Archives for September 2004


The First Idea, by Stanley I. Greenspan and Stuart G. Shanker, has the subtitle “How Symbols, Language, And Intelligence Evolved From Our Primate Ancestors To Modern Humans,” and that’s pretty much what it’s about. I opened it at the bookstore with a sinking feeling of “here we go again,” but was surprised to find that their ideas seemed pretty sensible. As I said in my MetaFilter post, “I don’t think we’ll ever know where language came from, but this sounds like a more fruitful line of thinking than Chomsky’s deus ex machina ‘language gene’ mutation.” Certainly the sections on child development will be of interest to anyone who has a child (or, er, a stepgrandson). The Christian Science Monitor review gives an idea of the authors’ approach, with a handy summary (“The Ascent of Human Thinking”) at the end.


Bill Poser at Language Log has a wonderful post laying out the basics of historical linguistics that should be required reading for anyone even thinking about pontificating on the field, and it should be memorized by anyone actually working in it. I want to single out here a quote from Georg von der Gabelentz’s Die Sprachwissenschaft (1901) which is as pertinent today as it was when he wrote it:

It is terribly seductive to roam the world of languages comparing words from them at random and then to bestow upon scholarship a series of newly discovered relationships. Very many stupidities also result from this; for the most urgent discoverers have unmethodical minds. He who, endowed with a good memory for words, has gone through a couple of dozen languages from different parts of the Earth, – he need not at all have studied them -, finds familiar forms everywhere. And if he records them, investigates them, tests intelligently whether the indications pan out, he does only what is right. Only logically correct thought belongs here, and where it is not absent from the outset then he gladly gets lost in the giddiness of the mania of discovery. Thus it went, as we saw, with the great Bopp, when he sought to assign Caucasian and Malayan languages to the Indo-European language family. Fortune had decreed him a curious fate. It was, to have to prove the correctness of his principles twice, first positively through his magnificent main work, which is based on them, then, negatively, by coming to grief as soon as he was unfaithful to them… Languages are different because sound change has taken different paths. But it has gone its way consistently hither and thither; therefore Order reigns in differentiation, not Chaos. Language comparison without comparison of sounds is irresponsible game-playing.

Poser provides the German original, and also links to a pdf file of his and Lyle Campbell’s paper “Indo-European Practice and Historical Methodology,” which I commend to your attention if you’re interested in more details. The fight against sloppiness is endless but must continually be fought.


I’m reading Russia, by Donald Mackenzie Wallace, an indispensable text for any English-speaker who wishes to understand the country in tsarist times (there were three editions, in 1877, 1905, and 1912; I’m reading an abridgment of the last, but the 1905 is online here and here); I wish to present here an amusing anecdote from near the start of Chapter IV:

According to this custom, when a boy enters the seminary he receives from the Bishop a new family name. The name may be Bogoslafski, from a word signifying “Theology,” or Bogolubof, “the love of God,” or some similar term; or it may be derived from the name of the boy’s native village, or from any other word which the Bishop thinks fit to choose. I know of one instance where a Bishop chose two French words for the purpose. He had intended to call the boy Velikoselski, after his native place, Velikoe Seló, which means “big village”; but finding that there was already a Velikoselski in the seminary, and being in a facetious frame of mind, he called the new comer Grandvillageski—a word that may perhaps sorely puzzle some philologist of the future.

Aside from the story, I had not realized priests were given new family names, and I thought it was interesting enough to pass along.


Last year I reported on James Murray’s letter of application to the British Museum Library, which did not get the future editor of the OED a job despite his acquaintance with “the Romance tongues, Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish, Latin & in a lesser degree Portuguese, Vaudois, Provencal, & various dialects… Dutch …, Flemish, German, Danish… Anglo-Saxon and Moeso-Gothic… Celtic… Sclavonic… Persian, Achaemenian Cuneiform, & Sanscrit… Hebrew and Syriac… to a less degree… Aramaic Arabic, Coptic and Phenician.” Now I find the following remarkable passage in an obituary quoted in a Transblawg post: “He could have aspired to a professorial chair—after all, he had even written on word formation in Gothic, an extinct language, mastery of which was once deemed essential to academic preferment in London…” So we learn that Gothic, though clearly not sufficient (vide supra), was a necessary job qualification in the Good Old Days! Ah, to have lived in those times, when philology was valued as the Queen of Sciences…

[Read more…]


Mark Liberman of Language Log has taken my post on the names for the capital of Kyrgyzstan and run with it. After a brief post focusing on a recipe for kumiss (which is what you make with a bishkek), he quoted a series of passages from Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (a wonderful book, which these tastes make me want to reread) dealing with the “mad scavenger” Tchitcherine, sent to Seven Rivers country (south of Lake Balkhash: Semirechye in Russian, Zhetysu in Kazakh) “to give the tribesmen out here, this far out, an alphabet.” Madness ensues:

There is a crisis over which kind of g to use in the word “stenography.” There is a lot of emotional attachment to the word around here. Tchitcherine one morning finds all the pencils in his conference room have mysteriously vanished. In revenge, he and Radnichny sneak in Blobadjian’s conference room next night with hacksaws, files and torches, and reform the alphabet on his typewriter. It is some fun in the morning. Blobadjian runs around in a prolonged screaming fit. Tchitcherine’s in conference, meeting’s called to order, CRASH! two dozen linguists and bureaucrats go toppling over on their ass. … Could Radnichny be a double agent?

Now, in an effort to get to the historical truth behind Pynchon’s fireworks, he gives us a post presenting the history of language reform in Central Asia, as told in Mark Dickens’s 1989 paper “Soviet Language Policy in Central Asia.” I won’t summarize it here; go and read the whole sordid saga, and be grateful you weren’t trying to become literate in that part of the world in the 1930s.


At last, the solution to all the wearisome arguments over “good” and “bad” English! The Original English Movement is here to rescue us:

For decades descriptive linguists and professional prescriptivists—technical writers, editors, and English teachers—have been at war. As most linguists know all too well, the prescriptivists say that descriptivism is at best a weak philosophy of usage, and at worst an invitation to grammatical chaos. However, too many prescriptivists maintain what is, to descriptivists, an illogical position: language should not change—or at least not until all the opponents of a particular change are long dead.
All that is about to end!

[Read more…]


Once again the NY Times has increased my vocabulary. A story about a small New Mexico town describes its current state of decay: “And these days, more animals than people can be found wandering the streets. Quail, javelinas and the occasional mountain lion strut through empty cul-de-sacs…” Quail and mountain lions I know, but javelinas were new to me. It turns out javelina (pronounced hah-v@-LEE-n@) is a synonym for collared peccary and has an interesting etymology:

Alteration of Spanish jabalina, feminine of jabalí, jabalín, wild boar, from Arabic (hinzir) jabal, mountain (swine), from jabal, mountain; see gbl in Semitic roots.

In case you’re interested, peccary is (in the words of Webster’s Third New International) “of Cariban origin; akin to Chayma paquera, Apalai pakira.”

[Read more…]


In the course of an explanation of site changes, Anggarrgoon presents a most interesting explanation of a bit of Bardi grammar:

“look like” or “resemble” is irrganbala, it’s a noun, it’s inalienably possessed, it’s (understandably) obligatorily plural. It is also one of very few words to take the “spouse” suffix –milj. I call it a “spouse” suffix because it marks “appropriate” pairs, e.g. iilamilj, a dog and its mate. irrganbalamilj, though, means “they look like each other”. I can’t remember an etymology, if I ever found one, but it bears a suspicious resemblance to the word for track, footprints, niinbil or niinbal (which would be what we’d expect for the singular, from ni-ganbala, which I think would have to be reconstructed as *niganbila to make the vowels turn out right.) Not to be confused with niyambal, niimbal ‘foot, footprints’. n doesn’t normally assimilate to b.

I have to say, much as I enjoy explaining the role of coincidence to people convinced two similar-sounding words must be related, even I find it hard to believe niinbal and niimbal, both meaning ‘footprints,’ are unrelated. Not saying it ain’t so, just pointing out that I’m not immune to the natural human craving to connect similar things.


A comment thread at pf has inspired me to deal with the vexed question of the various names for the capital of Kyrgyzstan. From 1926 to 1991 it was Frunze, which is not problematic (except for the Kyrgyz—see below), Frunze being the name of a local boy who became a Soviet general. But before that it was called Pishpek and now it is Bishkek; what is the relationship between these amusingly assonant names? Let’s go to E.M. Pospelov, Geograficheskie nazvaniya mira (my translation):

Founded in 1878 as a settlement [selenie] on the site of the former Kokand fortress Pishpek, which in 1926 was renamed Frunze after the Soviet party and military leader M.V. Frunze (1885-1925). But since there is no sound f in the Kyrgyz language and successive consonants at the start of a word are not allowed, the inhabitants pronounced the name Purunze. After Kyrgyzia achieved independence, the question of renaming the capital arose. It turned out that the etymology of the indigenous name Pishpek was unknown; the nearest Kyrgyz word was bishkek ‘whisk with which kumiss is stirred.’ To what extent this piece of household equipment [eta khozyaistvennaya prinadlezhnost’] might be linked with the name of the fortress is unclear, but in 1991 Bishkek was adopted as the new name of the capital.

I love dry wit in reference works.

[Read more…]


A very interesting essay by Murat Nemet-Nejat, “Orhan Veli Kanik: Translating Clarity,” begins by describing Orhan Veli Kanik’s unfinished poem, “The Parade of Love,” which “was found wrapped around his toothbrush after his death,” gives a brief account of his life and early death (in 1950), and proceeds to the main point: Veli’s poetry and its place in modern Turkish literature:

Orhan Veli Kanik’s poetry strikes one with its ordinariness and the aggressiveness of this ordinariness. His poetry is a mixture of daily life, streetwise humor and an undercurrent of lyricism… He is a poet of moment-to-moment experience, being in love, being bored, being sad, joking, casual musings… On one level, Veli’s poems are an investigation of the meaning of reality. Short, neutral, full of everyday details, they constitute a sustained meditation on William Carlos Williams’ “red wheel/barrow.”

Of special interest here is Nemet-Nejat’s description of various Middle Eastern literary traditions:

[Read more…]