Archives for August 2004


I know, I know, I just took a week off, but I’m going to do it again. I have some vacation time to use up, and the Republican convention seemed an excellent time to get out of town. So I’m going to Montreal tomorrow, spurred by Beth‘s mouth-watering reports on her visits there. I may visit an internet cafe, but don’t expect to hear from me until next weekend. Explore the blogroll and archives and talk amongst yourselves while I see whether my rusty Parisian French is up to the challenge of québécois. A bientôt!


Grant Barrett, known to LH readers not only for Double-Tongued Word Wrester but for the splendid language puzzle he recently provided, has come out with a book I highly recommend to anyone interested in politics, Hatchet Jobs and Hardball: The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang. It has up-to-the-minute terms like belligerati ‘any belligerent person or group; (hence) as a group, pro-war commentators’ (first used, apparently, by “Gordon” on Usenet on Mar. 16, 2000 with the quirky spelling belligeratti; it has since, inevitably, become the name of a blog), but also lovingly chronicles long-forgotten terms like blue-light ‘a New England Federalist opposed to the War of 1812’ and leg treasurer ‘one who flees with stolen government funds’:

1839 Ohio Repository (Canton) (Aug. 29) 2: Another Leg Treasurer, Owen Hamlin, entrusted by Mr. Dixon, Rail Road Commissioner, with a check for $11,600 on the State bank of Illinois, collected the money and Swartwouted.

Then there are words that go back into what (for these United States) can be considered the mists of antiquity and are still in circulation, such as war hawk, used in a high-Tory London periodical called The Rehearsal in 1708 and by Thomas Jefferson in a 1798 letter to Madison (“At present, the war hawks talk of septembrizing…”) and still going strong in 1999 (“the policy wonk who would become the administration’s fierce war hawk”). Furthermore, it has tasty and informative introductory essays on “Inside Baseball,” “The –Gate to Scandal” (which ends with a list of dozens of such formations, from Abdulgate to Zippergate), “The Blogistan Lexicon,” and other word-spawning phenomena.

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“We have stopped reading, we have not the time. Our mind is solicited simultaneously from too many sides: it has to be spoken to quickly as it passes by. But there are things that cannot be said or understood in such haste, and these are the most important things for man. This accelerated movement, which makes coherent thought impossible, may alone be sufficient to weaken, and in the long run utterly to destroy, human reason.”

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Peter Riis, proprietor of The New Companion and a “shameless and hardened belletrist,” noticed the recent renaissance of hat-related posts here and sent me a link to a glorious advertisement he had posted a couple of years ago:

“P ray observe me,” quoth Brummel, while sipping his wine,
“E ver banish that horrible skullcap of thine.
R eform altogether that villainous Tile,
R esembling a bread-pan in fashion and style.
I must cut ye, egad! tho’ feel hurt and all that–
N ever know any man in an infamous hat,
G et a chapeau of PERRING and place on thy sconce,
S uch a hat as can rivet my friendship at once.

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If you’ve ever wondered how name taboos (refusing to say the name, or a word used in the name, of a deceased person) work in practice, read the illuminating post by Claire of Angargoon on the subject.

For Bardi people, the taboo is purely a respect issue and the length of time the name is tabooed depends on how close the relative was and how much respect. For example, when I was there in 2001 an old person died. The people I was working with didn’t like her very much, and they were saying her name even before the funeral, in private. On the other hand, NI’s brother had died in 1990 and she still wouldn’t say his name, likewise her younger son who’d died in a car accident in 1994. The son’s name was Douglas and at the time we were working on materials recorded by the missionary Wilf Douglas in the 1940s. I forgot to call him “Wilf the missionary” at one point and used his full name and NI looked like she’d been hit…


Following up on the controversy discussed here, Geoff Pullum has posted (at Language Log) an extremely interesting letter he received from Dan Everett, who wrote the first full description of the Pirahã language (published in 1986). Geoff asked him to respond to “recent suggestions to the effect that Pirahã is just too strange to be true”; Everett says “It took me 27 years to work up the courage to say these things and I am still called a ‘Borgesian fantasist’ (and have been called much simpler things, like ‘stupid’)” and adds that linguists who were initially very skeptical came to agree with him after studying the language and people. His letter ends:

My own view then is that the case of Pirahã illustrates, perhaps as well as any example ever discussed in the literature, the kind of bi-directional causal relationship between language and culture that Boas and Sapir would have expected us to find.
There is a problem for universal grammar in all this, though. That is the non-trivial one of setting the boundary between culture, grammar, and cognition in light of examples like this where previous boundary lines have been shown to be potentially illusory.
I just left the Pirahãs a few days ago. They are oblivious to all of this attention, yet doing well as a people. However, I have heard the very disturbing news that an electric power company is thinking of using their river, the Maici, to generate power in some way. If any outside company enters their reserve (which I helped demarcate, with support from Cultural Survival, 20 years ago), this could be the end of the Pirahã people. So I hope that this attention on them right now can be used to generate some support for their survival. Examples like Pirahã illustrate very clearly the loss inherent to knowledge of our species, if such a language were to cease to exist without having been studied. It also shows, I hope, that some studies take a LONG time, perhaps the length of an entire career.

There are also links to drawings and a map.

ARMENIAN POETRY. has a page on Armenian poetry: “Armenian Poetry and Armenian poets — works and biographies. Foreign poets about Armenia and Armenians.” Unfortunately, most of the poems are only in Russian and sometimes Armenian, but there is a link to a page of Armenian poetry in translation. (Thanks to P. Kerim Friedman for the link.)


There’s an interesting thread at The Peking Duck that takes off from an article about “vanishing dialects and greater adoption of putonghua” and turns into a discussion of whether there is in fact a unified writing system in China. (My thanks for the link to afrophile, whose Africa-oriented blog is an excellent place to go for information and links about Darfur and other areas in the news.)


Grant Barrett sends along the following linguistic puzzler:
What language is this? Note that it is transcribed accurately from a first-quality source. There are no characters, words, or diacritics missing.

Mons. Tardini, ki sar sepisanya, sar un prelatyo ridela dal manyeros somyes epe bruskas, dal abord simpla e franka. Il pertenar al vatikana diplomatio dep 1938 e it derkar pratike dep is anyos, prime in kolabor kon Mons. Montini, doe sola dep lo namado d etun al arciveskado de Milan.

Grant is interested in the way people try to figure it out, so if you’ve got a reason for your guess, spell it out. If you know the answer for sure, please e-mail me rather than putting it in the comments; after someone has guessed correctly or I’ve decided to put an end to the torment, I’ll post your name or moniker; let me know how you wish to be credited.
Update. We have a winner! Scott Martens writes: “It’s Neo, an artificial language invented in the 30’s by Arturo Alfandari.” Well done, Scott, and you win a year’s free subscription to Languagehat!


Hold onto Your Hats!: An exhibition about the history and meaning of hats and other headwear in Canada. Everything from Protection and Practicality to Hat Lore, with a Reading List and Annotated Bibliography. (Via plep.)