Archives for January 2005


Sarah Roberts, a sociolinguist studying Hawai’i Creole English, has begun a language blog, Namu Pa’i ‘Ai, which

will chiefly concern itself with the linguistic situation in Hawai’i (as it is my area of expertise), but it will also cover news and research concerning other pidgin/creole varieties around the world… I will be writing mostly for a linguist and language specialist audience but I hope this blog will interest non-specialists as well — especially Pidgin speakers and those who take an active interest in the language.

She’s posted on Polari (see here for description and Bible translation) and girls being punished for speaking pidgin, among other things. A promising start!

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I’ve just discovered a wonderful resource for readers of Russian: is a website designed for English-speaking people who are studying the Russian language. It began life in 1997 as The Russian-English Literatures Exchange, which was hosted at UC Berkeley’s Open Computing Facility. My student account had rather limited disk space quota, however, and as a result, the original website stagnated. Now, at its new location, I’m able to include more literary works and incorporate new features, such as the collaborative translation section.

The main page has a list of over twenty authors whose works are on the site, from Karamzin and Pushkin to Sholokhov and Nabokov, and there are all sorts of special features that make it even more useful: for instance, you can search by the English definitions of Russian words. Searching on “#inquisitor” (the # is used for English definitions) brings up Nabokov, Chekhov, Dostoevsky (of course), and Gogol.

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The Economist has a good article (unsigned, alas, as is the magazine’s practice) on what linguists do and why the internet is such a useful resource:

Linguists must often correct lay people’s misconceptions of what they do. Their job is not to be experts in “correct” grammar, ready at any moment to smack your wrist for a split infinitive. What they seek are the underlying rules of how language works in the minds and mouths of its users. In the common shorthand, linguistics is descriptive, not prescriptive. What actually sounds right and wrong to people, what they actually write and say, is the linguist’s raw material.
But that raw material is surprisingly elusive. Getting people to speak naturally in a controlled study is hard. Eavesdropping is difficult, time-consuming and invasive of privacy. For these reasons, linguists often rely on a “corpus” of language, a body of recorded speech and writing, nowadays usually computerised. But traditional corpora have their disadvantages too. The British National Corpus contains 100m words, of which 10m are speech and 90m writing. But it represents only British English, and 100m words is not so many when linguists search for rare usages. Other corpora, such as the North American News Text Corpus, are bigger, but contain only formal writing and speech.
Linguists, however, are slowly coming to discover the joys of a free and searchable corpus of maybe 10 trillion words that is available to anyone with an internet connection: the world wide web…

The article goes on to discuss the limitations of the web (for example, meaningless spam sites filled with strings like “When some sandbank over a superslots hibernates, a directness toward a progressive jackpot earns frequent flier miles”), its immense usefulness notwithstanding the limitations, and its appearance in research papers (very recent indeed: an “early paper on the subject” was written in 2003!), and it concludes with this stirring paragraph:

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To celebrate the fact that I’m finally getting my language books back on my shelves, here’s a poem in an obscure language. This is not a serious quiz à la Language Log, because the answer is easily googled (many of the words turn up a slew of pages in the language), but I thought it might be fun for people to try to guess without looking in the back of the book. Also, the title and a couple of the lines are funny (to an English-speaker), and even if you get the language, I’ll bet you can’t guess what they mean!

A la pizza
Pizza, pizza,
munts majestus!
Da vus, da l’otezza
ans vain agüd,
ans vain fermezza,
sustegn e salüd.
Eterna pizza,
munts majestus!
    —Jachen Luzzi

I’ll give the answers tomorrow.


The UniLang Wiki is “a database of language- and linguistic-related information which anyone can easily edit online.” Unfortunately, you don’t seem to be able to do much else but edit; if you try to go to most pages, you get “You have to login to edit pages.” (Note to Unilangers: the verb is “log in,” two words.) But it looks like an interesting project and they have quite a list of languages, so I thought I’d mention it.


Before the meeting ended, which was not long after, I was set thinking of Despard-Smith’s use of the phrase ‘the men’. That habit went back to the ’90’s: most of us at this table would say ‘the young men’ or ‘the undergraduates’. But at this time, the late 1930’s, the undergraduates themselves would usually say ‘the boys’. It was interesting to hear so many strata of speech round one table. Old Gay, for example, used ‘absolutely’, not only in places where the younger of us might quite naturally still, but also in the sense of ‘actually’ or even ‘naturally’ – exactly as though he were speaking in the 1870’s. Pilbrow, always up to the times, used an idiom entirely modern, but Despard-Smith still brought out slang that was fresh at the end of the century – ‘crab’, and ‘josser’,* and ‘by Jove’. Crawford said ‘man of science’, keeping to the Edwardian usage which we had abandoned. So, with more patience it would have been possible to construct a whole geological record of idioms, simply by listening word by word to a series of college meetings.
      – C. P. Snow (The Masters, 171)

From the eudaemonist, who footnotes as follows:

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You will often see references to the alleged fact that the Chinese character for ‘crisis’ is made up of the word for ‘danger’ plus the word for ‘opportunity’ (or, as here, that the Japanese character is so composed). I have no idea how this claim became so popular, but Victor H. Mair at has done a thorough debunking:

The explication of the Chinese word for crisis as made up of two components signifying danger and opportunity is due partly to wishful thinking, but mainly to a fundamental misunderstanding about how terms are formed in Mandarin and other Sinitic languages… The third, and fatal, misapprehension is the author’s definition of jī as “opportunity.” While it is true that wēijī does indeed mean “crisis” and that the wēi syllable of wēijī does convey the notion of “danger,” the jī syllable of wēijī most definitely does not signify “opportunity.”… The jī of wēijī, in fact, means something like “incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes).” Thus, a wēijī is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry. A wēijī indicates a perilous situation when one should be especially wary. It is not a juncture when one goes looking for advantages and benefits. In a crisis, one wants above all to save one’s skin and neck! Any would-be guru who advocates opportunism in the face of crisis should be run out of town on a rail, for his / her advice will only compound the danger of the crisis.

There is much more at the linked page, including some “Pertinent observations for those who are more advanced in Chinese language studies.” Many thanks to Grant Barrett for alerting me to the link; I should add that has all sorts of goodies, including a list of Taipei street names in Chinese characters and Hanyu Pinyin.


From the BBC comes a report on how Londoners speak:

Voices is the biggest-ever survey of how we speak. From January 2005, you can take part and add your voice to the picture.

There’s a page of “facts” (some of them dubious: “Women talk ‘posher’. In every studied language of the world, females use more ‘prestige’, ‘standard’ forms of language”), one on Hackney, and others, but the most interesting one from my point of view is an essay by linguist Laura Wright:

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The hotel is humongous
as high as clouds
the clouds are not small
nor yellow with a picture of blueberries.
They are pink but they still
are not weird like blue
string wrapped around it with
people on top.
Nobody is jumping on them. There is only
a window next door in
the hotel and light pink with
yellow light on
this rainy day.
  —Julia Mayhew


A NY Times story by David W. Dunlap in today’s Metro section, “Restoring Elegance Underfoot on a Street Long Past Its Prime” (about the restoration of the cobblestone surface of Bond Street), ends with the following admirable paragraph:

What New Yorkers call cobblestones are more accurately described as Belgian blocks — true cobblestones being rounded and irregular — but saying so is the province of a scold. And it is probably no more effective than insisting that the horse-drawn carriages on Central Park South are not hansom cabs.

That’s what I try to do here on Languagehat: provide accurate information without pretending that accuracy is always to be worshiped. I’m glad to know the correct term is “Belgian blocks,” but I will go on calling them cobblestones, just as I call tsunamis tidal waves. Let them scold who will!