to describe the foundation of Rome, but Vergil was the first to use it in the sense of burying a sword into one’s enemy (Aen. 9.347-8: pectore in adverso totum cui comminus ensem/ condidit assurgenti). I looked the verb up in my beat-up old paperback New College Latin & English Dictionary and found the following farrago of senses:

to build, found; to write, compose (poetry); to establish (an institution); to store, treasure, hoard; to preserve, pickle; to bury; to conceal, hide, suppress; to shut (eyes); to sheathe (sword); to place (soldiers) in ambush; to plunge, bury (sword); to imprison; to memorize; to store up

I then went to my Oxford Latin Dictionary, which arranges the senses as follows (I’ve abbreviated ad libitum):

1 To put or insert (into); to put (a person in a given place); esp. to put (in prison, chains, etc.).
2 To store up for future use, put away; to preserve, store up (food, fodder, etc.); to bottle (wine, oil) for keeping; (transf.) to store up (in the mind, memory, etc.); to preserve, keep safe.
3 To restore (a thing) to its place, put away; to sheathe, put away (a sword or other weapon).
4 To inter, bury (a corpse); to lay to rest (a spirit); also, to cause the death of, bring to the grave.
5 To put away for concealment, secrete, hide.
6 To put away for protection, hide; (usu. refl. or pass.) to take refuge.
7 To put out of sight (without any intention of keeping secret), obstruct the view of; to plunge, bury (a weapon in an opponent’s body); to close (the eyes of a corpse, as part of the ritual of burial.
8 To cause to disappear (as an indirect result of one’s action); diem (etc.) ~ere, to see the day out.
9 To have hidden within, contain.
10 To found, establish (a city or state); to set up, establish (a temple, altar, etc.).
11 To originate, institute (a custom, law, reputation, etc.); to inaugurate.
12 To make by putting together, construct, compose.
13 lustrum ~ere, To conduct the ceremony of purification which concluded the census; to bring to a close, end.
14 To compose, write (a poem or other literary work); to describe in literature, record, write of.

Whew! The etymology is perfectly straightforward (con– ‘together’ + –do– ‘put’ < PIE *dhē-, cf. Greek tithēmi); it’s amazing what a variety of senses spring from such a simple source.

The Word ronce.

Back in 2009 I posted about a good translation (by Emily Grosholz) of Yves Bonnefoy’s poem “Tu me dis que tu aimes le mot ronce,” from his book Ce qui fut sans lumière (translated by John Naughton, with original en face, as In the Shadow’s Light); just now, perusing wood s lot, I came across Naughton’s translation of a poem from a few pages later in the same book that focuses on the same word, ronce ‘brambles; blackberry bush,’ and I like both the poem and translation so much I’ll reproduce them here. Bonnefoy:

Le mot ronce, dis-tu ? Je me souviens
De ces barques échouées dans le varech
Que traînent les enfants les matins d’été
Avec des cris de joie dans les flaques noires

Car il en est, vois-tu, où demeure la trace
D’un feu qui y brûla à l’avant du monde
— Et sur le bois noirci, où le temps dépose
Le sel qui semble un signe mais s’efface,
Tu aimeras toi aussi l’eau qui brille.

Du feu qui va en mer la flamme est brève,
Mais quand elle s’éteint contre la vague,
Il y a des irisations dans la fumée.
Le mot ronce est semblable à ce bois qui sombre.

Et poésie, si ce mot est dicible,
N’est-ce pas de savoir, là où l’étoile
Parut conduire mais pour rien sinon la mort,

Aimer cette lumière encore ? Aimer ouvrir
L’amande de l’absence dans la parole ?


The word brambles, you say? Then I think of
Those boats stranded in sea-weed
That children drag on summer mornings
With cries of joy through dark pools of water.

Because in some, you see, there are traces
Of a fire that burned there at the prow of the world
–And on the blackened wood where time has left
The salt that seems a sign but vanishes,
You too shall love the shimmering water.

Brief is the flame that goes out to sea,
But when it is quenched against the wave,
The smoke is filled with iridescence.
–The word brambles is like this sinking wood.

And poetry, if we can use this word,
Is it not still, there where the star
Seemed to beckon, but only toward death,

Knowing how to love this light? To love
To open the kernel of absence in words?

A linguistic note: the striking French word varech ‘seaweed,’ pronounced /varek/, is from Old Norse *wrec (cf. Norwegian and Icelandic rek) and was actually borrowed into English as varec (s.v. in OED) or varech (1873 R. Browning Red Cotton Night-cap Country i. 3 “Then, dry and moist, the varech limit-line”; 1889 Guernsey News 1 Feb. “The gathering of varech in Herm commences to-morrow”); it’s a doublet of English wreck.

Pronouncing an Igbo Name.

Nkem Ifejika’s BBC News piece “Why I stopped mispronouncing my Igbo name” is excellent, I might even say exemplary. It not only explains why he grew up not speaking his family’s native Igbo and not even able to pronounce his own name correctly, it includes an audio clip in which he says both the short and long forms, as well as the word “Igbo” itself — and tells us why he prefers to use “Ibo” in English. (Amusingly, it’s hard to tell the difference between the two unless your ear is attuned to the combined gb phoneme.) He also explains why Igbo is described as “endangered” even though the population is actually growing, and gives a brief history of the tragic attempt of the Igbos to leave Nigeria half a century ago (I well remember the Biafra War from that time, as a result of which Igbo was one of the first African languages whose name I knew). He ends:

While growing up, I didn’t care that I couldn’t speak Igbo, but in adulthood, especially since becoming a father, it’s something I want to fix. I find myself wanting to bequeath Igbo to my son, Anyikamba (the name means “we are greater than a nation”), as an invaluable inheritance.

I don’t yet know as much as I should about my ancestors, or enough about Igbo history, so I can’t pass these on to him. But language as an embodiment of that living, breathing, history, I (and especially my wife) can give.

My identity is fairly cosmopolitan and outward looking, and I’m very adaptable. I’ve never been anywhere where I felt, “there’s no way I can live here”.

The global languages I speak are probably more in keeping with my outlook, so why would I want to speak a language which restricts me to 41,000 sq km in the southeast Nigeria?

I think it’s because the modern world is so fluid, and multiple identities are more possible than ever before, that I want something rooted and preserved in time.

And for me, that’s Igbo.

Highly recommended.

Animal Sounds.

Via Victor Mair at the Log:

Here is what claims to be “the world’s biggest multilingual list” of sounds that animals make. It has 58 animal sounds as made in 17 languages. Some of the animals are recorded as making separate sounds for different meanings (e.g., there are 10 different sounds listed for dogs) and some are distinguished between the sounds made by the male and the female of the species (e.g., the turkey). Needless to say, there are lots of gaps.

It’s unfortunate that Derek Abbott, who created the page, only gives transliterations and doesn’t provide terms in the original alphabets, and doubly unfortunate that some of them are simply wrong (Russian pigs grunt хрю [khryu], not “hrgu”), but it’s a great idea and I hope someone will do it better (or Abbott will improve his page).