Oriental(ism).

Victor Mair has a post at the Log taking off from a query by Cortney Chaffin, who says she was bothered by a colleague’s use of phrases like “oriental landscape painting” to describe an exhibit:

Anyways, my colleague just so happens to be Korean and after I explained to him why I feel we should not use the term in university publications, he responded that the term “oriental” is culturally acceptable in Korea and he linked to a website of an art school in Korea that refers to its institution as an “oriental art” school. My husband [himself Korean] showed me that in Korean “oriental” is translated from the characters dong yang 東洋 [VHM: lit., "eastern ocean"]. Do you have any insight on the origin of dong yang 東洋? In a Chinese dictionary (Pleco), I see the term can mean “Japan” or “East Asian countries” and this made me very curious why this character combination was borrowed to mean “oriental” in Korean. Is it a loanword from Japanese?

This provokes a most interesting discussion of Korean dong-yang-ui 동양의, Japanese Tōyō 東洋, Mandarin Dōngfāng 东方 and Dōngyáng 東洋, and English Oriental and Orientalism, as well as the extent to which the English words have been skunked following the publication of Edward Said’s influential Orientalism (1978). Some sample comments: Dongyoun Hwang, “Many scholars in Korea do not use the term Orient or oriental in English but still use the term ‘Dongyang’ or ‘Dongyang ui’ in Korean”; Sean Manning, “I try to avoid ‘orient’ vocabulary not because of Edward Said but because it can mean either Southwest Asia or East Asia”; Dave, “I’ve never considered ‘oriental’ to be a ‘racial slur’ exactly, but my sense is that a significant portion of the people who use it also tend to harbor ideas that taint the word by association — people who call Asians ‘Orientals’ rarely have nice things to say about them”; Jerry Friedman, “Maybe [Said's work being the proximate cause of the deprecation of Oriental] can be ruled out on timeline grounds. The earliest deprecation of ‘Oriental’ I can find is from 1957. [...] In a Google ngrams comparison, nothing dramatic happens in 1978″; rgove, “It’s important to note that the Mandarin 东方, meaning as it does nothing more or less than ‘Eastern’, is very frequently used to refer to the east of China“; and there is much discussion of whether and to what extent Oriental is tainted outside the US. Bathrobe made an interesting point about Vietnamese:

Professor Mair discusses the Japanese and Korean usage of 東洋 along with the Chinese aversion to the term. Of some interest to me is the fact that Đông Dương in Vietnamese has a completely different meaning from what it does in East Asia: it traditionally refers to Indochina, the three Đông Dương countries (ba nước Đông Dương) being Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. I am very curious to know how this usage might have come about.

Also, while China generally doesn’t use 東洋 or 西洋, both Chinese and Japanese (not sure about Korean) at one time used 南洋 to refer to insular South East Asia. Does the vocabulary of 南洋, 東洋 and 西洋 hark back to older Chinese concepts of geography?

On the Said issue, I liked Brian Spooner’s succinct “Said had a point but he went overboard.”

How to Speak British.

Thanks go to Paul Ogden, who sent me this five-minute video featuring Siobhan Thompson (of Anglophenia) describing “11 Awesome British phrases that Americans should start using ASAP,” because I’m so wiped out by the heat (and the World Cup action today) I can barely type, let alone think up post ideas. But I’m pretty sure that Mark L. Levinson in the comments is right when he provides this correction:

It’s not that both the swings and the roundabouts bring you back to the same place, it’s that “what you lose on the swings, you gain on the roundabouts.” You can look it up. Presumably it means that not all your activities are doing well for you, but the ones that are compensate for the ones that aren’t.

Ancient Graffiti Allegedly Found.

The Guardian has a story by Helena Smith, “World’s earliest erotic graffiti found in unlikely setting on Aegean island” (subhead “Racy inscriptions and phalluses carved into Astypalaia’s rocky peninsula shed light on very private lives of ancient Greece,” hubba hubba!) that’s been making the rounds, and naturally I was curious (thanks for the link, Eric!). Usually, when newspapers report scientific news they cite some more sober publication that you can check to see what’s actually going on, but here it’s apparently just an interview with “Dr Andreas Vlachopoulos, a specialist in prehistoric archaeology,” so all you have is the story itself, which (all due respect to the Grauniad, which I’m fond of) is almost certain to be inaccurate and wildly inflated. But assuming the whole thing isn’t an invention on the part of some disaffected (and soon to be canned) member of the newspaper’s staff, it’s certainly interesting. Here’s the nub of the story:

Chiselled into the outcrops of dolomite limestone that dot the cape, the inscriptions have provided invaluable insight into the private lives of those who inhabited archaic and classical Greece. One, believed to have been carved in the mid-sixth century BC, proclaimed: “Nikasitimos was here mounting Timiona (Νικασίτιμος οἶφε Τιμίονα).

“We know that in ancient Greece sexual desire between men was not a taboo,” added Dr Vlachopoulos, who returned to the far-flung island last week to resume work with a team of topographers, photographers, conservationists and students. “But this graffiti … is not just among the earliest ever discovered. By using the verb in the past continuous [tense], it clearly says that these two men were making love over a long period of time, emphasising the sexual act in a way that is highly unusual in erotic artwork.”

First off, translating οἴφω as “mount” is ludicrous; even if you don’t want to use “fuck” there are all sorts of printable words like “screw.” (There’s a good short description of the Greek word here; I hadn’t realized it was primarily Doric, and I was surprised that the etymology is unknown — I had thought it was from PIE *yebh-, kin to Sanskrit yabh- and Russian eb-.) In the second place, the name should be Timion, not “Timiona”; Τιμίονα is an accusative form. But hey, it’s a newspaper story, and I await scholarly publication.

Ur-etyma.

Victor Mair has an extremely interesting post up at the Log:

[...]I’ve long been intrigued by the fact that the number of basic morphemes in Sinitic is roughly comparable to the number of roots in Proto-Indo-European (PIE). I wondered whether this was purely a coincidence or a reflection of some fundamental feature of language and the human brain. So I started to look at other language families to see whether they too had a similar amount of root morphemes.

As I gathered and examined data, they seemed to confirm my initial impression that the essential etyma of many languages amount to approximately 1,000-2,000, with most falling at around 1,200-1,500. Wanting to secure more precise and reliable evidence, I asked colleagues who are specialists in various fields to share their expertise.

He quotes John Huehnergard on Semitic, Philip Jones on Sumerian, Michael Witzel on Nostratic and PIE, Allan Bomhard on Nostratic, John Colarusso on Caucasian languages, and Don Ringe, J. P. Mallory, and Douglas Adams on PIE, all very interesting, and himself discusses Sinitic, concluding:

[...]I think that the fact that the quantity of basic building blocks of various languages is roughly comparable is not merely coincidental, but may have something to do with the cognitive makeup of the brain. That is to say, at the bottom limit, for a language to become an organic, functioning entity, it needs to have a sufficient amount of constituent, core etyma from which a working vocabulary may be derived. At the other end of the scale, there seems to be an upper limit to the number of primary conceptual categories that the mind is capable of processing.

It seems that, in general, there are roughly 1,200-1,500 root concepts from which all others are generated. This appears to hold for many language families. Inventories of core etyma with a magnitude that are much over 2,000 or much under 1,000 are probably the result of differing definitions of what constitutes a basic root and how the computations are carried out.

Fascinating stuff, and I look forward to the ensuing discussion!

Spiflicated!

Jonathon Green, slang lexicographer extraordinaire, has a BBC News piece called “Mullered and 61 other words for beaten at sport” that makes enjoyable reading; I particularly like some of the ones that have fallen by the wayside, such as “shend (to humiliate, put to shame by superiority and linked to the German schande, shame), overwin (the aggressive antithesis of the persuasive “win over”), scomfit (ie discomfit, which also meant defeat 200 years before it evolved into confuse or disconcert), cumber (to encumber, presumably with embarrassment) and fenk (from French vaincre, to conquer).” Fenk — what a great verb! Only three citations, the last two from the mid-14th century (Alisaunder 323 “Philip fenkes in fyght” and Alexander and Dindimus 339 “Haddest þou fenked þe fon.. þat in þi flech dwellen”), but I think it should be brought back. “Curses, fenked again!” Green ends with some more recent ones “that seem to have slipped through the net”: ramscootrify, rumbusticate, spiflicate, and scrumplicate. The BBC called for submissions from readers, which they’ve now run in “Readers’ 48 words for defeat,” from gub to beat hollow. (Thanks, Eric!)

Cartoon Theories of Linguistics.

Far, far back in the murky mist of the distant past, nearly unrecoverable by present methods — to wit, in January 2007Speculative Grammarian™ began a series called Cartoon Theories of Linguistics; that first installment, on Non-Configurational Languages, explained that “we should be able to reduce the essence of important linguistic concepts to something we can explain to that bright, interested 10-year-old. In fact, I contend that we can boil the essence right down to something we can explain in a cartoon.” Since then, there have been irregular sequels (well, frankly, everything about Speculative Grammarian is pretty irregular), moving through Parts B, 3, IV, E, ζ, ז, ж, , J, XI, and 12 up to the current (and unimaginatively numerated) 13 (“Langue vs. Parole”). If you like linguistics and you like cartoons, you will probably like at least some of these (though some, e.g. “Part J—Feeding and Bleeding,” may be as incomprehensible to you as they are to me). If I’ve screwed up any of the links, what can I say? It’s hot here in Hadley.

Addendum. The Speculative Grammarian collection described here is now available as an e-book; if you use this link, you get $1 off the (low, low!) regular price of $5.95.

55 Canadianisms You May Not Know.

This post at GeekMom was a real eye-opener for me. I can’t say I’ve made any particular effort to study Canadian English, but I wouldn’t have thought there would be so many words and usages that were utterly unfamiliar to me. Runners? Parkade? Eavestroughs? Garburator?? At least I knew what a tuque was. I thought perhaps others would find it interesting and educational as well, so here it is. (Via this MetaFilter post, which contains other relevant links.)

The Golden Legend.

There are a lot of interesting things in Eamon Duffy’s LRB review-essay “The Intense Afterlife of the Saints,” but this passage is of particular LH relevance, for both word and book history:

The most successful book of the Middle Ages was the collection of saints’ lives compiled by a Dominican friar based in Lombardy, Jacobus de Voragine, in the 1260s. It took the form of a “Legendary,” a word derived from the Latin verb legere, to read, which carried no overtones of fiction or the far-fetched. A legenda was simply a book to be read aloud each day. Jacobus’s book, intended to provide clergy with material for sermons, was structured around the Christian calendar, arranging the saints’ lives in the order of their feasts throughout the year, interspersed with instructions on the major liturgical seasons of Advent, Lent, or Easter.

Jacobus’s Legenda became the most widely read book of the Middle Ages. By the end of the thirteenth century, hagiographers all over Europe were lifting material wholesale from it, earning it the nickname the Golden Legend, a Legendary worth its weight in gold. It was translated into most of the languages of Western Europe, with seven medieval versions in French alone. In all, it survives in more than a thousand manuscripts, far eclipsing every other book from the Middle Ages. And with the advent of printing, Jacobus’s text proved even more popular in the new medium. Between 1470 and 1500 an astonishing eighty-seven Latin editions of the Legenda were printed, as well as sixty-nine in various vernaculars, including four editions in English, considerably more than all the known printings of any book, even the Bible, during the same period.

I had heard of the Golden Legend and knew it was popular, but I had no idea it was that popular.

This passage has no particular LH relevance, but I can’t resist quoting it anyway:

Patronage carried responsibility as well as rights. If the saints could command the veneration of their devotees, those devotees in turn could demand results. Saints who failed to deliver might have their images or reliquaries “humiliated” by being placed on the ground, or shrouded in sackcloth, or have access to their shrines blocked with nettles or thorns until prayer was answered.

Ecclesiastical authorities protested against such superstition, and the second Council of Lyon banned all such practices in 1274, but in vain. A saint might even be punished because he was working too many miracles. When the holy monk Stephen of Thiers died in 1124 in the isolated monastery of Grandmont in the Auvergne, the flood of pilgrims to his tomb disturbed the devotions of the monks. Miracles multiplied, as did the crowds, till at last the abbot berated Stephen at the tomb:

We believe you are a saint without their proof Please stop…. If you don’t, I’m warning you, we’ll take your bones out of this place and throw them in the river.

Incidentally, most of my birthday gifts today are not particularly LH-relevant, but one that is is Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union, by Francine Hirsch, which I’m very much looking forward to. Thanks, bulbul!

Erk.

Over a decade ago, I posted about the UK slang term oik (“Etym. obscure”), “Depreciatory schoolboy word for a member of another school; an unpopular or disliked fellow-pupil. Also gen., an obnoxious or unpleasant person; in weakened senses, a ‘nit-wit’, a ‘clot’.” Last night, as I was reading Anthony Powell to my wife (we’ve just started Books Do Furnish a Room, for which phrase see this post from last year; the setting is immediately after World War II), I hit this sentence (in the middle of a passage of heavily italicized babbling by Mona — sample: “We’re weaving about fairly close here, and I’ve got to scamper home this minute, because Jeff’s quite insane about punctuality”): “That erk will have to drive like stink if I’m not to be late.” My first thought was of oik, which would seem to fit equally well in this context, but there didn’t seem to be any way to connect the two in UK English (as opposed to the New Orleans or Brooklyn varieties), so I set it aside for investigation when I was up and about and rummaging in reference works. Now that that is the case, I can provide the OED entry (from 1972):

erk, n.
[...]
Etymology: Of obscure origin.
slang.
a. A naval rating.

b. An aircraftman, esp. an A.C.2.

c. transf. Used as a term of contempt.
1925 E. Fraser & J. Gibbons Soldier & Sailor Words 89 Erk, a rating. (Navy). Lower deck colloquialism for any ‘rank’ not that of an officer.
1928 T. E. Lawrence Let. 20 Jan. (1938) 570 Cranwell, which was a home from home, for the irks.
1940 Reader’s Digest May 31/2 The aviators..call their mechanics erks, apparently a corruption of A.C., the abbreviation for aircraftsman.
1943 P. Brennan et al. Spitfires over Malta iii. 65 The erks came running up to tell us that..the 109 had been diving down.
1944 E. Partridge in 19th Cent. Apr. 182 An erk, now used for an A.C.2..meant an air mechanic. This odd word is, the writer believes, a shortened pronunciation of the italicised letters in air mechanic (perhaps in the form of ‘air mech’)… Some airmen less convincingly maintain that it comes from ‘lower-deck hand’.
1959 I. Opie & P. Opie Lore & Lang. Schoolchildren x. 175 Somebody they dislike..may be called..erk, gawp, kid.

Interesting that these very similar words of equally obscure origin are both first attested in 1925 (though I imagine a little rooting about in Google Books and databases could antedate that); I also call attention to Eric Partridge’s typically clueless approach to etymology.

The Seemly Intensity of the Curse.

Stan of Sentence first has an enjoyable post on the linguistic aspects of Luis Buñuel’s autobiography; the first quote, on finding a title for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, is well worth reading, but I want to pass along the second one. The scene is the Spanish Civil War; Buñuel has left Madrid for Geneva on official business, but he is stopped at the border by “three somber-faced anarchists” who refuse to accept his identification:

Now the Spanish language is capable of more scathing blasphemies than any other language I know. Curses elsewhere are typically brief and punctuated by other comments, but the Spanish curse tends to take the form of a long speech in which extraordinary vulgarities – referring chiefly to the Virgin Mary, the Apostles, God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, not to mention the Pope – are strung end to end in a series of impressive scatological exclamations. In fact, blasphemy in Spain is truly an art; in Mexico, for instance, I never heard a proper curse, whereas in my native land, a good one lasts for at least three good-sized sentences. (When circumstances require, it can become a veritable hymn.)

It was with a curse of this kind, uttered in all its seemly intensity, that I regaled the three anarchists from Port Bou. When I’d finished, they stamped my papers and I crossed the border. (What I’ve said about the importance of the Spanish curse is no exaggeration; in certain old Spanish cities, you can still see signs like “No Begging or Blaspheming – Subject to Fine or Imprisonment” on the main gates. Sadly, when I returned to Spain in 1960, the curse seemed much rarer; or perhaps it was only my hearing.)

I’d like to see a contest between a traditional Spaniard and a Russian master of the triple-decker curse.