Archives for October 2004


Maciej Cegłowski of Idle Words has created something called Languid (langu– ID, get it?):

I’ve set up a little web service for identifying language. If you paste in some text (the more the better), it will tell you what language it’s in. Not rocket science, but perhaps useful to somebody.
There’s an API for people who like to do things programatically.
Note that I’m logging all the queries, so you don’t have to email me and say “I pasted BLAH and it gave me the wrong answer”. But any other feedback is welcome.

Me, I pasted Inuit (the text string from my Last Samurai post) and it told me it was Cebuano; this perplexed me less when I saw that on the right of the Languid page is a vertical list of all the languages he’s programmed into it, which includes Cebuano but not Inuit. Anyway, it’s a lot of fun, and I thank Margaret Marks (of Transblawg) for alerting me to it (via this Blethers post).


Just when you think you’ve seen everything:

Can sexist ideologies be reflected in inflectional classes? On the basis of a detailed discussion of the Russian a-declension, the present paper answers this question in the affirmative. More specifically the central claims are:
— The a-declension reflects the Idealized Cognitive Models of “women as the second sex” and “woman as Madonna and whore”.
— Cognitive linguistics provides an adequate account for the category structure in terms of schematicity and metaphorical extension.

As Alexei, from whom I swiped this absurdity, says, it’s “an abstract of a paper in what’s called Cognitive Linguistics… Yes, the author is a man: Tore Nesset is a male professor at the University of Tromsø, Norway.” He is “tempted to suppose this piece appeared in an April 1 issue of a linguistics journal,” but I’m afraid it’s just another example of academic silliness run amok.


From a wide-ranging Transblawg post on names of anonymous litigants:

Wilbur H. FRIEDMAN, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Thomas B. FERGUSON, Director, Department of Animal Control, a state actor, in his official and individual capacities; Brett Boe; Carla Coe; Donna Doe; Frank Foe; Grace Goe; Harry Hoe; State Actors, Advisors To Defendant Ferguson, In Their Official and Individual Capacities (identities currently unknown); Marta Moe; Norma Noe; Paula Poe; Ralph Roe; Sammy Soe; Tommy Toe; Private Individuals Who Conspired With the Foregoing State Actors (identities currently unknown); Roger W. Galvin, Chairman, Animal Matters Hearing Board; Vince Voe; William Woe; Xerxes Xoe; Members of the Animal Matters Hearing Board, State Actors, In Their Official and Individual Capacities (identities currently unknown), Defendants-Appellees

Xerxes Xoe?!


Jordan MacVay, a Canadian (or as he puts it “Caper, Bluenoser, Canuck, former Haligonian”) living in Malaysia, discusses many things in his blog MACVAYSIA, some of them language-related; he has, for instance, an excellent post about the “invasion” of English words in Malay, sensibly pooh-poohing the doom-cryers and pointing out the usefulness of loanwords:

First of all, the ‘purists’ who decry the use of English words have to realize that stripping words of foreign origin out of Malay would leave it with hardly any words at all. One prominent historian has pointed out that only three Malay words are exclusively Malay: kayu (wood), batu (stone) and babi (pig). Another historian has added padi (rice field) and two or three other words to that list. So where the heck did all the other Malay words come from? Most Malay words came from other languages including (but not limited to) Sanskrit, Arabic, Javanese, Portuguese and, you guessed it, English. For many centuries Malays have had a flair for adopting foreign words and adapting them to suit their language needs. A closer look at the English words in the above list shows that while some of them are in their original English form (bank, hospital, hotel), this is only because their spelling suits Malay conventions of spelling and pronunciation. Other words are altered to reflect these conventions, and these alterations make the words uniquely Malay despite their English origins. This is the case of the word bajet, which has prompted some purists to question why the government didn’t use the Malay term, anggaran belanja (at least I think that’s the official term, I’ll have to check a dictionary). The government has explained that the old term does not adequately express the exact meaning of a budget being tabled by the a government, so the English word has been adopted, albeit in a modified form. So who’s to say bajet is not a Malay word? It serves a purpose, and now there it is.

I suspect the “three Malay words” thing is a rhetorical exaggeration, but the point is a good one. And for a fascinating example of just how useful borrowings can be, check out his followup post on English pronouns (yes, pronouns) in Malay!


The latest New Yorker has a story by Lara Vapnyar; when I saw the name I guessed it was Indian, but it turns out to be Russian—or to be more accurate, from one of the many nationalities that were bundled into the USSR. My question is, which one? The name is not in any of my reference works, even Unbegaun’s magnificent Russian Surnames, and its indecipherability is eating away at my composure. Is it Udmurt? Bashkir? Some remote Caucasian nationality? Google has failed me, but I have confidence in my readership.


Bill Poser at Language Log describes a project to translate Free Software into the eleven official languages of South Africa, giving the following excellent quote from an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail:

Dwayne Bailey hears the question all the time. “Why bother translating software into isiZulu?” people ask him. “Who needs it? English is the language of global business — you’d be better off spending your energy teaching people English. To which Mr. Bailey replies, quite simply, “Izixhobo kufuneka zisebenzele abantu, hayi abantu izixhobo. Isoftware sisixhobo ngoko ke kumele sisebenzele abantu ngolwimi lwabo lwasemzini!

For translation, see Bill’s post.


Cape Breton (French: île du Cap-Breton, Scottish Gaelic: Eilean Cheap Breatuinn, Mi’kmaq: U’namakika) is a linguistically complex place. Many Mi’kmaq (Micmac) still speak their Algonquian language; it’s “the only area in the world – outside of Scotland itself – where Gaelic continues as a living language and culture” (the “grouping of people according to their place of origin in Scotland allowed for the transfer, whole and intact, of localized dialects, of music, song and dance traditions, and of patterns of religious adherence”); there’s a community of Acadian French speakers (“When we speak about a cat we pronounce ‘chat’, but when we refer… to a mess or to a wad of chewing tobacco, we pronounce ‘tchat'”); and of course there’s the local variety of English, about which you can get a lively report here. A sample:

[Read more…]


As a followup to my earlier entry on the construction “boring of the task” and the Language Log entries by Mark Liberman linked therein, Mark has posted Horror and boredom in Castile, a summary of Christopher J. Pountain’s paper “The Castilian reflexes of ABHORRERE/ABHORRESCERE: a case-study in valency“:

The basic observation is that Latin abhorrere started out meaning “to shrink back from, have an aversion for, shudder at, abhor”, but one of the Spanish descendents, aburrir, wound up meaning “to bore”. So not only did the meaning change, but also the “valency” (in the sense of which verbal arguments go where). “I abhor you” turned into “you bore me”.

The original paper has several useful diagrams showing semantic ranges, and Mark reproduces the one showing the historical development in Castilian.

[Read more…]


I have previously reported on a contretemps over whether the plural of euro should have an s; now comes a brouhaha over inflected forms. According to Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the News-Telegraph:

Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary, Slovenia, and Malta triggered the rare linguistic showdown by refusing to accept the established usage in translations of the European constitution, calling it inelegant, inaccurate, or even gibberish in their languages.
They have all agreed to use the harmonised “euro” form on future notes and coins when they join the monetary union, but that was not good enough for Brussels.
All official EU texts must be spelt the same way even if it makes no sense in the Baltic languages.

[Read more…]


I know, I know, reverse Babelfish translations are old hat, but this one I find irresistible, so just this once… Surely everybody’s familiar with the classic 1979 Sugarhill Gang hit “Rapper’s Delight“? “I said a hip hop the hippie the hippie/ to the hip hip hop, a you dont stop/ the rock it to the bang bang boogie say up jumped the boogie/ to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat…” Well, the folks at Shtick! sent it off to Italy and back (linguistically speaking), and they got this: “I have said a luppolo of the hip, hippie to the hippie, the hip, hip a luppolo and not arrested, one cliff it/ To the boogie of explosion of explosion as an example on the jump the boogie, to rhythm of the boogie, the beat…” It goes on and on, and it’s very funny. Via Boing Boing, and I thank Songdog for the tip.