Bad English Shaming.

Feargus O’Sullivan posts for CityLab about an interesting and apparently new phenomenon, summed up by the subhead: “English has become the lingua franca of Europe. And politicians who can’t speak it well are getting roundly mocked by their own citizens.”

Recently, the continent’s political masters have been slapped by a new form of satirical attack—Bad English Shaming. A viral-video sub-trend, Bad English Shaming sees public figures foolhardy enough to let their rusty English be recorded on camera getting mocked and mauled for their poor foreign language skills.

Exhibit A of the trend is an impassioned speech made this month by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Supposedly, it was in English. Renzi’s speech is so halting and garbled it’s hard to understand what he’s actually talking about, though it contains occasional lucid but surreal gems as, “He invent the telephone to speaking about in the theatre.” [...] Then there were Madrid Mayor Ana Botella’s attempts last year to sell her city as a contender for the Summer Olympics. Mayor Botella’s stilted, halting English made her a national laughing stock, a reputation she has since solidified through gaffe after gaffe. [...]

It has not been ever thus. Francois Mitterrand’s exceedingly brief 1986 foray into English at the Statue of Liberty’s centenary celebrations was widely taken as a badge of skillful statesmanship. [...]

Clearly, something radical has changed. It probably isn’t the growth of American or British influence per se, as politically and culturally, these are either no greater than before or slightly on the wane. European English seems in fact to be uncoupling itself from native anglophones, a runaway caboose careering down its own track. The dominance of English as a European lingua franca is so total nowadays that it’s a basic tool for interaction even in countries where Brits and Americans rarely tread, as well as between Europe and other continents. [...]

Once the number of English speakers tips over 50 percent, it seems people just get more demanding of each other. It’s one thing for a lazy Brit or American to complain about no one speaking English in Paris (though this happens less and less), but it’s quite another for a Dutch person to complain of the same thing—they’re already making an effort themselves. Like a bachelor’s degree and a clean criminal record, decent English is becoming one of those basic things you need to forge a career in Europe, political or not.

On the one hand, of course I deplore any form of language shaming, and am respectful of anyone trying to speak a foreign language in public. On the other hand, I enjoy seeing politicians shamed. It’s a quandary. (Thanks, Yoram!)

The *Bʰlog.

The *Bʰlog is “a website that hopes to provide an accessible but informed forum for all matters Indo-European”:

The idea for this website arose in the Fall of 2013, when two fables that I recorded for Archaeology Magazine went viral and were heard by hundreds of thousands of people who had never even heard of Proto-Indo-European or the Indo-European language family. The goal of the website is to keep that interest going. If you’re a layperson, feel free to send an e-mail to the *Bʰlog with questions you might have about Indo-European. If you’re a specialist and want to contribute to the site, just let me know and I will set you up an account.

It’s run by University of Kentucky linguist Andrew Byrd and vouched for by Piotr Gąsiorowski (from whose post I learned about it), so I have no hesitation in recommending it and will add it to my blogroll forthwith.

Update. It turns out that “Andrew Byrd … is the administrator of the *Bʰlog but almost all the stuff has been written by his students as a kind of out-of-class exercise, hence its uneven quality.” Caveat lector.

The History of Autocorrect.

Gideon Lewis-Kraus has a Wired article that works a little too hard to be relentlessly amusing but tells an interesting story about how autocorrect came to be and how it works:

The notion of autocorrect was born when Hachamovitch began thinking about a functionality that already existed in Word. Thanks to Charles Simonyi, the longtime Microsoft executive widely recognized as the father of graphical word processing, Word had a “glossary” that could be used as a sort of auto-expander. You could set up a string of words—like insert logo—which, when typed and followed by a press of the F3 button, would get replaced by a JPEG of your company’s logo. Hachamovitch realized that this glossary could be used far more aggressively to correct common mistakes. He drew up a little code that would allow you to press the left arrow and F3 at any time and immediately replace teh with the. His aha moment came when he realized that, because English words are space-delimited, the space bar itself could trigger the replacement, to make correction … automatic! Hachamovitch drew up a list of common errors, and over the next years he and his team went on to solve many of the thorniest. Seperate would automatically change to separate. Accidental cap locks would adjust immediately (making dEAR grEG into Dear Greg). One Microsoft manager dubbed them the Department of Stupid PC Tricks. [...]

With these sorts of master lists in place—the corrections, the exceptions, and the to-be-primly-ignored—the joists of autocorrect, then still a subdomain of spell-check, were in place for the early releases of Word. Microsoft’s dominance at the time ensured that autocorrect became globally ubiquitous, along with some of its idiosyncrasies. By the early 2000s, European bureaucrats would begin to notice what came to be called the Cupertino effect, whereby the word cooperation (bizarrely included only in hyphenated form in the standard Word dictionary) would be marked wrong, with a suggested change to Cupertino. There are thus many instances where one parliamentary back-bencher or another longs for increased Cupertino between nations. Since then, linguists have adopted the word cupertino as a term of art for such trapdoors that have been assimilated into the language.

In the two decades since Hachamovitch moved from the manual coding of corrections like judgement to his loftier executive role in the ambit of data science, autocorrect has followed suit. Autocorrection is no longer an overqualified intern drawing up lists of directives; it’s now a vast statistical affair in which petabytes of public words are examined to decide when a usage is popular enough to become a probabilistically savvy replacement. The work of the autocorrect team has been made algorithmic and outsourced to the cloud.

I was temporarily derailed by “He clearly takes a marmish pride in the artifacts,” having never seen the word marmish and not finding it in my dictionaries; Urban Dictionary says “Conservative to the point of being boring, dull or ugly; usually referring to a manner of dress and/or personality,” which doesn’t really make sense here, but I get the general idea. What really took me aback was “As someone who typed the entire first draft of his book on a phone…” Seriously? The twenty-first century is a weird place for those of us who didn’t grow up in it.


I’m once again reading Abulafia’s The Great Sea (see this post), and I’ve run across an unfamiliar use of a familiar word: “The Danes, Norwegians and Swedes, fat from the proceeds of their northern trade, made their appearance off the coasts of North Africa, in the Barbary ‘regencies’ (so called because their rulers, variously known as deys, beys and bashaws, or pashas, were nominally the deputies of the Ottoman sultan.” I checked the OED (entry updated December 2009), and here’s the relevant sense, with quotations:

4. A town, city, or other territory forming part of a kingdom or empire and governed by a person or body of people in whom authority has been vested by the ruler of the kingdom or empire. Now chiefly hist.

1656 N. Stephens Plain Calculation Name & Number of Beast v. 102 The scope of this Scripture is concerning the Division of the Fourth Kingdom into Ten Regencies or Divisions at one time.
1667 Milton Paradise Lost v. 748 Regions they pass’d, the mightie Regencies of Seraphim and Potentates and Thrones.
1780 Ann. Reg. 5 The territory appertaining to the regency of Burghausen.
1788 tr. M. Chenier Present State Morocco I. i. i. 2 Tremecen..which was formerly subject to Morocco, having been conquered by the Turks of Algiers, is now a part of the territories of that Regency.
1817 T. S. Raffles Hist. Java I. iii. 142 The rice fields of a regency are divided among the whole of the population.
1838 Sparks’ Biogr. IX. vii. 245 The Bashaw gave permission to the American agent to leave the Regency.
1914 Times 9 Aug. 2/6 There is a small army of occupation in the Regency of Tunis.
1977 Arab Times 13 Nov. 4/8 Twelve people have died and 98 others have been hospitalised for cholera in the south Sulawesi regency of Selayar.
1979 Libya: Country Study (ed. 3) i. 19 The Ottoman Maghrib was formally divided into three regencies—at Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli.
2000 J. Azema Libya Handbk. 259 Military councils..were formed to administer the Barbary regencies, as the Ottoman provinces on the North African coast were known.

Also, I love the phrase “deys, beys and bashaws.” (Apparently, only Algiers and Tripoli had a dey; the word is from Turkish dāī, now writtin dayı, ‘maternal uncle’.)


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.


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!