Archives for January 2003

SIX MONTHS OF LANGUAGEHAT.

It feels a little silly celebrating a semianniversary, but everybody knows blog years are like dog years. (However, a book cannot be blog-eared. But I digress.) I worked hard on my first post (wanting to avoid the “Testing… testing… hey, this thing works!” syndrome), and I’ve tried to keep up an interesting mix of material somehow related to language (or, on occasion, hats). I’d like to take this occasion to thank everyone who’s sent e-mails or left comments—and may I remind you all that my comment boxes, unlike some others, do not require an e-mail address, so even the shyest of you can freely indulge in commentary, silliness (hi quonsar!), or a combination of the two (I’m thinking of the mysterious aa‘s contributions to my Bad Etymology thread)—and I’ll direct specific thanks to Songdog for helping me get started and saving me repeatedly from template disaster, to Renee and Pat for early encouragement, to Avva for collegiality and postcards, to the Mermaid for kind words and many stolen links (how do you find all those great links?), to Moira for inspiring me to add poetry to the mix, and to all those who cannot be mentioned because the revelation of their names would upset the balance of the space-time continuum: you know who you are.

When I began, my readership could be counted on the fingers of both hands—and the fact that the second hand was needed was due entirely to Pat’s and Merm’s brilliant mutual-backscratching invention, Linguablogs. It rose steadily to an average of several dozen a day, then shot upward this month because of a combination of the excellent Pepys’ Diary site, to which I quickly became addicted, and the Jan. 28 MSNBC recommendation (“One of the most exciting blogspotting finds I’ve made while judging Bloggies is the large and active community of linguabloggers…”). I hope to keep everyone entertained for at least another half-year, if only with the spectacle of language names more bizarre (hi aa!) than you ever thought existed (Guugu Yimidhirr, anyone?). Y’all come back now, y’hear?

HOW NOT TO SUPPORT A LANGUAGE.

An article (via MetaFilter) on the Irish government’s plans to finally do something about the country’s notoriously poor signage ends thus:

“Never mind the countryside. I still get lost in Dublin,” said Irish Times columnist Kevin Myers, a road-sign crusader who argues that the Irish have never understood the functional point of signs.
“You’ve got extraordinarily misleading signs and signs that tell outright lies, and most of these are new,” he said. “Dublin Corporation is putting up signs at the moment that are designed to baffle anyone from outside Ireland.”
“They refer to Dublin as ‘an Lar,’ which is Gaelic for the city centre — and it’s a term that nobody uses because we all speak English here,” Mr. Myers said. “Everybody in Europe would understand the word ‘centre,’ so naturally we can’t use that. The powers that be are intent on putting up signs in a dead language for pseudo-cultural purposes and doing nothing to help visitors.”

Incidentally, if anyone is as curious about the word lár ‘center’ as I was (I would have expected *cédar if they had borrowed Latin centrum), it originally meant ‘floor,’ and is in fact cognate with the English word; the transitional meaning is ‘middle (of a hall).’

GUUGU YIMIDHIRR AND OTHER DELIGHTS.

I really shouldn’t go to the Strand; every time I do, I spend money. But if I didn’t, I wouldn’t find things like the first two volumes of Dixon and Blake’s Handbook of Australian Languages at a ridiculously low price. The first volume includes descriptions of Guugu Yimidhirr (also called “Koko Yimidir” and other variants; the name means ‘this way of talking, this kind of language,’ guugu being the word for ‘talk, language’), Pitta Pitta, Gumbaynggir, and Yaygir; the second includes Wargamay, Anguthimri (Mpakwithi dialect), Watjarri, Margany and Gunya (closely related Maric dialects), and a final, sad chapter describing the exiguous information available about the long-extinct languages of Tasmania. Most chapters include detailed descriptions of phonology, morphology, and syntax, as well as the all-important texts and vocabularies. I’ve always been fascinated by Australian languages, but all I’ve had to go on so far is the Lonely Planet Australian Phrasebook; excellent as that little volume is, this opens up a whole new realm.
First sentence of first Guugu Yimidhirr text: Yii milbi dhana gunbu dumbi ‘This is a story (milbi) about how they had a great dance’: “The expression gunbu dumbil, literally ‘dance break’, is the normal idiom for ‘have a dance, have a corroborree.'” I can’t wait to dive in.

ODORATIVE VERBS IN NENETS.

From a recondite Yahoo search (“stress in evenki language”) that showed up in my referrer log, I arrived at a grammatical sketch of Tundra Nenets (part of Tapani Salmanen’s homepage, which includes links to other Nenets-related websites). This is a pretty detailed look at Tundra Nenets; if you want to know more, you’ll probably have to either study with Prof. Salmanen or take a trip to the tundra. But what led me to tell you about it here is the fact that, along with more common types of denominatives (verbs based on nouns, e.g. søwa ‘cap’ => søbyiq- ‘to have a cap, to use as a cap’; cf. English “to cap”), Tundra Nenets has a series of odorative verbs, e.g. xalya ‘fish’ => xalyayø- : 3sg xalyayi ‘to smell of fish’. A pungent language!

NO PURITY HERE.

I recently ran across the following highly expressive quote:

“The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”
—James D. Nicoll

I am delighted to report that LINGUIST List has solved the question of exactly when (1990) and how it originated. A tip of the Languagehat hat to all concerned.

WAGGISH.

Another blog with meaty discussions of literature (recent entries on Kobo Abe, Olaf Stapledon, and Ismail Kadare) and music (Bill Dixon, Pierre Boulez) (and I’ll bet not many of you faithful readers out there are familiar with all five names!) is Waggish.org. I have no idea who’s behind this cultural smorgasbord, but I offer them my deepest esteem for bringing to my attention the gorgeous and intricate graphic scores of Barry Guy; I had known him as a wonderful bassist and composer (of avant-jazz among other things), but had no idea he did this sort of thing. I’ve already added it to the “Visual pleasures” section of my blogroll. (I found Waggish via the delightful Geegaw.com.)

CHEONG.

Or jeong. That’s the Korean word/concept at the center of this brilliant post by Stavros (of the always worthwhile Emptybottle.org). If anyone out there knows the Chinese etymological equivalent so that I can find out more about the word (Korean isn’t my strong point), please let me know, but everyone should go and read the essay on sentimentality, Jung, jeong, love, Korea, and all that jive.
Update. OK, I went to the Donnell branch during my lunch hour and determined that the Chinese equivalent is ch’ing (or qing; heart radical plus ch’ing ‘blue/green’ phonetic) ‘feeling, emotion, sentiment, &c. &c.’; the Japanese derivative is jo (long o), defined the same way. So now my question is, does anyone out there know enough about the three languages, or any two of them, to give an idea of how the specific usages of these superficially identical words differ?

DERELICTION OF DIALECT.

I’ve started reading a James Buchan novel called The Persian Bride, a tale of derring-do set in ’70s Iran. Now, Mr. Buchan (no, not that Buchan) is a Brit (according to the jacket flap he lives with his wife and three children on a farm in Norfolk, England) with a good sense of language for a newspaperman. But that is not to the point. The point is that he can’t pull off American dialogue. He creates an Iranian military man who is introduced thus:

“You think I give a damn, boy?” He spoke easy Texan English. “I’ve got an air force to run. It’s Judge goddam Bordbar. Christ, I hate civilians.”

So far, so good. But a couple of pages later this Tex-Iranian says “It’s sorted out,” meaning taken care of, dealt with. This idiom is not American, and it immediately dispels the illusion so carefully conjured up by the author. This is not an isolated case—I have never read an author from across the Atlantic who could write consistent American dialogue. It’s easy to put in words and phrases you know are American; it’s impossible to recognize all those that aren’t. I’m sure the same is true in reverse, with American authors painstakingly putting in lorries and boots and lifts and then giving the game away with some locution no Englishman would utter. So why don’t publishers have manuscripts vetted by readers familiar with the relevant dialect? (And then there are foreign names, which are even more of a problem, with English-speaking authors creating Russians named Esmeralda Hofstein Ivanovna or Arabs named Abdul Ibn-Istanbul or something. Why go to all the trouble of researching the tiniest practical details of some foreign location and blow it by mangling names? It drives me mad, mad I tell you. But we won’t go into that. Sufficit diei malitia sua)

WORD OF THE DAY.

Pricklouse ‘tailor.’ From the OED:

pricklouse (‘prIklaUs). Now dial. Also [19th century] prick-the(-a)-louse. A derisive name for a tailor.
1500-20 Dunbar Poems xxvii. 5 Betuix a tel3our and ane sowtar, A pricklouss and ane hobbell clowttar [telyour ‘tailor’; souter ‘shoemaker, cobbler’; hobble ‘cobble, mend (shoes) roughly’; clooter ‘patcher, cobbler’]. 1668 R. L’Estrange The Visions of Don Francisco Quevedo Villegas (1708) 151 The poor Prick-Lice were damn’dly startled at that, for fear they should not get in. 1709 O. Dykes Eng. Proverbs with Moral Reflexions (ed. 2) 117 What an ignorant Presumption..for an impudent Prick-lowse to set up for a Lawyer, or a Statesman. A. 1796 Burns Answ. to Tailor ii, Gae mind your seam, ye prick-the-louse, An’ jag-the-flae. [jag ‘prick, pierce’ (hence the nickname “the Jags” for the Partick Thistles, a Glasgow football team familiar to fans of the wonderful Jack Laidlaw detective novels of William McIlvanney); flae ‘flea’ (ie, “jag-the-flae” is modeled on the traditional “prick-(the-)louse”)]

Since the first quotation is from William Dunbar, let me here put in a plug for him as one of the great early modern poets; he wrote in Scots rather than southron English, but it’s worth making the effort for such a brilliant poem as Lament for the Makars (“maker” was the traditional Scots term for ‘poet’), with its refrain “Timor mortis conturbat me” (‘The fear of death disturbs me’). And from this brief biography we learn that he

has the curious distinction of having been responsible for the first printed use of the word “fuck” (1508), thus establishing a long and noble tradition of which some critics of Kelman or Welsh appear to be quite unaware….
“The Flyting” is a verse-quarrel with the poet Walter Kennedy, and contains such choice insults as “wan fukkit funling” and “cuntbitten crawdon”. Perhaps it was language such as this which had something to do with Scotland becoming the first country to try and make swearing illegal (1551). We might add as a parenthesis that the later English puritans, undeterred by the complete failure of the Scottish law, followed suit by making swearing at one’s parents a capital offence (1649). Much later, Mussolini put notices up saying “For Italy’s honour, do not swear”, but look where it got him. Before leaving this interesting topic, it should be added that the powerful word which Dunbar put into print in 1508 was not decriminalised until 1960, only appearing in dictionaries after 1965, but by 1982 it was thought necessary to declare “fuck” unparliamentary language. Nevertheless, a hundred years earlier it had already showed up unexpectedly in “The Times” of all places, probably due to a mischievous compositor, in a Parliamentary report which stated: “The Speaker then said he felt inclined for a bit of fucking.”

GENERATIONAL SHIBBOLETH.

From ru_slang I got to this article (in Russian), which alleges (Russian readers can tell me how accurately) that the phrase na samom dele ‘in reality, in (actual) fact’ characterizes the positive, confident generation of intellectuals who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, whereas kak by ‘as if, as it were’ characterizes the uncertain, postmodernist generation that grew up in the ’80s and ’90s. Example: On prishel ‘He came’; Na samom dele on prishel ‘[There is an objective reality, and] he really came [—I know what I’m talking about]’; On kak by prishel ‘It seems that he came [but reality is so fluid and indeterminate that there’s no guarantee of anything].’ Interesting.