Archives for February 2004


Via Uncle Jazzbeau, a nice site for learning Inezeño Chumash. Unfortunately, there’s only a small core vocabulary for the first eight lessons (plus, oddly, a tiny portion of a larger lexicon), but the lessons look well done, and there are sound clips of everything (so that Jim was able to hear the glottalized consonants he had been searching for). Chumash has been extinct since 1965; as the Chumash languages page says:

A great deal of what we know about the Chumash language spoken in the Santa Ynez valley comes to us as a result of the patience and dedication of Maria Solares. Maria was born in the 1840s and died in 1923.
Between approximately 1912 and 1919, Maria worked with John P. Harrington, a linguist who dedicated himself to recording as much as he could of the native languages of California, Chumash as well as many others.
Maria provided Harrington with a wealth of information on the language, beliefs, culture and customs of the Inezeño and their neighbors. Harrington was gifted with an extraordinarily keen ear for language and he recorded what Maria told him in meticulous detail.

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As I make my way through Dalby’s Dictionary of Languages, I run across all sorts of fascinating tidbits in the sidebars. In the entry for Sukuma, an important language of northern Tanzania, there is also information about its sister language Nyamwezi (spoken by far fewer people but noticed first by Europeans), including one of the most remarkable etymologies I’ve seen for an ethnonym:

People who shit the moon
‘The term Nyamwezi is of Swahili origin, and is fairly recent. It arose in the last century during the trade caravans. My grandfather told me that in those days a caravan would leave Tabora at new moon to arrive in Bagamoyo or Dar es Salaam coast at the following new moon. Since this was a regular occurrence, the Zalamo started teasing the caravanists, calling them ‘the people who excrete the moon’, wanyamwezi (from the verb ku-nya) because their arrival at the coast nearly always coincided with the new moon. Apparently, since there had already developed a joking relationship, utani, between the Zalamo and the people from Tabora, the term was not contested. Since my grandfather did in fact take part in the trade caravans, I have every reason to consider his explanation a viable one.’
C. Maganga

Now, every other source says Nyamwezi simply means ‘people of the moon [mwezi]’ (or possibly ‘people of the west [mweli]’), and it’s a melancholy truth that the more boring etymology is usually correct. But I want to believe in the moon-shitting caravans. Se non è vero, è ben trovato.

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This week’s Safire column consists mainly of a labored trudge through the history of polar, bipolar, multipolar, and unipolar, the last two of which he considers “impossible in logic.” It wouldn’t be worth noting here except for the very odd second sentence in this paragraph:

When meaning is flouted by the powers that be, what’s a poor semanticist to do? I deal with the hand that common elitist usage deals and not the hand that politicians or strict etymologists insist I play. Today’s meaning of bipolar is ”characterized by two-power confrontation, as in the cold war.” Multipolar, its pivotal pole jerked around into an asterisk, means ”a world of many powers with not one dominant and no clear leadership.” And unipolar, the big stick that never ends—rightly rejected by Cheney and smoothly abandoned by Chirac—means ”who does that self-righteous, moralizing big shot think he is, anyway?”

“Common elitist usage”? What on earth does this mean? I can only think that, trapped between his automatic deference to prescriptive ukases and a cloudy realization that if everybody is using words in an illogical way usage must trump logic, he squares the circle by means of this oxymoron. I can’t decide whether I’m amused or impressed.
Update. For further Safire-lambasting, see Semantic Compositions. SC knows a lot more about poles than I (or, it goes without saying, Safire). And to those who would let Bloviating Bill off the hook, I’m aware that the phrase “common elitist usage” can be interpreted in such a way as to make sense (although the traditional way of putting that meaning is more along the lines of “the consensus of the best authorities”), but I feel that in context, it is a desperate flailing for justification from a man caught between the Scylla of superciliousness and the Charybdis of commonness. He’s not waving but drowning.


A sobering story by Ken Kaye from South Florida’s Sun-Sentinel:

Since the early 1970s, language barriers have played a role in at least 10 major accidents, killing more than 1,500 people and contributing to dozens of close calls.
To prevent more calamity, pilots and air traffic controllers worldwide are being required by the International Civil Aviation Organization to speak English fluently by 2008.
Although English is the universal language of aviation, many foreign pilots and controllers know only key words and phrases, leaving them vulnerable during an emergency, says ICAO, a Montreal based-group that governs global air operations.

Go to the story for examples of major air-carrier accidents caused by miscommunication. (Via Taccuino di traduzione.)


Beth, at the always enlightening Cassandra Pages, has posted an entry that mentions a phenomenon I was familiar with but whose name I had never heard:

But the willows are turning yellow, and the snow is “rotting”, as we call it up here – turning old and crystalized, breaking up into the granular spring consistency called “corn snow”.

My wife (a Massachusetts gal) knows it, so I’m guessing it’s a New England phrase; any of you know the phrase?


Mark Woods has joined the “secret nest of O’Brien fans” and spread before us a cornucopia of links (scroll down to the photo of the glowering fellow in the fedora), from a dark bedtime story to a scholarly analysis of O’Brien’s “bad story about the hard life,” An Beal Bocht: mouthing off at national identity. I do believe my favorite is this extravagantly mutated version/parody of an entry in a traditional Irish-English Dictionary like the famous Dinneen’s (I should mention that cur is an actual verbal noun meaning ‘the act of putting’ &c; I have no idea where genuine meanings leave off and madness begins):

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It’s rare to see the structure of a language changing before your eyes, but this seems to be happening with English compound verbs. Geoff Pullum at Language Log describes a developing pattern whereby a preposition plus a noun object form a new verb; his examples are upskirting (taking photos up womens’ skirts), overlanding (travelling overland, usually in an all-terrain vehicle), and downwalling (making descents of cliffs or office block walls on ropes). Not having run across any of these words, I was taken by surprise by the whole thing, and will be on the alert for other examples. As Geoff says, “One is an exception, two are a couple of anomalies, but three is a trend.”

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Margaret Marks reports on an odd phrase used by German Federal Minister Edelgard Bulmahn: “Brain up! Deutschland sucht seine Spitzenuniversitäten,” or as Margaret renders it ‘[Incomprehensible English embellishment] German is looking for its top universities.’ A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. But she says there is a UK idiom brain up (transitive), ‘to make more intellectually demanding or sophisticated,’ with which I was unfamiliar. Guess I’ll have to brain myself up.


Kafka pretty much summed up the 20th century just as it was getting under way. (There’s probably somebody doing the same for the 21st right now, if we only knew where to find her.) The Kafka Project “was initiated in 1998 with the purpose of publishing online all Kafka texts in German, in the form of the manuscripts”:

This multilingual page is intended also to give scholars and Kafka fans a virtual place to share opinions, essays and translations. Every detail of Kafka’s world will find its place in this site, which has the aim to become the central crossway of Kafka-interested users.

From the About page:

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A few days ago I wrote an entry on the Kaluli of New Guinea, ending it by saying I had ordered a copy of the Smithsonian’s Bosavi set of CDs. Well, today it came; ordinarily I would mention that fact, if at all, as an addendum to the previous entry, but in the course of listening to the first CD (of guitar-band music) I realized I was going to have to give it its own post, because one of the songs (#10; there’s a RealAudio clip at the Bosavi link) is about the first Bosavi dictionary! How could I not blog a song whose lyrics are:

long ago, in the past
Bosavi had no dictionary
having just made it Steve and Bambi have brought it here
for that reason
all of us are happy with Steve and Bambi

I’ll bet Liddell and Scott never had a guitar-band song written in their honor!

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