Writings from the Edge of Language.

From the Guardian, Philip Gross’s top 10 writings from the edge of language (2010) is a mixture of things I already know and love (“The Waste Land”), things I know about and have been meaning to investigate (Riddley Walker), and things I’d never heard of but suddenly want to read:

5. Keeping Mum / Llofrudd Iaith by Gwyneth Lewis

These are two books, or the same book written separately in Welsh and in English, by a major bilingual poet whose collections can be multi-layered as a novel. The Welsh title means The Language Murderer; set partly in a psychiatric hospital, it is also a detective story, investigating deep harms done by loss of language, celebrating survival in the end.

6. A Bad Day for the Sung Dynasty by Frank Kuppner

Not so much a translation as a witty teasing of the mannerisms of translation… This wry philosophical Glaswegian-Polish poet gives us an imaginary ancient Chinese text whose square bracketed lacunae [something something something] come alive with hints and echoes.

And Gross’s introduction to the list is well worth reading in its own right:

“I’ve just got back from Friesland / Fryslân in the north of Holland, hearing a language spoken that is so close to English that it’s like looking at a face through a rain-drenched window. One good wipe, you feel, and you’d know them. Now I’m about to drive from south to north Wales, where two languages lie alongside each other, oil and water, mixed rather than merged. I don’t speak Welsh or West Frisian – no other language, in fact, well enough to dream or write a poem in it – but that ragged edge of language is familiar to me.

“I grew up with it: on the one hand, English, on the other, my father’s language – he was a wartime refugee from Estonia – which he never spoke. [...]

Via the indispensable wood s lot (whose proprietor, Mark Woods, takes wonderful photographs that adorn many of his posts).

Arabic Harder to Read than Hebrew?

Or Kashti of Haaretz reports on a study that suggests that Hebrew speakers can read their native language more quickly than Arabic speakers can read theirs:

The study, conducted over the last three years, examined the speed and efficacy with which Hebrew and Arabic speakers read texts in their native languages. The texts were taken from two standardized tests, the psychometric exam and the international PISA exam.

Arabic, unlike Hebrew, is a diglossic language, meaning the oral language is different from the written (literary) one. The difference between spoken and written Arabic is so great, the researchers wrote, “that acquisition of the written language could be defined as acquiring a second language” – which in turn could influence “the development of linguistic mechanisms necessary for reading.”

Another difference is that Arabic orthography – meaning the shape of the letters and the use of diacritical marks – is more complex than that of Hebrew, making it harder to read. [...]

This is one of the first studies to examine differences in reading ability among adults who have already mastered their mother tongue, as opposed to children.

The researchers found that, on average, Arabic speakers need seven seconds longer than Hebrew speakers to read 200 words aloud, while reading a 200-word text silently takes them about 16 seconds longer. And not only do Hebrew speakers read faster, but they also read more accurately, the study found.

These gaps cannot be explained by cognitive differences among the students or by other variables like parental education or socioeconomic status, the researchers said.

“The difference in reading efficiency stems from the differing speed of deciphering words in each language, something that’s apparently directly connected to the orthographic structure of the Arabic language and the fact that it’s a diglossic language,” Ibrahim said. “Reading in Arabic simply doesn’t reach the requisite level of automation, as it does for Hebrew or English readers.”

This raises all sorts of questions and requires various caveats (Prof. Rafiq Ibrahim says they should stop using texts translated from English or Hebrew on the Arabic exam), but it’s interesting enough I thought I’d pass it along and see what people have to say. (Thanks, Kobi!)

Use It or Lose It.

We all know that babies are voracious learners and easily acquire language and that it gets harder to learn as you grow older, but this Guardian article by Nathalia Gjersoe puts it memorably (and doubtless oversimplifies the science) in the course of debunking the myth that the average person only uses 10% of their brain:

But resources are limited and the brain is incredibly hungry. It takes a huge amount of energy just to keep it electrically ticking over. There is an excellent TEDEd animation here that explains this nicely. The human adult brain makes up only 2% of the body’s mass yet uses 20% of energy intake. Babies’ brains use 60%! Evolution would necessarily cull any redundant parts of such an expensive organ.

From studying the development of the brain in babies, scientists know that pruning back connections can be just as important as forming them. Shortly after a baby is born there is an exuberant proliferation of connectivity between the neurons followed by rampant pruning of pathways that are underused. During peak pruning periods, it has been estimated that as many as 100,000 connections may be eliminated per second. This is the second principle of neural connectivity: use it or lose it!

As an example, all babies are able to discriminate any language phoneme (the basic sounds that make up a language) until 6 months of age. After this they become increasingly tuned in to just those phonemes used by their local language. This enables babies to more swiftly learn their native tongue. Japanese does not distinguish between |l| and |r| so adult English-learners struggle to even hear the difference between these two phonemes.

Any unused parts of the brain quickly die off to free up resources needed to strengthen those connections that are most often used. This tunes the brain to be exquisitely well adapted to specifically the environment it finds itself in. In this light, the idea that 90% of the brain is lying dormant, waiting for some product, program or drug to access it, seems ludicrous.

Thanks for the link, Bathrobe!

Addendum: A useful companion piece is this New Scientist review by Alun Anderson of The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct by Vyvyan Evans, which sounds like a good book:

The commonplace view of “language as instinct” is the myth Evans wants to destroy and he attempts the operation with great verve. The myth comes from the way children effortlessly learn languages just by listening to adults around them, without being aware explicitly of the governing grammatical rules.

This “miracle” of spontaneous learning led Chomsky to argue that grammar is stored in a module of the mind, a “language acquisition device”, waiting to be activated, stage-by-stage, when an infant encounters the jumble of language. The rules behind language are built into our genes. [...]

They may have been chasing a mirage. Evans marshals impressive empirical evidence to take apart different facets of the “language instinct myth”. A key criticism is that the more languages are studied, the more their diversity becomes apparent and an underlying universal grammar less probable.

And the hat tip for that link goes to John Emerson.

Prok Prok Prok!

That’s the sound of applause in Indonesian, according to illustrator James Chapman in BuzzFeed, “explaining what the world sounds like in different languages.” The illustrations are a delight and I haven’t noticed any obvious errors in the multilingual onomatopoeia; there’s not much else to say except go, look, enjoy! (Also, it’s interesting, now that he points it out, that English has no standard rendition of the sound of toothbrushing.) A tip o’ the hat to John Emerson for the link.

The Revision (1864).

Back in 2009 I was posting enthusiastically about The Oxford History of English Lexicography, and in this post I discussed “Major American Dictionaries,” going straight from Joseph Worcester’s Dictionary of the English Language (1860) to the Century Dictionary (1889) without mentioning “The American Dictionary of 1864, the ‘Webster-Mahn’” (to quote the title of their section on it); at the time, I don’t think I realized quite how groundbreaking it was. Landau (the author of the OHEL chapter) calls it “the first dictionary commonly referred to as ‘the unabridged’” and says “The idea was to instil in the minds of more and more Americans that, apart from the Bible, a big dictionary was the one book they must have.” As it happens, the Merriam-Webster Blog is starting a whole series to mark the 150th anniversary of “the greatest dictionary you have probably never heard of – the 1864 revision of An American Dictionary of the English Language, commonly known as Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary.” Here‘s the first installment, by John Morse; after acknowledging the “serious competition” of Worcester’s 1846 dictionary, he continues:

Hence, in the mid-1850s Goodrich and the Merriam brothers, George and Charles, began making plans for a new edition that would address the dictionary’s known deficiencies and introduce features that would set it apart from its competition and ensure its long-term survival as America’s leading dictionary.

This was an act of some bravery for several reasons. First, the editors would have to acknowledge the flaws in Webster’s work and establish a new set of standards. This would require both intellectual and commercial courage and some tenacity, as it would meet much resistance, mostly from members of the Webster family.

Second, the Revision, as the project came to be called, would be a huge undertaking for which the company would have to employ a different production model from what had gone before. Previously dictionaries had been largely written by one person, whether it was Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, or Joseph Worcester. But this revision was too big to be a one-person job. So for the first time, the company had to assemble a large editorial team, thereby fundamentally altering the authorship model of dictionaries and introducing a set of management challenges never before encountered.

Third, the project would require a substantial investment, and the economic climate was hardly conducive to such risk-taking. Most of the investment was undertaken during the Civil War, when there were serious questions about how that war and its aftermath would affect the dictionary market.

The Merriams’ bold gamble paid off. The new edition met with near-universal praise and solidified Webster as the preeminent dictionary brand for years to come. [...]

Still, the most significant aspect of the Revision was the restructuring of the definitions. Entries were reorganized to remove redundancies and to ensure that each was logically structured, with one numbered sense for each meaning. Senses were reordered to reflect historical succession, and all closely related definitions were gathered under a single numbered sense. New rules were established for when –ed and –ing forms would be entered at their own place, when open compounds should be entered, and how to handle derivative forms ending in suffixes such as –ly and –ment. This was hard and unglamorous work, but it resulted in a set of editorial principles still honored, for the most part, to this day.

Many hands participated in revising the entries, but the two principal defining editors were Professors William D. Whitney and Daniel Gilman of Yale University, and they were clearly intellectually equal to the task. Whitney would go on to become the editor of the much-admired Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia; Gilman would become the first president of Johns Hopkins.

However, the great unsung hero of American lexicography was the man who presided over this entire operation. The premature death of Chauncey Goodrich in 1860, when the project was still in its exploratory phase, led to the accession of Noah Porter. Porter was an excellent choice. [...]

The importance of the 1864 revision cannot be overstated. It formed the solid foundation on which all subsequent Merriam-Webster unabridged dictionaries have been built. And it was well-known to the scholars at Oxford who were already planning the creation of what would become the Oxford English Dictionary. As Joshua Kendall, a Noah Webster biographer, states in a 2011 essay about this edition, “The 1864 Webster’s was in many respects the first draft of the OED. With the template for the modern dictionary in place, [James] Murray and his team could focus on expanding the text rather than rethinking the paradigm.”

I’m very much looking forward to future entries; the history of lexicography may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I slurp it up greedily. (I feel obliged, however, to reiterate my long-standing objection to the historical ordering of senses, which delights the specialist and confuses the ordinary user.)


I’m continuing to read Abulafia’s The Great Sea (see this post), and I have to share this striking passage (the year is 1867, and Ismail is Isma’il Pasha):

Politically, Ismail found he had to steer a careful course. He persuaded the Sublime Porte to grant him a new title and the automatic right of succession through eldest sons, and saw this, with some justice, as recognition that he was now to all intents an independent sovereign. The Turks reluctantly dredged up an old Persian title, ‘khedive’, whose exact meaning was apparent to no one, but which seemed to be an assertion of regal authority. On the other hand, Ismail had good reason to be alarmed at the development of the powers of the Suez Canal Company, which acted, at least towards European settlers in the canal zone, as an autonomous government. The erosion of Egyptian control over the canal was already under way.

I always found “khedive” a confusing title, and now I see it was meant to be. (The etymology, from the American Heritage Dictionary: French khédive, from Turkish hidiv, from Persian khidēw, lord, from Middle Persian khwadāy, from Old Iranian khvadāta-.)

The Prehistory of Prehistory.

A 2006 paper (pdf) by Peter Rowley-Conwy, “The Concept of Prehistory and the Invention of the Terms ‘Prehistoric’ and ‘Prehistorian’: The Scandinavian Origin, 1833–1850″ (European Journal of Archaeology 9:103–130), not only antedates by twenty years the OED’s first citation for the English word (1871 E. B. Tylor Primitive Culture II. 401 “The history and pre-history of man take their proper places in the general scheme of knowledge,” in an entry updated in March 2007), it provides a fascinating look at how the term and the concept developed. Here’s the abstract:

It is usually assumed by historians of archaeology that the ‘concept of prehistory’ and the terms ‘prehistoric’ and ‘prehistorian’ first appeared in Britain and/or France in the mid nineteenth century. This contribution demonstrates that the Scandinavian equivalent terms forhistorisk and förhistorisk were in use substantially earlier, appearing in print first in 1834. Initial usage by Molbech differed slightly from that of the present day, but within three years the modern usage had been developed. The concept of prehistory was first developed at the same time by C.J. Thomsen, though he did not use the word. It was used more frequently in the nationalism debates of the 1840s, particularly by J.J.A. Worsaae. One of the other protagonists, the Norwegian Peter Andreas Munch, was probably responsible for introducing the concept to Daniel Wilson in 1849, and suggesting that an English equivalent to forhistorisk was required.

And here’s the beginning of the introduction:

Modern archaeologists clearly grasp the concepts of ‘history’ and ‘prehistory’. We have no difficulty envisaging a historical period extending a certain distance back, and before this a much longer prehistoric period extending into the deep past. For the historical period there is documentary evidence; but we accept that there was a prehistoric period, studied by prehistorians, for which there is (by definition) no documentation – material evidence is the only means by which we can examine it. But until the 19th century there was no concept of prehistory. The origin of the concept is one of the key developments in our understanding of the human past, and has seen considerable discussion in the recent English and French literature. This discussion has explored the 19th century archaeologies of the two countries, examining both the concept of prehistory, and the terminology used to discuss it.

Terminology is the more clear-cut. The first use of the word ‘prehistoric’ in English was not by an Englishman at all, but by the Scot Daniel Wilson, in his Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland (Wilson 1851). It is generally thought likely that he invented the term himself (Daniel 1964, Chippindale 1988, Kehoe 1991, 1998, Trigger 1999, Kelley 2003). Clermont and Smith (1990:98-99) however point out that the French archaeologist Gustav d’Eichthal however used préhistorique as early as 1845, but add that it remains unclear whether Wilson ever came across this and (consciously or unconsciously) adopted it. Préhistorien first appeared in French in 1872, almost 20 years before ‘prehistorian’ first occurs in English (Clermont and Smith 1990:97).

The concept of prehistory is less clear-cut. In English, Daniel Wilson was probably the first to demonstrate a clear grasp of it; certainly no English or Irish archaeologist did so before him (Rowley-Conwy in press). In France, Paul Tournal used anté-historique as early as 1833 (Coye 1993, Stoczkowski 1993), but it is open to question whether he understood this in the way ‘prehistoric’ is now used. Tournal excavated caves and recovered human artefacts and bones of extinct mammals in the same layers, believing them to be contemporary. [...]

The purpose of this contribution is to argue that the Anglo-French focus of the recent discussion has been misplaced. The Danish word for ‘prehistoric’ was first published in 1834, over a decade before even d’Eichthal’s monograph. This has passed almost entirely unnoticed in the recent Anglo-French literature [...]

That gives you the gist; if you’re as interested in this stuff as I am, you’ll want to visit the link for more. (Christian Molbech, by the way, is perhaps best known today for having been nasty to Hans Christian Andersen.)

A Surprising New Sign Language.

Julie Sedivy of the University of Calgary (previously cited at LH here) has a post with the hyperbolic, but apparently not actually deceptive, title “The Unusual Language That Linguists Thought Couldn’t Exist”:

Languages, like human bodies, come in a variety of shapes—but only to a point. Just as people don’t sprout multiple heads, languages tend to veer away from certain forms that might spring from an imaginative mind. For example, one core property of human languages is known as duality of patterning: meaningful linguistic units (such as words) break down into smaller meaningless units (sounds), so that the words sap, pass, and asp involve different combinations of the same sounds, even though their meanings are completely unrelated.

It’s not hard to imagine that things could have been otherwise. In principle, we could have a language in which sounds relate holistically to their meanings—a high-pitched yowl might mean “finger,” a guttural purr might mean “dark,” a yodel might mean “broccoli,” and so on. But there are stark advantages to duality of patterning. Try inventing a lexicon of tens of thousands of distinct noises, all of which are easily distinguished, and you will probably find yourself wishing you could simply re-use a few snippets of sound in varying arrangements.

What to make, then, of the recent discovery of a language whose words are not made from smaller, meaningless units? Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL) is a new sign language emerging in a village with high rates of inherited deafness in Israel’s Negev Desert. According to a report led by Wendy Sandler of the University of Haifa, words in this language correspond to holistic gestures, much like the imaginary sound-based language described above, even though ABSL has a sizable vocabulary.

To linguists, this is akin to finding a planet on which matter is made up of molecules that don’t decompose into atoms. ABSL contrasts sharply with other sign languages like American Sign Language (ASL), which creates words by re-combining a small collection of gestural elements such as hand shapes, movements, and hand positions.

There is more, including a video, at the link; I have no idea how accurate the description of the language is, but it certainly sounds interesting. Thanks, David!

The Awful Consequences of Prescriptivism.

From A Hack’s Progress (J. Cape, 1997), the autobiography of Phillip Knightly (this takes place in Fiji):

The new editor, another New Zealander, drove Hanrahan, the sub-editor, mad with lectures on pedantic points of grammar. Late one night, overcome by the heat and tension, Hanrahan listened to half an hour on the use of the pluperfect, then snatched a painting off the editor’s wall and smashed it over his head. Understandably, he was fired. The printers, who had more to do with Hanrahan than with the editor, went on strike in his support. The clerical staff, who had more to do with the editor, went on strike in his support. Since I comprised the whole of the editorial staff, I had to choose which picket line to join, and since I was a paying guest in Hanrahan’s house, I joined him.

The proprietors, under pressure from the Government not to allow either strike to succeed because of the example it might set the native workers, sacked everyone and shut the paper down for good.

Let that be a lesson to peevers to at least be careful how they rant, and to whom! Thanks to Paul for both the quote and the subject line of his e-mail, which I have shamelessly stolen for my post title.


I’m racing through Blindsight, by Peter Watts (grim and gripping, and recommended to sf fans… but the plural of plexus is plexuses, not “plexii,” for God’s sake — I just had to get that off my chest), and when “Kolmogorov complexity” was mentioned I thought “Surely that should be Kholmogorov?” Because холм [kholm] is the Russian word for ‘hill’ (the Slavic word is borrowed from Germanic, cf. English holm), and гора [gora] is ‘mountain,’ and, well, it just seemed obvious. But I looked it up and sure enough it was named for Andrey Kolmogorov, so of course I had to look Kolmogorov up in Unbegaun’s book about Russian family names, and it turns out it’s the original form, based on a place name, Kolmogory, of Finnish origin, and the form Kholmogorov is a folk etymology. So I’m passing that along as a public service for those interested in Russian surnames.

For the rest of you, here‘s a parrot that spoke with a British accent when it disappeared from its home four years ago and now speaks Spanish, and here‘s a video rendition of John Skelton’s poem about a multilingual parrot, “Speke Parott,” recorded by students at Groningen University (see the Skelton Project website for more info); thanks to Martin Langeveld for all parrot links!