Archives for December 2004


A Los Angeles Times story by Christopher Bodeen describes the efforts of the Chinese government to suppress the so-called “dialects” (actually separate languages spoken by millions of people: Cantonese, Shanghainese, Hakka, &c) in a surprising context: Tom and Jerry cartoons.

Dubbed into regional Chinese dialects, the warring cat and mouse have been huge TV hits — and a good way to pass home-grown culture down to the younger generation, programmers say.
Not so fast, says the central government up north in Beijing, which for decades has promoted standard Mandarin as the only Chinese language worthy of the airwaves. The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television has ordered an end to broadcasting in dialect, saying kids should be raised in a “favorable linguistic environment.”

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A New York Times story by Richard Bernstein describes the confusing mixture of English and German in today’s Germany:

Not long ago, Lufthansa, the airline, made a bit of news when it changed its slogan from “There’s No Better Way to Fly,” in English, to the German, “Alles für diesen Moment,” or “Everything for This Moment.”
What was the German national airline doing with an English slogan aimed at its German clientele in the first place? Who knows really? But whatever it was doing, many companies in Germany have used English, or some mishmash of German and English – the not very beautiful term for this is Denglish, a combination of Deutsch and English – to appeal to their German customers.

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The medievalist historian who writes the blog Blitztoire [defunct as of April 2012] has an entry [Google cache, which probably won’t last long], “Du positivisme historique à la critique des blogs” [From historical positivism to the criticism of blogs], in which he quotes a trenchant passage he ran across in Introduction aux études historiques (1898) by Charles-Victor Langlois and Charles Seignobos:

La tendance spontanée de l’homme est d’ajouter foi aux affirmations et de les reproduire, sans même les distinguer nettement de ses propres observations. Dans la vie de tous les jours, n’acceptons-nous pas indifféremment, sans vérification d’aucune sorte, des on-dit, des renseignements anonymes et sans garantie, toutes sortes de “documents” de médiocre ou de mauvais aloi ? Il faut une raison spéciale pour prendre la peine d’examiner la provenance et la valeur d’un document sur l’histoire d’hier; autrement, s’il n’est pas invraisemblable jusqu’au scandale, et tant qu’il n’est pas contredit, nous l’absorbons, nous nous y tenons, nous le colportons, en l’embellissant au besoin. Tout homme sincère reconnaîtra qu’un violent effort est nécessaire pour secouer l’ignavia critica, cette forme si répandue de lâcheté intellectuelle; que cet effort doit être constamment répété, et qu’il s’accompagne souvent d’une véritable souffrance.

(Translation below.) He applies this to the uncritical transmission in blogs of anything found on the internet, but it’s something well worth bearing in mind in general. (Via Madame Martin.)

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A correspondent has proposed an interesting question:

I am trying to find out about communities in the US/Canada that have historically been non-English speaking and are still hanging on to their native tongue (no matter how tenuous that grip may be). For languages like French, German, or Sorbian, this is easy enough using Ethnologue or the Census data—because immigration from those language groups dried up many years ago, any community that still speaks one of them must be “historic”. However, for tongues like Russian, Spanish, Chinese, or Japanese, it’s impossible to distinguish which are the areas of historical usage, and which are just full of recent immigrants. Do you know any resources on the internet that could help me out?

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In the course of conversation my wife happened to use the word “seamy,” and it suddenly occurred to me to wonder why the word means what it does. There’s no obvious connection between sleaze and seams. Well, it turns out this is one word that really does derive from Shakespeare (most words allegedly coined by the Big Shake are simply words for which he happens to provide the first citation in the OED); he has Emilia say (in Othello, Act IV Scene 2):
“O, fie upon them! Some such squire he was
That turn’d your wit the seamy side without,
And made you to suspect me with the Moor.”
Hence the OED’s definition reads: “Having a seam or suture; characterized by seams. seamy side, lit. the under side of a garment, etc. on which the rough edges of the seams are visible; fig. [after Shakes.] the worst, most degraded or the roughest side (of life, character, etc.).” It was still an allusion rather than a cliche in the mid-19th century:
1859 Sat. Rev. 2 Apr. 403/1 He appreciated to a considerable extent, what we may perhaps venture to call the seamy side of human affairs.
But by the end of the century it was taken for granted:
1899 H. A. Dobson Paladin of Philanthropy vi. 146 The knowledge of the seamy side of letters.


Language Log has been the site of an ongoing debate between linguists who think it’s a perfectly normal use of metaphor to say, eg, “faith is a verb” (Geoff Nunberg) and linguists who think that, on the contrary, it displays an egregious and potentially harmful misunderstanding of grammatical categories (Mark Lieberman, Geoff Pullum). Now Geoff Nunberg switches sides, and I (having been on the fence, waiting to see a convincing argument) have to go along with him. “X is a verb” is not just a cliched metaphor:

In a piece I wrote a few years ago for American Lawyer, I mentioned a decision by a Florida district court in a patent infringement case that turned crucially on the claim that the decoder key to a cable TV subscriber box was “not subject to revision or change.” The court concluded that subject was used in the claim “as a verb (in the passive tense),” and identified the relevant dictionary sense as “to cause to undergo,” as in “He wouldn’t subject himself to any inconvenience.” And on that basis, the court ruled that “not subject to change” meant that the decoder key could be changed but would not be changed. (See TV/COM International v. MediaOne of Greater Florida, No. 3:00-cv-1045-J-21HTS (M.D. Fla. Aug. 1, 2001)).
Judicial incompetence doesn’t come much grosser than that: it’s fair to say that someone who doesn’t know how to read a dictionary entry has no business adjudicating cases that call for interpretation of language — which is to say, damn near all of them. But courts are full of judges who have no more knowledge of grammar and meaning than the half-remembered dicta they learned at the end of Sister Petra’s ruler. Let’s by all means continue to flog these things, even at the risk of sounding like pedants.

I find myself forced to agree.


Geoff Pullum has a hilarious entry at Language Log about a Menachem Begin speech in his Classical Hebrew and the reaction to it by a working-class audience that spoke the colloquial “street” Hebrew of the Jerusalem area, in particular a 12-year-old Amos Oz. Enjoy.


The magnificent Lexilogos site links to all manner of reference works involving language: family names, etymology, place names, slang, and much else, usually starting with French and continuing with a scattering of other languages. To give just one example, check out this online dictionary of French family names; here’s the etymology of De Gaulle (from the Dawance-Decroix page):

Apparemment, il s’agit de la francisation d’un nom flamand, De Walle, qui signifie sans doute le Wallon (= l’étranger, celui qui n’appartient pas au peuple germanique, du vieux-haut-allemand walah = étranger, également à l’origine des toponymes Gaule et Galles). A noter l’existence du patronyme Waulle dans le Pas-de-Calais. Autre possibilité : walle = mur, fossé.

(Via Carnet de Zénon.)


Collins has a site they call the Word Exchange:

Is there a word or phrase you would love to see in the dictionary?
Well, now’s your chance as Collins Word Exchange revolutionises the way words are collected and enter the dictionary – throwing open the doors of language research and recording to embrace words from anybody and everybody!
At Collins Word Exchange not only can you search… the Collins English Dictionary, texting abbreviations, internet links and SCRABBLE® scores, access a wealth of advice on grammar and usage, and test your language skills, but you can also add your own words to the dictionary.
It couldn’t be easier to get your new words online – just register on the site, suggest a word for inclusion, enjoy the discussion as other users battle over its validity, and wait for your word to be added to the Living Dictionary. You’ll be contributing to a fantastic and ever-growing online resource and may even see your word entering the next edition of the Collins English Dictionary.

A nice idea, and I’ve already learned the word galactico.


All the cants they peddle
bellow entangled,
teeth for knots and
each other’s ankles,
to become stipendiary
in any wallow;
crow or weasel
each to his fellow.
Yet even these,
even these might
listen as crags
listen to light
and pause, uncertain
of the next beat,
each dancer alone
with his foolhardy feet.
    Basil Bunting, 1969