Archives for October 2003


Today is the first day of Ramadan, and Nancy Gandhi reminds us that in the Indian subcontinent it’s known as Ramzan. So I thought I’d explain the d/z variation, for those who (as is quite natural) find it confusing.
The Arabic letter Daad (I’m using D for the sound normally written as d with a dot underneath) represents one of the “emphatic” consonants peculiar to the language; I won’t try to describe their articulation in detail (especially since I have no confidence in my ability to pronounce them correctly), but they involve retraction of the tongue and pharyngealization, and this particular one is so difficult for foreigners to produce that Arabs sometimes call themselves “the people of the (letter) Daad.” In most of the Arab world it is a stop, but in Iraq it is a fricative, like the /th/ of the (but with “emphasis”). Since it was from Iraq that Persia was conquered, the Persians borrowed this letter (like the other voiced fricatives of Arabic) as /z/, and since it was via Persia that the Turks and Indians received Islam (and along with it the Arabic language), words with Arabic D are represented in the Turkic languages and in Hindi/Urdu with z. Thus the names Zia (as in General Zia ul-Haq) for Arabic Dia and Reza for Arabic RiDa, and thus ramazan (Turkish) and ramzan (Hindi/Urdu) for Arabic ramaDaan. And a Ramadan mubarak to all my Muslim readers!


There are certain words that carry an intrinsic judgment about the truth value of what they describe. You can say that A says, or alleges, or thinks that B is a crook without implying anything about B, but if you say A discovers B is a crook, you are calling B a crook yourself. In Larissa MacFarquhar’s “The Movie Lover,” a New Yorker profile of Quentin Tarantino, she has the following to say about his early days:

Before Tarantino began making movies, one of his heroes was Jean-Luc Godard. He loved Godard’s unusual shots—the long takes, the long, long closeups. Even though he has now outgrown Godard…

Cut! OK, you can say “he has now moved on to other influences” or (if you wish to make him look like an idiot) “he feels he has outgrown Godard,” but to say “he has now outgrown Godard” is to reveal yourself as an idiot. It’s like saying someone has “outgrown” Shakespeare or Picasso. T’fu, t’fu, t’fu (to use the expressive Russian expectorative interjection).
Addendum. Jim of UJG responds with a nice Godard quote.


I just came across a word new to me, namely yardang, ‘a sharp, irregular ridge of sand or the like, lying in the direction of the prevailing wind in exposed desert regions and formed by erosion by the wind of adjacent less resistant material’ (OED). Naturally, I wanted to know the etymology of this exotic-sounding word, and the OED did not disappoint: “a. Turk., abl. of yar steep bank, precipice.” Now, the Turkish ablative ending is -dan/den (to fall from a cliff is yardan uçmak), so I presume by “Turk.” they mean Turkic, and the -dang ending is from some other Turkic language, a supposition reinforced by the first citation:
1904 S. Hedin Sci. Results Journey in Central Asia I. xxvii. 439 At intervals furrows or trenches in the clay subsoil, called jardangs, traced between long elevations or ridges, crop up amongst the dunes.
So we’re dealing with a Central Asian language. But as far as I can tell, the ablative ending is -dan in Uzbek, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uyghur, and Turkmen, and according to this page in The Turkic Languages by Lars Johanson (thank you, Amazon text search!) the Proto-Turkic ablative ending was *-dAn. So is the -ng a mistake by Hedin, picked up by everyone else from him, or is there some dialect that has it?

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The NY Times moves to Cheltenham for all headlines, replacing “the mix of faces that has been featured on page one beginning as early as the late 1800’s and which has remained unchanged since 1976.” (Thanks to Chris for the news; let me take this opportunity to pass on, with regret, the news that his blog Polyglut is resigning from the linguablog community and will concentrate on “issues touching politics and religion, especially their intersection.”)
Also, in Cheshire Dave‘s Behind the Typeface series: the story of Cooper Black. (A movie; Flash required, and make sure your sound is on.) Via Planned Obsolescence.

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This article by William O. Beeman (Department of Anthropology, Brown University) fuels my worst suspicions about anthropologists’ shaky grasp of the concepts of linguistics; the first two sentences indicate a distilled confusion such as is rarely achieved: “One of the bedrock principles of linguistic analysis since the nineteenth century has been the principle of the regularity of cognate borrowing. It forms the basis of the ‘comparative method’ not only in linguistics, but in all of social science.” A little later comes a paragraph with a more expansive form of the confusion:

However, there is a limited, but powerful countervailing tendency in language behavior—words that absolutely resist borrowing even from their closest linguistic relatives. These words seem to be coined anew by each population group. Because we expect cognate borrowing as a norm, it is surprising when we encounter these fascinating examples. It makes us wonder about the cultural processes that govern the development of communication systems, and the functional differences between segments of vocabulary.

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Never heard of it, but there’s a book about it, Forensic Linguistics: An Introduction to Language in the Justice System, by John Gibbons, and it sounds like it could be interesting. (Via Road to Surfdom, who also links to an anticipation-raising article about the new Patrick O’Brian movie, for those who are as addicted as I am to his magnificent novels.)


C’est une langue belle… is a new blog dedicated to the distinctive features of québécois. If you read French, it’s well worth your while. (Thanks for the tip, saeedik!)
And while we’re on the subject of blogs: Laputan Logic has a new, de-Bloggered site! Well done, John.


An amusing and perhaps useful list of occupations, some of which have merely shifted in usage (ADMINISTRATOR – directed the affairs of another) and some of which have sunk into deep oblivion are still in use, unbeknownst to me until I read my comments (AGISTER – official of the Royal Forests or in the New Forest it is the title for the one in charge of the ponies). There’s no indication of where or when these were in use (some are medieval, some clearly twentieth-century), but that’s what dictionaries are for. My favorite so far: BADGER – licensed pauper who wore a badge with the letter P on it and could only work in a defined area. (Via MetaFilter.)


From Helen Brown’s latest Telegraph diary entry:

A new guide to English published this month by Oxford University Press reveals that writers’ names are edging their way into the vernacular in the most unexpected ways. According to The Language Report, by Susie Dent, “Seamus Heaney” is now rhyming slang for “bikini”.

(Via Maud Newton.)

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The good people at Amazon have indexed the full text of 120,000 books (with, presumably, more to come) and they are searchable through the regular search box. I just did a search on the name of an obscure Ethiopian battle and got several pages from books talking about it—books I’d never have known about. This is an amazing development, and I look forward to becoming hopelessly addicted to it. (Via a MetaFilter post.)
Addendum. I hadn’t even thought of this, but Mo Nickles comments on its value for lexicography:

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