Every Non-word.

I generally have little interest in lists of invented words, which at best induce a slight smile and are never heard of again, but every non-word (@nondenotative) is different; it consists of “combinations of English syllables that don’t appear in the dictionary,” and the very fact that it’s not trying to be clever means you can imagine definitions for (non-)words that don’t shout their would-be meaning at you. Kudos to Daniel Temkin, whose projects (shown at that link) involve other interesting ideas like Esoteric.Codes (“a blog investigating programming languages as experiments, jokes, and experiential art”) and Borges: The Complete Works (“All of Borges’s words, slightly out of order”).

10 Books That Wouldn’t Exist Without Flann O’Brien.

If this were 10 Books That Wouldn’t Exist Without Shakespeare or Cervantes or some other obvious candidate, I would have yawned and moved on. But I couldn’t resist Flann O’Brien, who (as ever) needs all the publicity he can get; I learned some interesting stuff (“Borges reviewed At Swim-Two-Birds in 1939, claiming that it was a more complex ‘verbal labyrinth’ than Don Quixote and The Thousand and One Nights“); and the surprise ending definitely makes it worth posting.

Fifteen Years of wood s lot.

Five years ago I wrote:

I am in awe of Mark Woods, who’s been putting out wood s lot for ten years now. It’s all I can do to crank out a post a day; you could say Mark puts out a post a day too, but each of his is equivalent to a dozen or two of mine. He somehow finds the time and energy to put together a collection of images, links, and quotes that make my mind and soul feel a little better stocked; of late he usually includes one or two of his own gorgeous photographs as well.

It’s still as true as ever now that the s lot is fifteen, and with every passing year my awe grows. Just look at that magnificent, many-branched tree at the top of today’s post: what a fine symbol of the blog itself, spreading in all directions, growing ever more interestingly knotty, and providing shade and comfort for all who approach! Today’s post starts with a poem by Elizabeth Bishop, always one of Mark’s favorites; features several paintings by one of the many wonderful artists he’s introduced me to, in this case Paul Sérusier; and ends with this delightful quote from Boris Johnson. mayor of London:

There is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table — and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout, ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’ In other words, they will be talking about the dead cat — the thing you want them to talk about — and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.

May this indispensable blog flourish for many more years!

Unicode Suggestions Requested.

I just got the following e-mail:

We’re drafting a proposal to add as many remaining unsupported phonetic and orthographic symbols to Unicode as we can justify. I thought you might have come across things you’d like to have encoded. You seem like the kind of person who might have stashed away notes on things like that.

We’re not interested in idiosyncratic inventions that never spread beyond their authors, or obsolete systems that scholars don’t bother to use even when citing sources that do use them, but sometimes Unicode doesn’t support things in fairly widespread use, such as superscript variants of IPA characters, subscripts made superscript to avoid descenders, letters with a swash for velarization, and informal IPA letters or substitutions. Or if you know of a really neat symbol that should be available but isn’t, and can send published documentation, we should be able to include it.

So this is your chance: if you’ve got ideas on the subject, put ‘em in the thread and they will be seen by someone who can do something about it.

Russian Language Gets ‘Import Substitution’.

An acerbic and amusing Moscow Times column by Michele Berdy starts with her “daily dose of nuts”: a video of a Russian schoolteacher telling her students that Holy Rus was “inhabited by godlike men called богатыри (bogatyrs, mythic warriors and heroes). We know they are godlike, she explains, because of their name, богатырь. And then she deciphers it: с Богом на ты (on a first-name basis with God).” Upon investigation, she discovers that “It’s a Thing. All kinds of armchair folk etymologists are insisting that godlike creatures called богатыри once lived in what is now Russia”:

What’s an armchair folk etymologist? It’s someone with no specialized knowledge of the language or its history, who looks at a word and makes up stories about its meaning. Sometimes this is charming. I know someone who grew up in the Urals and thought, when he was little, that faraway Moscow was the place where the 100 most important people in the country lived — because he parsed the word столица (capital) as сто лиц (100 people).

But he was 8 years old. Here’s what someone identified as a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences writes about the word богатырь: Бога ты то есть, Богу ты принадлежишь. (You are of God, that is, you belong to God.) Завершающее Р — это звук грозы и гнева, но гнева праведного, львиного. (The “r” at the end is the sound of threat and anger, but it is righteous anger, the anger of a lion.) Впрочем, поскольку Бог благ, и гнев Его направлен лишь на грех, этот звук смягчён: РЬ. (And besides, because God is good and His anger is only directed at sin, the sound is lightened with a soft sign at the end of it.)

She gives the actual etymology (it’s a borrowing from Turkic), then concludes:

So what’s the problem? Why are so many people obsessed with proving that богатырь is not a borrowed word?

And then I realized what it is. Some people don’t want mythic ancient Russian heroes to have a name borrowed from another language. So they are manufacturing a “native Russian” etymology.

It’s импортозамещение (import substitution)!

Thanks for the link, Jeff!


I was looking up something else in my American Heritage Dictionary when my eye fell on this entry:

wight2 (wīt) adj. Archaic Valorous; brave. [Middle English < Old Norse vīgt, neuter of vīgr, able to fight; see weik-3 in the Appendix of Indo-European roots.]

My first thought was “That’s odd, I’ve never heard of such a word.” Immediately following came the thought “Why is such an odd word in the AHD? How did it survive the culling that takes place for every new edition?” I will probably never get an answer to that question (I’m guessing some highly placed editor simply liked the word and couldn’t bear to let it go), but of course I went straight to the OED (entry from 1924), where the earliest citations are from c1275 (▸?a1200) (Laȝamon Brut l. 10658 “Fif and twenti þusend. whitere monnen”) and the latest is from 1858 (W. Morris Def. Guenevere 108 “They ought to sing of him who was as wight As Launcelot or Wade”), by which time I presume it was long out of living use. At any rate, I probably wouldn’t have posted about it if I hadn’t scrolled to the end of the entry and found this:

wight-wapping adj. [wap v.1] moving rapidly, or characterized by such movement.
1830 Scott Ayrshire Trag. i. 1, The weaver shall find room At the wight-wapping loom.

“Wight-wapping”: what a wonderful word! It sounds like something Bugs Bunny Elmer Fudd would say. Bring it back, say I—we’ll get ’em all back!

Where Is the Friend’s Home?

As I wrote here, for me, the gold standard of films about childhood has long been Abbas Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s Home?, so I was pleased to find this Poemas del río Wang post (which I apparently missed back in 2009) which explains that the movie’s title is taken from a poem by Sohrab Sepehri, quotes the poem in Persian (giving a transliterated version as well) and in translation (literal by Studiolum, the poster, and in a free Sufi-style version by Maryam Dilmaghani), and provides an audio clip of the poem (نشانی Neshâni ‘address, indication, sign, memento’) recited by Mahvash Shahegh. And there are the usual gorgeous photographs, as well as another audio clip of Shahab Tolouie’s Tango Perso, from the Persian-Flamenco CD Tango Perso (2009). Anyone interested in Kiarostami or Persian poetry should check it out. And Kiarostami fans will also like his recent post The best painting of Kamal-ol-Molk, about a painting that was featured in Life and Nothing More (aka And Life Goes On), the sequel to Where Is the Friend’s House?; it develops into a fascinating search for visual predecessors. I take this opportunity to once again give thanks for the indispensable Poemas del río Wang.

Whence the Sabra Accent?

A reader writes:

This is a question I’ve been wondering about for a long time – where did the modern Hebrew pronunciation come from? From what I know, when Hebrew was revived by the Haskalah and the Zionists, they chose a “Sephardic” pronunciation – but it still doesn’t explain in my mind the accent.

What I mean is this – if you listen to the founders of Israel – they still sound like Eastern European Jews when they speak Hebrew (בן גוריון בראיון שהיום היה נחשב ימני קיצוני, תוכנית מוקד עם מנחם בגין). Furthermore, on your blog there was a question I asked about why certain Israeli singers like Meir Ariel or Naomi Shemer rolled their R’s, and the answer from your commenters was that it was the prescribed pronunciation for all artists, radio/TV etc. So for the Sabras, if their parents spoke with a European accent, and the media was rolling R’s, where did they get the current Israeli accent?


The Many Languages of France, 1847.

Arika Okrent highlights a map “made in 1847, before French had truly become the language of the whole of France. The oïl languages are outlined in pink, the oc languages in blue. The rust brown in the northeast is Celtic, the green, Germanic, and the yellow, Basque”; you can explore it in zoomable form at the David Rumsey Map Collection. It makes a fine companion to Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France (see this post). Thanks for the link, Martin (and marie-lucie for the book)!

Royal Language and Wayang.

Normally I don’t bother reposting stuff from the Log because I assume most people who are interested in language blogs frequent both venues, but this post by Victor Mair is so full of goodies I can’t resist. First he quotes General MacArthur’s translator, George Kisaki, on the difficulty of interpreting for the emperor:

The emperor spoke a whole different other kind of Japanese—a royal dialect, something that only the Imperial Family and the court really used. I had to study up on it to understand what he was saying. It was like learning a second language.

After discussing a couple of his own royal encounters, Mair goes on to Javanese shadow plays (wayang):

In all types of wayang, the dalang (performer) employs an extraordinary range of linguistic registers, from low, earthy colloquial to language that is heavily imbued with Sanskritic and Old Javanese forms, while the very highest register is reserved only for royal personages. When I attended performances of wayang by Indonesian dalangs, I could tell when they shifted from one register to another because they had a noticeably different sound and cadence, but I didn’t understand any of it.

Once, however, in the mid-70s, I attended an extraordinary wayang kulit performance in Paine Hall at Harvard University. Everything that the American dalang said and sang was in translated English, and when he delivered his lines in middle register, I could understand everything. However, when he shifted into lower and higher registers, his voice was electronically manipulated and modulated in such a fashion that it became more and more difficult to comprehend the higher and lower he went on the scale of politeness versus vulgarity. The effect was uncanny. I still remember straining to pick out bits and pieces of the lower and higher registers, and could manage with effort when the dalang was using what would have been mid-levels on the politeness scale of Javanese. But when he adopted the highest and lowest levels of speech and song, I could comprehend virtually nothing of what he was saying and singing.

It’s a brilliant idea in its way, but it would infuriate me — I hate being deliberately kept from understanding! Also, I agree with Mair when he says “I much prefer American English, where we don’t have elaborate honorific language.”