Archives for December 2004


“To look back upon the past year, and see how little we have striven and to what small purpose: and how often we have been cowardly and hung back, or temerarious and rushed unwisely in; and how every day and all day long we have transgressed the law of kindness;—it may seem a paradox, but in the bitterness of these discoveries, a certain consolation resides. Life is not designed to minister to a man’s vanity. He goes upon his long business most of the time with a hanging head, and all the time like a blind child. Full of rewards and pleasures as it is—so that to see the day break or the moon rise, or to meet a friend, or to hear the dinner-call when he is hungry, fills him with surprising joys—this world is yet for him no abiding city. Friendships fall through, health fails, weariness assails him; year after year, he must thumb the hardly varying record of his own weakness and folly. It is a friendly process of detachment. When the time comes that he should go, there need be few illusions left about himself. Here lies one who meant well, tried a little, failed much:—surely that may be his epitaph, of which he need not be ashamed. Nor will he complain at the summons which calls a defeated soldier from the field: defeated, ay, if he were Paul or Marcus Aurelius!—but if there is still one inch of fight in his old spirit, undishonoured. The faith which sustained him in his life-long blindness and life-long disappointment will scarce even be required in this last formality of laying down his arms. Give him a march with his old bones; there, out of the glorious sun-coloured earth, out of the day and the dust and the ecstasy—there goes another Faithful Failure!”
    —Robert Louis Stevenson (via wood s lot)
I wish the very best of new years to all my readers.


I’m finally reading Gogol’s Dead Souls in Russian, and a few pages into Chapter Four I encountered the following line (addressed by the cheerful scoundrel Nozdryov to the protagonist, Chichikov, who has just refused to join him because of pressing business):
— Ну вот уж и дело! уж и выдумал! Ах ты, Оподелдок Иванович!
Like much of Gogol’s dialogue, this is more or less untranslatable, but the first two exclamations can be prosaically rendered “‘Business’! You just made that up!” The last one, however, baffled me; word for word, it means “Oh you, Opodeldok Ivanovich!” Opodeldok was clearly not an actual Russian name, so I looked it up in my trusty Oxford dictionary (where it is listed under the more usual spelling оподельдок), and there it was—helpfully defined as “opodeldoc.” I let out a bellow of rage at the perfidy of the lexicographers who had taken the easy way out, refusing to give the user the slightest actual help, requiring an additional trip to the OED. There I found:

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Having studied both Old and Modern Irish (the later with the amazing Micheal O’Siadhail, poet and scholar) and visited the Gaeltacht of Connemara, I am very interested in the fate of the language, and was glad to see a brief but authoritative report in Language Log by Jim McCloskey of UC Santa Cruz, “one of the foremost experts in the world on the modern Irish language,” courtesy of Geoff Pullum:

I think that talk of a ‘rebound’ for the language is misplaced, but I do not equate that position with pessimism. The situation is a complex and fluid one, but largely it seems to me that things are on the same trajectory that they have been on for several decades (with a couple of interesting changes). By which I mean that the traditional Irish-using communities (the Gaeltachtai/) continue to shrink and the language continues to retreat in those communities. Nobody that I know who is involved in those communities is optimistic about their future as Irish-speaking communities (though lots of other good things are happening to them and in them).
The observers I trust most (friends and colleagues engaged in intense fieldwork in Gaeltacht communities) maintain that the process of normal acquisition (for Irish) ceased in most areas in the middle 70’s, and it is now increasingly difficult to find people younger than about 30 who control traditional Gaeltacht Irish. If you walk along a road in a Gaeltacht area and try to listen for the language being used by groups of teenagers and children by themselves, it is always (in my recent experience) English. Someone I know who is the principal of a primary school in the Donegal Gaeltacht reported that of the 22 children who entered his school at the beginning of the current year, only two had, in his judgment, sufficient Irish.
So traditional Gaeltacht Irish will almost certainly cease to exist in the next 30 years or so.

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David Boyk’s vivid webpage Bollywood for the Skeptical presents a CD’s worth of Indian movie-pop hits (and if you think you don’t like Indian pop music, check out the rockin’ “Ina Meena Dika” [mp3] from the 1957 movie Aasha) along with a brief introduction to the genre, but what brings it to LH is the section on language:

Before Independence in 1947, a lot [of] people in the North actually spoke a related dialect called Hindustani, which was written in Arabic script regardless of religious community. Incidentally, a common mistake is for people to refer to Hindi as “Indian,” implying that there’s only one Indian language, but “Hindustani” really just means “Indian” – “Hindustan” and “Bharat” being the most common names for the country, other than “India.” Since Independence, though, most Muslims speak Urdu, which is written with the Arabic alphabet in a slanting style called Nastaliq. Urdu speakers are proud of Nastaliq, since they feel that Urdu is one of the most beautiful languages in the world and this way of writing is more beautiful than the flat way they write in the Middle East. I think they’re right, too – it’s one of the most graceful writing styles…

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You’ve probably seen many references to “tsunamis, often incorrectly referred to as ‘tidal waves.'” Claire at Anggarrgoon points out that this is an odd thing to be persnickety about:

I’m not sure why people eschew opacity in this particular compound; there are plenty of phrases and compounds with tenuous relationships to their components. Bowl and board, for instance, has little to do with planks of wood (but was less opaque when “board” meant “table”), bridegrooms have nothing to do with horses, and never have done, koala bears aren’t bears but try telling a marketing manager that, etc etc.

(But what is “bowl and board”?)
Addendum. I just heard an expert interviewed on NPR refer to “the tidal wave.”


Dinesh sent me a link to an online version of Poul Anderson‘s essay “Uncleftish Beholding,” a discussion of atomic theory that “shows what English would look like if it were purged of its non-Germanic words, and used German-style compounds instead of borrowings to express new concepts.” It begins:

For most of its being, mankind did not know what things are made of, but could only guess. With the growth of worldken, we began to learn, and today we have a beholding of stuff and work that watching bears out, both in the workstead and in daily life.
The underlying kinds of stuff are the firststuffs, which link together in sundry ways to give rise to the rest. Formerly we knew of ninety-two firststuffs, from waterstuff, the lightest and barest, to ymirstuff, the heaviest. Now we have made more, such as aegirstuff and helstuff.

I’m pretty sure I’d seen it before, in my sf-fan days, but it was great to have it available, and I was even more delighted when I found it posted by José Beltrán Escavy, this time paired with a pair of short speeches by professor Xenophon Zolotas at meetings of the International Bank using only words of Greek origin (apart from the necessary connectives):

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Geoff Nunberg has a post at Language Log on the word gingerly: a NY Times story on Falluja included the statement “it was a gingerly first step,” which pleased him by its proper use of gingerly as an adjective [thanks to Tim May for catching my original misstatement!]; then he had second thoughts about his idea of proper use:

Maybe I should throw in the towel on this one, I thought, but then began to wonder whether there was ever actually a towel for me to be holding in the first place.
In defense of the usage, gingerly began its life as an adverb. It was formed from the adjective ginger, “dainty or delicate,” and the OED gives citations of its use as an adverb right up to the end of the 19th century — the adjectival use appeared in the 16th century. And unlike most other adjectives in –ly, like friendly or portly, gingerly has an adverbial meaning, so that it can only apply to nominals denoting actions (like “step” in Ekholm and Schmidt’s article); otherwise it requires a clumsy periphrasis like “in a gingerly way.” Moreover, Merriam-Webster’s exhaustive Dictionary of English Usage gives no indication that anybody has ever objected to the use of the word as an adverb.

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Since I frequently have occasion to lambast the NY Times here, I take pleasure in patting them on the back when they do something right: in this case, gracing their year-end Week in Review section with essays by Languagehat’s house lexicographer, Grant Barrett (“Glossary“), and one of my favorite linguists, Geoff Nunberg (“Faith“). The whole issue is focused on words and has a lot of interesting items, but I particularly recommend those two.

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I got a number of excellent things for Christmas (including a Boris Barnet double feature I can’t wait to see), but the one I want to babble about here is a gift from my lovely and generous wife: Nart Sagas from the Caucasus: Myths and Legends from the Circassians, Abazas, Abkhaz, and Ubykhs, assembled, translated, and annotated by John Colarusso. I recently posted about the Narts, and apparently the enthusiasm with which I discussed them at that time convinced her that the book would be greatly appreciated, as indeed it is. Not only does it have 92 stories from among those of the peoples mentioned in the title, it has an appendix with specimen texts in Kabardian East Circassian, Bzhedukh West Circassian (Adyghey), Ubykh, Abaza (Tapanta Dialect) (“Northern Abkhaz”), and Bzyb Abkhaz. Each text is preceded by a complete phonemic inventory of the language and a page or so of linguistic description; each line of the text is given first in a broader transcription, then in a word-by-word phonemic transcription that separates and translates each morpheme, then a complete translation is given (more literal than the one in the body of the book). I’ll obviously have to work through Colarusso’s A Grammar of the Kabardian Language; in the meantime I’ll have fun playing with the detailed analysis here. I’m already very pleased by a bit of information from the Abaza section:

Abaza and Abkhaz questions are very unusual in that they choose rightward question movement; that is, the interrogative pronoun appears at the end of the verb, and since the verb is usually the last word of the phrase, these wh-words, as they are called, appear phrase finally. Most linguists do not believe that such question formation exists, but lines 15, 16, and 103 offer clear examples.

I’m all in favor of anything that discomfits proponents of alleged universals.

Colarusso does a lot of comparison, both mythological and linguistic. Some of his etymologies seem plausible: Georgian tamada ‘toastmaster’ from Circassian thaamáta, perhaps originally ‘father of the gods’; the name of General Ermolov (who conquered part of the Caucasus for Tsar Alexander I) from Circassian yarmáhl ‘Armenian’ (though I’ll have to check Unbegaun to see if there’s a more convincing etymology). Others seem pretty dubious: Greek Maeotis ‘Azov Sea’ from Circassian miwitha (I’ve replaced Colarusso’s schwas with is for ease of transcription). But it’s all food for thought, and thoroughly enjoyable.
Incidentally, I discovered while looking at the Amazon entry for the book that Amazon now has a citation page that list all the items in a books bibliography for which they have listings; if you click on any of the links, you can find other books that list that item in their bibliography. Interesting and potentially useful.
Addendum. Some Ossetian versions here (courtesy of Mithridates).


A number of readers responded favorably to the Basil Bunting poem I reproduced recently, so I thought I’d pass along the word that his Complete Poems has been published by New Directions; it was edited by the late Richard Caddel, whom I memorialized here. I guarantee that no poetry lover will regret the purchase of a volume of Bunting.