Language vs. Genetics.

I’m inherently skeptical of attempts to link linguistic history with genetic history, so I was glad to see this piece (thanks, Paul!) by Cathleen O’Grady reporting on Nicole Creanza, Merritt Ruhlen, Trevor J. Pemberton, Noah A. Rosenberg, Marcus W. Feldman, and Sohini Ramachandran, “A comparison of worldwide phonemic and genetic variation in human populations,” PNAS, whose abstract says:

Linguistic data are often combined with genetic data to frame inferences about human population history. However, little is known about whether human demographic history generates patterns in linguistic data that are similar to those found in genetic data at a global scale. Here, we analyze the largest available datasets of both phonemes and genotyped populations. Similar axes of human geographic differentiation can be inferred from genetic data and phoneme inventories; however, geographic isolation does not necessarily lead to the loss of phonemes. Our results show that migration within geographic regions shapes phoneme evolution, although human expansion out of Africa has not left a strong signature on phonemes.

O’Grady quotes Dr. Dan Dediu, who researches linguistics and genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, as saying:

“This is a very interesting and important addition to the field, not only because it uses such a large database and introduces (relatively) new methods to the field, but also because of its findings… If its main finding survives replication with other databases and methods, then it’s a very powerful confirmation of the idea that demographic processes are one of the main driving forces behind both linguistic and genetic diversity. It also highlights the fact that language and genes have different properties, especially when it comes to small, isolated communities and contact between populations.”

I don’t assume that genetic history is entirely irrelevant to linguistics, but it’s too tempting and too common to try to smash them together and produce a falsely detailed picture of the past, so I’m glad to see research like this producing a more nuanced view.

Some Links.

Once again links are piling up faster than I can post ‘em, so here are several:

1) U-M helps open more than 25,000 early English books to public:

The U-M Library, the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries and ProQuest have made public more than 25,000 manually transcribed texts from 1473-1700 — the first 200 years of the printed book.

The texts represent a significant portion of the estimated total output of English-language work published during the first two centuries of printing in England.

(If you’re wondering why the texts are manually transcribed, they explain that “these first printed works use character sets and spelling that aren’t OCR-friendly.”)

2) Balashon is back in business after a hiatus of several years (see this post for explanation: “I often felt that if I didn’t come up with some original insight in my research, it wasn’t worth posting anything. …it became fairly intimidating to start anything new, particularly if I didn’t have the time required to work on something so big. So now, I think I’d like to return to my original format. I’ll try to write frequently, and often I’ll just quote one or two sources”); there have been wonderful posts on words for lion, cholent, bashert, and many other Hebrew words and expressions; one unexpected derivation particularly caught me eye: sechus סחוס ‘cartilage’ “arose through a misreading of חסחוס as הסחוס, whose ה was mistaken for the article and was consequently dropped” — i.e., “chas’chus was read as has’chus, meaning ‘the sechus‘.” Isn’t that great? A hearty welcome back to a fine blog.

3) The poet featured in this year’s Compass Translation Award is Boris Slutsky. There doesn’t appear to be a webpage at the Stosvet site yet comparable to last year’s for the Arseny Tarkovsky Competition, but if you use Facebook, here‘s the relevant FB page — one translated poem per entry (team entries are allowed), the translation (along with the Russian original) should be sent via email to with the words “Slutsky Contest” in the subject line, and the fee is $20 per entry. Slutsky was something of an unpoetic poet; his poems tend to feature such plainspoken lines as “Плохие времена тем хороши,/ Что выявленью качества души/ Способствуют и казни, и война…” (Bad times are good in that they assist the qualities of the soul in showing themselves, executions, war…). He started out as a war poet and gained official recognition, but starting in the late 1950s some of his work appeared abroad as samizdat (never with his permission); after the death of his wife in 1977 he apparently suffered a mental breakdown and stopped writing (he died in 1986). He was one of the members of the Union of Writers who voted for the expulsion of Pasternak in 1958, which left him with a sense of guilt; he wrote a poem “Прощение” (Forgiveness) that begins “Грехи прощают за стихи./ Грехи большие — за стихи большие” (Sins are forgiven for poetry. Great sins — for great poetry). There are links to his poems at this XIX век post.

Simplification Isn’t Simple.

Victor Mair has a post at the Log about John McWhorter’s Wall Street Journal article “What the World Will Speak in 2115: A century from now, expect fewer but simpler languages on every continent.” After a fair amount of chitchat, the thread gets quite interesting; I agree with the commenters who say that no matter how much global power China accumulates it’s unlikely Mandarin will replace English as the world’s main language. What leads me to post is a brilliant comment by Sally Thomason (January 27, 2015 @ 5:15 pm), which I will take the liberty of reproducing in toto, adding a paragraph break for readability:

The trouble with McWhorter’s scenario about languages getting simpler if they’re learned by non-native speakers is that there’s a lot of evidence against the hypothesis. Modern English morphology (word structure) is simpler than Old English morphology was, but English syntax is hardly simple. Nobody has come up with a satisfactory measure of overall syntactic (sentence structure) complexity for English or any other language — because, for one thing, no complete syntactic description of any language exists. Language contact is a universal of the human condition; simplification under language contact definitely isn’t, and that includes language shift situations, where non-native speakers learn a target language: some such changes do lead to overall simplification, but others don’t. One salient example: Russian (like English) has been learned by many, many non-native speakers over the centuries, and Russian morphology has not gotten simpler as a result of all this second-language learning. Another example: in the aboriginal Pacific Northwest of the U.S. and neighboring Canadian provinces, multilingualism was the norm, much of the language learning was done by non-native speakers of the various target languages, and these languages had and have some of the most complex morphological systems in the world.

And a partial answer to reader_not_academe’s question about family trees vs. sociolinguistics: family tree models have been constructed for a great many language families all over the world, and the results of efforts to reconstruct undocumented prehistoric parent languages have led to a great many successes in the form of testable hypotheses about family-specific language changes. But historical linguists have always known that family trees can tell only part of the story of a language family’s history: the Comparative Method (by which family trees are constructed and parent languages reconstructed) identifies anomalous data, but cannot provide explanations for anomalies — other methods must be used to explain anomalies, most notably methods from contact linguistics. Modern sociolinguistics is providing wonderfully rich insights into processes of language change, but it remains true that the ultimate results of language diversification, in all but a handful of cases, turn out to fit into family trees (with reconstructable parent languages and testable historical hypotheses). The handful of family-tree-less cases include pidgin and creole languages, as well as bilingual mixed languages.

Makes me want to get back into the field, or at least take a class from her.

Update. John McWhorter responds; here’s his take on the Russian issue:

A crucial caveat, though: this kind of acquisition was most impactful before widespread education and literacy. Russian has been used as a second-language quite a bit without being simplified, indeed – but its spread has been reinforced to a large extent by formal education, literacy, and then media. Certainly there have been non-native varieties of Russian spoken in a great many places – but they almost never reach print and will never become the standard. “Broken” English took over in a country where most people were essentially illiterate, there was barely a such thing as school, and then after a long period when only French was written and the old tradition of writing in a high West Saxon Old English became a mere memory, it felt natural to start using “on the ground” English on the page.

Today, it is much harder for non-prescriptive varieties to be reinterpreted as prestigious ones in this way. The “immigrant” Swedish now spoken by children of immigrants will never oust standard Swedish or affect it in any real way, whereas the “immigrant” Norwegian spoken by Low Germans several centuries ago became the Norwegian norm in the area (whereas Scandinavian dialects further north such as the unfortunately obscure Elfdalian retain Old Norse’s three genders, etc.). We moderns perhaps have to strain a bit to imagine worlds where language was primarily oral and our prescriptivist sense of language barely existed.

The whole thing is worth reading (as, of course, are the comments); he addresses many of the issues raised.

15 Unique German Illnesses.

An enjoyable list from Arika Okrent; alongside the usual suspects like Ostalgie (nostalgia for the old way of life in East Germany) and Weltschmerz (you probably know what Weltschmerz is), there are such piquant entries as Kevinismus (“a strange propensity to give their kids wholly un-German, American-sounding names like Justin, Mandy, Dennis, Cindy, and Kevin”) and Ichschmerz (“like Weltschmerz, but it is dissatisfaction with the self rather than the world”). A few others:


Kreislaufzusammenbruch, or “circulatory collapse,” sounds deathly serious, but it’s used quite commonly in Germany to mean something like “feeling woozy” or “I don’t think I can come into work today.”


Hörsturz refers to a sudden loss of hearing, which in Germany is apparently frequently caused by stress. Strangely, while every German knows at least 5 people who have had a bout of Hörsturz, it is practically unheard of anywhere else.


Putzen means “to clean” and Fimmel is a mania or obsession. Putzfimmel is an obsession with cleaning. It is not unheard of outside of Germany, but elsewhere it is less culturally embedded and less fun to say.

I expect my Germanophone readers to tell me some of them are invented, others exaggerated, and yet others misinterpreted, but it gave me a chuckle on a day spent reading about the Holocaust and worrying about the weather, so I thought I’d pass it on.

Speaking of the weather, I don’t know if there’s a word Schneeweh, but we’re promised at least a couple of feet of snow in the next two days and power lines may come down, so if I don’t post, you’ll know what’s happening. Please join me in hoping no trees fall near our house!


My wife informed me today that what we’d been calling an igloo, the snow fort the grandkids made in the yard when the weather permitted, was actually a quinzhee. I’d never heard of such a thing, but sure enough, it has a Wikipedia article and an OED entry (Third Edition, December 2007):

Etymology: < Slave kǫ́ézhii, lit. ‘in the shelter’, or < a similar form in another Athabaskan language.

N. Amer.

A snow shelter of a type originally used by North American Indians, consisting of a mound of snow with a domed chamber dug into it.
1984 G. Durrell How to shoot Amateur Naturalist v. 97 Crawling into the quinzhee, Lee found that, although the temperature outside was minus thirty, inside our snowhouse it was one degree above freezing.
1995 Leader (Canada) Mar. 26/1 The night they slept in their backyard quinzhee the temperature dropped to -15 C.
2005 K. Callan Happy Camper 252 Don’t forget to store your shovel inside the quinzee in case there’s a snowstorm..and you have to dig yourself out.

The fact that there are no citations prior to 1984 at least partly explains why I’ve never heard of it, but it’s a useful word (allowing “igloo” to be confined to structures made of ice), and I will try to remember to use it. (Both Wikipedia and the OED say the pronunciation is /ˈkwɪnziː/, though I don’t see why the zh sound couldn’t be used — and if it’s not, why not use the spelling quinzee?).

English Purity, French Corruption.

No, I’m not talking about morals, I’m talking about Latin. Another enlightening passage from Curtius (see this post):

The chain of French literature begins only with the eleventh century. Spanish literature begins at the end of the twelfth century; Italian not until about 1220, with St. Francis’ Hymn to the Sun and the Sicilian art lyric. The late start of Spain and Italy is to be explained by the predominant position of France; the early appearance of Germanic literary works (in England about 700, in Germany about 750), on the other hand, by the intrinsic foreignness of “Germanic” in comparison with Romance. [...] The Romanian [i.e., speaker of a Romance language] could still get along for a considerable time with a more or less barbarized Latin, could start from there to acquire correct Latin. The Germanic has to learn Latin from the ground up—and he learns it very well. An amazingly pure Latin is written in England about 700, at a time when corruption is the rule in France. But even highly educated Italians could overlook grammatical blunders which set German monks laughing. The experience befell Gunzo of Novara, who came to Germany in 965 in the retinue of Otto I, and who used a wrong case in conversation with monks at St. Gall. He justified himself in a letter, in which he says that he was wrongly accused of grammatical ignorance, “although I am often handicapped by the use of our popular language, which is close to Latin.”

Literature from Underrepresented Languages.

An essay by editor Daniel Goulden on rare and underrepresented languages in Asymptote:

[...] In expanding the umbrella of world literature, Asymptote helps shine a light on languages neglected by publishers in New York and London. In our October 2013 issue, for instance, we published a series of poems by Natalia Toledo, the first woman to write in the Isthmus Zapotec, an indigenous American language still spoken by over 750,000 people in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. We not only published the original text alongside its translation but also included an audio clip of the author reading her work, which allowed readers to engage with the text on a whole new level by listening to a language they had most likely never heard before.

In our October 2011 issue, we published James Byrne’s and ko ko thett’s translations of various Burmese poets. If you haven’t seen Burmese writing before, you should click over to these poems now and select ‘Read the original in Burmese’ in the right hand column for a special treat—it could be the most beautiful language you have ever seen.

Asymptote has also published languages with very few speakers. In fact, John Smelcer, who gave us three Ahtna poems for our January 2012 issue, is the only living tribal member who can read and write in Ahtna—one of the most endangered languages in the world. By publishing his work we were able to introduce Ahtna literature to readers around the world and help it live longer.

What a great project — may it live long and prosper!

The News in Hausa.

Another link from frequent commenter Paul: BBC News in Hausa. As he says, it’s a useful resource because “you know roughly what the news is in English so it should give you good clues.” Another example of the riches provided by the internet; when I bought my Hausa dictionary, I never dreamed it would become so easy to hear the language used! And it was worth investigating the link just for the short clip Boko Haram ta dauki alhakin harin Baga (my dictionary tells me it means “Boko Haram takes responsibility for the Baga raid”), which teaches me how to say Boko Haram (see this LH post) in Hausa: the first word sounds to me like two equally long and high-pitched syllables, the second word is unstressed and lower-pitched.

The Dawn’s Posterior.

Frequent commenter Paul sent me a French etymology so piquant I have to share it with all of you. There are two synonymous obsolete expressions (now used humorously), potron-jacquet and potron-minet, appearing only in the phrases à potron-minet/jacquet and dès (le) potron-minet/jacquet ‘at the crack of dawn.’ In today’s French dictionaries, minet means ‘pussycat,’ jacquet means ‘backgammon,’ and there is no word potron; what’s the story? The Trésor de la langue française informatisé has the answer:

Étymol. et Hist. 1835 (Ac.). Loc. issue par substitution de minet* «chat» à jacquet «écureuil» … de (dès le) poitron-jacquet «dès l’aube» (1640, OUDIN Curiositez); poitron (fin XIIe s., Audigier, éd. O. Jodogne, 23) représente le b. lat. posterio «cul». Cette loc. qui signifie proprement «dès que le derrière de l’écureuil se fait voir», s’explique par le fait que l’écureuil dresse souvent sa queue, faisant ainsi voir son derrière. Son remplacement par potron-minet est sans doute dû au fait que le chat passe pour être très matinal. Les expr. ont parfois été altérées en patron-jaquet (jacquette), patron-minet (minette), v. en partic. BALZAC, Père Goriot, 1835, p. 50 et HUGO, Misér., t. 1, 1862, p. 862.

In other words, this jacquet is an old word for ‘squirrel,’ poitron is from Low Latin posterio ‘rear end,’ and the expression originally meant ‘as soon as you can see a squirrel’s ass’ (which is explained par le fait que l’écureuil dresse souvent sa queue, faisant ainsi voir son derrière: by the fact that the squirrel often raises his tail, letting you see his derriere); the squirrel was replaced by the cat because the latter passe pour être très matinal, is thought to be a very early riser. (There is a word matou ‘male cat,’ but it is a variant of mitou and has, alas, nothing to do with le matin.)

Completely unrelated, but here‘s an Irish Examiner story with a brief clip of “a young Derry lad being interviewed by UTV Ireland about the walk to school in the snow.” It was posted to Reddit with the caption “Give up just 16 seconds of your day to hear potentially the greatest accent ever to grace the ears of mankind.” Thanks, Trevor!


I’m still reading Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, and I’ve gotten to the part where the title is explained. First, on p. 176:

The ogee curve was repeated in the mirrors and pelmets and in the wardrobes, which looked like Gothic confessionals; but its grandest statement was in the canopy of the bed, made of two transecting ogees crowned by a boss like a huge wooden cabbage. It was as he lay beneath it, in uneasy post-coital vacancy, that the idea of calling Wani’s outfit Ogee had come to him: it had a rightness to it, being both English and exotic, like so many things he loved. The ogee curve was pure expression, decorative not structural; a structure could be made from it, but it supported nothing more than a boss or the cross that topped an onion dome. [...] The double curve was Hogarth’s ‘line of beauty’, the snakelike flicker of an instinct, of two compusions held in one unfolding movement. He ran his hand down Wani’s back. He didn’t think Hogarth had illustrated this best example of it, the dip and swell—he had chosen harps and branches, bones rather than flesh. Really it was time for a new Analysis of Beauty.

Then, on p. 196, a fuller exposition:

“So you’ve got a name for the bloody thing.”

“Yah, we’re calling it Ogee, like the company,” Wani said, very straightforwardly.

Bertrand pursed his plump lips. “I don’t get it, what is it…? ‘Oh Gee!,’” is that it?” he said, bad-tempered but pleased to have made a joke. “You’ll have to tell me again because no one’s ever heard of this bloody ‘ogee.’”

“I thought he was saying ‘Orgy,’” said Martine.

“Orgy?!” said Bertrand.

Wani looked across the table, and since this unheard-of name had originally been his idea Nick said, “You know, it’s a double curve, such as you see in a window or a dome.” He made the shape of half an hourglass with his hands raised in the air, just as Monique, in one of her occasional collusive gestures, did the same and smiled at him as if salaaming.

“It goes first one way, and then the other,” she said.

“Exactly. It originates in… well, in the Middle East, in fact, and then you see it in English architecture from about the fourteenth century onwards. It’s like Hogarth’s line of beauty,” Nick said, with a mounting sense of fatuity, “except that there are two of them, of course… I suppose the line of beauty’s a sort of animating principle, isn’t it…” He looked around and swooped his hand suggestively in the air. It wasn’t perhaps the animating principle here.

First off, I love the writing: “a boss like a huge wooden cabbage”! It’s also interesting that Hollinghurst changes Hogarth’s phrase, which is “line of grace”; in Analysis of Beauty (1754), he writes: “that sort of proportioned, winding line, which will hereafter be called the precise serpentine line, or line of grace.”

But there’s actually an item of etymological interest, which is the word ogee itself; it may be historically identical with ogive. OED (both entries updated March 2004) for ogee:

Origin uncertain; perhaps shortened < ogive n., or perhaps < an unattested Anglo-Norman *ogé < an unattested post-classical Latin *obviatum, use as noun of neuter singular past participle of classical Latin obviāre obviate v., the sense being assumed to be ‘going against’ and hence ‘supporting’.

And for ogive:

< Old French, Middle French, French ogive diagonal arc under a vault (1260), also œgive (1325), augive (1347), orgive (1399), osive, oisive (1462–3), oysive (1472), further etymology uncertain and disputed: perhaps < Spanish aljibe cistern (1202 as algib, 1278 as algibe) < Spanish Arabic al-jubb < al the + jubb well, cistern, pit (see note below), or perhaps < an unattested derivative (see -ive suffix) of classical Latin obviāta, feminine past participle of obviāre (see obviate v.), the sense being assumed to be ‘going against’ and hence ‘supporting’. French augive is also attested in sense 2 (1606). Compare post-classical Latin ogiva (1289, 1325 in British sources).
The proposed Spanish-Arabic etymology implies that the cistern is subterranean and supported by pillars with groined vaulting; support has been drawn from the correspondence between French voute d’ogive (1676) and Spanish bóveda de aljibe, lit. ‘vault of a cistern’ (1661), but this phrase is attested much later than the French or English words. The etymology remains uncertain: see further G. B. Pellegrini Gli Arabismi nelle Lingue Neolatine (1972) 89 n. 93.

The etymological conjectures recorded by N.E.D. (1902) (connection with French auge trough; with Italian auge (1336), Spanish auge (1256–76), Portuguese auge (1460–8) ‘the highest point of any planet’ (Florio), culmination, highest point < Arabic awj; or with classical Latin augēre to increase, augment) have now been superseded.

It always gives me perverse pleasure when the OED (ex-NED) explicitly rejects its old etymologies, as in the last paragraph above. (Oh, and if you’re wondering about the pelmets in the first quote, a pelmet is “A narrow border of cloth or wood, fitted across the top of a door or window to conceal curtain fittings,” and it’s probably “a variant of palmette n. …, palmette designs having been a conventional ornament on window cornices” — OED, entry updated 2003.)