Archives for November 2003


Sally Thomason at Language Log has an entry on Native American languages that resist borrowing words even for objects imported from the majority culture, like automobiles, for which the word in Montana Salish (also called Flathead and Kalispel-Pend d’Oreille) is p’ip’uyshn—literally, ‘it has wrinkled feet.’ Other Salishan languages use comparable formations; my guess would be that they were borrowed rather than independently created.


Paul Celan was born on this day in 1920. I thank Ramage for the reminder and for this poem:

Strahlenwind deiner Sprache
das bunte Gerede des An-
erlebten — das hundert-
züngige Mein-
gedicht, das Genicht.
der Weg durch den menschen-
gestaltigen Schnee,
den Büßerschnee, zu
den gastlichen
Gletscherstuben und -tischen.
in der Zeitenschrunde,
wartet, ein Atemkristall,
dein unumstößliches

And the translation by John Felstiner:

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Some language-related strips from Robert Balder’s principled comic PartiallyClips:

Just keep talking, Mr. Billings…
Sweetie, stop making noises and look at the book, OK?
How do you do that thing where your mouthparts don’t synch to your words?

Via the irrepressible Mark Liberman at the indispensable Language Log.


Reading a NY Times article by Shaila K. Dewan, I was brought up short by the first paragraph:

For more than a century, the fingerprint has been the quintessential piece of crime scene evidence. But fingerprints are only a tiny part of the story. All of a person’s “friction ridged skin” is distinctively patterned: soles, palms and even the writer’s palm, as the outer side of the hand is called.

The writer’s palm? Never heard of it, neither had my dictionaries, and “the outer side of the hand” didn’t make any sense to me. I googled “writer’s palm” and only got 27 hits, many of which simply refer to the palm of a writer (so it’s clearly not a very widespread term). I did, however, get two further definitions.

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This wonderful word is the title of a new post at an Eudæmonist, and having looked it up I now know that it means (OED) ‘Characterized by creeping in or having crept in, esp. into a text.’

1673 Castell Let. in Nichols Lit. Anecd. 18th C. IV. 695 The first [text] he illustrates, Esa. ix. 1 where all condemn πιε [pie] as irreptitious. 1680 H. Dodwell Two Lett. (1691) 7 Where it [this design] is irreptitious and by way of surprize. 1868 Contemp. Rev. IX. 283 Omit ουδαμως [oudamos] which contradicts Micah, and is irreptitious from preceding αιδου [aidou].

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A month ago, Robert Hartwell Fiske, editor and publisher of The Vocabula Review, very kindly sent me a link to a new article, “Making Peace in the Language Wars” by Bryan A. Garner. I told Fiske I was definitely going to write about it, and he must be thinking (if he remembers it at all) that I’m completely feckless. Well, I’m not (not completely, anyway); I am a procrastinator, but it’s mainly that the subject kept expanding in my mind and I wasn’t quite sure how to deal with it. Now, prodded by a recent discussion of who can be called a linguist and a NY Times article that won’t stay online free for long (and I’m afraid the Garner piece is now available only to subscribers—mea culpa!), I’m finally getting around to it. Warning: this entry will be long and full of ambivalence.

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The Breton poet Anjela Duval has a nifty trilingual site dedicated to her, including over 500 poems in Breton and almost a hundred translated into English as well as articles in English, French, and Breton. Via cannylinguist, a brand-new linguablog: welcome!


As I enter the home stretch of Piers Brendon’s The Dark Valley (regarding which, see Jonathon’s latest post, Preaching to the converted) I have run across a word heretofore unknown to me. Discussing Churchill’s extravagent renovation of his country house, Chartwell, Brandon says: “He created lakes, dams, waterfalls, fish-ponds, treating his black swans, golden orfe and other creatures with anthropomorphic indulgence.” An orfe is clearly a “creature,” but what kind? A fish, as it turns out, or in the words of the OED “A golden yellow variety of the ide (Leuciscus idus), long domesticated in Germany, acclimatized in England in the 19th c.” Not to be confused with the ancient word orf ‘cattle’ (last used in the 14th century), and still less with orf ‘A virus disease of sheep, cattle, and goats, characterized by a secondary infection with the bacillus Fusiformis necrophorus [now known as Fusobacterium necrophorum], which causes ulcers and scabs in and around the mouth and on the feet or other parts of the body; also called scabby mouth, contagious ecthyma, or contagious pustular dermatitis.’


From Sarah Brett-Smith‘s 1980 conference paper “Speech Made Visible: The Irregular as a System of Meaning” (published 1984; abstract here):

Bamana methods for transcribing the spoken word… cannot be clear… [To] fulfill their purpose they must evade linguistic systematization and the socially (perhaps even politically) disruptive possibility of mass communication by introducing aberrant visual symbols which prevent immediate comprehension. Like the spoken, the transcribed word must remain indistinct and allusive; knowledge may thus rest secure in the shadowy realm of the aged or the exceptionally gifted.


Over at Language Log, John McWhorter discusses the idea that the kinds of polysemy encountered in “indigenous” languages are somehow deep and philosophically interesting, much more so than our denatured English:

Abley listens to a Mohawk speaker talking about the word KA’NIKONRIIO, “righteousness.” The speaker says “You have different words. Something that is nice. Something coming very close to—sometimes used as a word for—law. The fact of KA’NIKONRIIO is also—beautiful. Or good. So goodness and the law are the same.” Abley muses “I had the impression that a three-hour philosophy seminar had just been compressed into a couple of minutes.”
Abley’s intentions are good, but I can’t help wanting to ask him “OK—explain precisely how the semantic range of that word will illuminate your life, and/or please delineate for me just how you would construct a seminar on KA’NIKONRIIO that would stand alongside one on Kant?”

He shows comparably interesting semantic ranges in English, and says “what is mere polysemy in English is not a philosophy seminar in Mohawk. It’s just polysemy.” This, of course, is in part an attack on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which takes polysemy as evidence of irreducible differences in the way speakers of different languages view the world.

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