Archives for February 2005


The British Museum’s COMPASS collection of “around 5000 objects from the huge range of periods and cultures represented in the Museum” includes a nice feature called “Arabic Script: Mightier than the Sword”:

A defining feature of Islamic civilization has been its widespread use of writing. Writing has a profound significance because Arabic was both the language of God’s revelation to the Prophet Muhammad in the early seventh century AD and the script in which the Qur’an, the holy book of Muslims, was written down.
The Arabic language spread geographically with Islam. It was generally learned alongside local languages but the Arabic script often displaced local scripts. It has been used to write many languages, including Persian in Iran and Urdu in India. It is now the most commonly written script after the Roman alphabet.
From very early on Arabic script also began to be used for its decorative potential. Islamic art has, as a result, rightly been described as a ‘speaking art’. The objects in this tour have Arabic script inscribed upon them or are connected to the art of writing. Together they show the continuing importance of Arabic in the cultures of what we can broadly call the Islamic lands.

It includes sections on script styles, calligraphy, objects with writing (I particularly like the Earthenware bowl with Kufic inscription), and others; Islam in China and the Malay Peninsula includes an amazing example of Arabic calligraphy done in Chinese style, with a brush. Thanks to plep for the link.


I don’t know what to make of Juliette Blevins’ ideas about language as an evolving system, not being an evolutionary anthropologist, but anything that “undermines a central tenet of modern Chomskyan linguistics: that Universal Grammar, an innate human cognitive capacity, plays a dominant role in shaping grammars” automatically awakens my interest, and I look forward to learning more about them. (Link via aldiboronti at Wordorigins.)


I always thought this phrase was a Macaulay original, but Mark Liberman at Language Log traced it all the way back to 1783, in Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres:

I spoke formerly of a Climax in sound; a Climax in sense, when well carried on, is a figure which never fails to amplify strongly. The common example of this, is that noted passage in Cicero which every schoolboy knows: “Facinus est vincire civem Romanum; scelus verberare, prope parricidium, necare; quid dicam in crucem tollere.”

(The essential point about what “every schoolboy knows,” of course, is that it must be something known only to graybeard academics.) Mark found this by means of Literature Online, “the world’s largest cross-searchable database of literature and criticism”; I hope I can get access to it through either the NYPL or C/W MARS.


This site has the “four essential travel phrases” in “307 languages plus 33 additional dialects.”

The phrases we thought every traveller should know are:
Where is my room?
Where is the beach?
Where is the bar?
Don’t touch me there!

I expected this to be as careless of accuracy as other such “funny phrase in many tongues” projects, but I was mistaken; the worst I’ve found to complain of so far is that in the Yiddish the word for beach should (I think) be breg yam rather than just yam (which means ‘sea’); the Russian has accent marks over the words (never used except in children’s primers), but that’s a pretty minor fault. There are zillions of languages and dialects, many little-known and each scrupulously provided with its own script (Yiddish is given three, modern and traditional printed and cursive/handwritten), and it’s a lot of fun. (Needless to say, you have to allow them some leeway when translating “Where is the bar?” into ancient languages!)
Via Mithridates.

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While trying to look up something else in my big Russian-English dictionary, I happened on the entry Вирсавия [Virsaviya] f bib Bathsheba. Well, that’s odd, thought I: Virsaviya doesn’t sound much like Bathsheba (who was King David’s wife and Solomon’s mother, in case you’re not up on your Bible references). I looked it up in my indispensible Dictionnaire Russe-Français (by N.P. Makaroff, Saint-Pétersbourg, 1908) and found it rendered as Bersabée, which is an older French version of Beersheba, which is an ancient site southwest of Jerusalem (the name means ‘well of seven [lambs]’) where Abraham spent a good deal of time. So which is it, the woman or the well? Turns out it’s both, and Russian didn’t invent the confusion but inherited it from Greek, where both are rendered in the Septuagint as Βηρσαβεε (/bhrsabee/ in the usual transcription where /h/ = eta, and pronounced by the Byzantines, and thus by the Russians, as /virsave/, giving Russian Virsaviya). The confusion was evidently borrowed by Latin as well, allowing Sir John Mandeville to produce the following supremely confused passage:

And when men pass this desert, in coming toward Jerusalem, they come to Bersabe [Beersheba], that was wont to be a full fair town and a delectable of Christian men; and yet there be some of their churches. In that town dwelled Abraham the patriarch, a long time. That town of Bersabe founded Bersabe [Bathsheba], the wife of Sir Uriah the Knight, on the which King David gat Solomen the Wise, that was king after David upon the twelve kindreds of Jerusalem and reigned forty year.

So what I want to know is how the two Hebrew words, which are after all distinct even if fairly similar, one referring to a person and the other to a place, got rendered the same in Greek. And I would also like to know, though less urgently, where the stress is in the Russian word; Makaroff has virsAviya and the modern dictionary virsavIya.

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Palaeography: reading old handwriting, 1500 – 1800: A practical online tutorial

Palaeography is the study of old handwriting. This web tutorial will help you learn to read the handwriting found in documents written in English between 1500 and 1800.
At first glance, many documents written at this time look illegible to the modern reader. By reading the practical tips and working through the documents in the Tutorial in order of difficulty, you will find that it becomes much easier to read old handwriting. You can find more documents on which to practice your skills in the further practice section.

Start here.


I was reading Roger Angell’s recent New Yorker reminiscence about his stepfather, E.B. White (known to his intimates as “Andy”), when I came to the following paragraph:

The other sentence-closer in the passage is “death,” and Andy must have ceased in time to be astonished at how often the theme and thought recurred in his writing. It runs all through his sweetly comical piece “Death of a Pig,” in which he tries ineffectually to deal with the crisis of a young pig of his who has stopped eating. Castor oil doesn’t help, nor does his own sense of “personal deterioration,” or the ministrations of Fred [his dachshund], who accompanies him on trips down the woodpath through the orchard to the pigyard, and also makes “many professional calls on his own.” The pig dies, nothing can be done about it, and it is the profusion of detail—his feeling the ears of the ailing pig “as you might put your hand on the forehead of a child,” and the “beautiful hole, five feet long, three feet wide, three feet deep” that is dug for the pig among alders and young hackmatacks, at the foot of an apple tree—that makes its death unsentimental and hard to bear.

The word hackmatacks stopped me cold; from context it apparently referred to some kind of plant, but neither I nor my wife (a New Englander) was familiar with it. When I got home I checked my dictionaries and discovered that both Webster’s and the OED said it was another word for the tamarack (Larix laricina). Case closed, one might think (except for the odd similarity of the two words)—but I checked the AHD just for completeness and found that that excellent dictionary identified it rather with the balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera), a tree of an entirely different genus. A competitive googling produced 755 hits for “hackmatack, larix” and only 342 for “hackmatack, populus,” but that’s not exactly a scientific way of deciding the matter. It seems odd to me that dictionaries cannot agree on the referent of this uncommon but well-established word; can anyone shed light on this?


A NY Times story by Nicholas Wood describes efforts to “restore” the “Bosnian language” to the Serbian region of Novi Pazar (1911 Britannica article), known in Serbo-Croatian (to use the accurate name of the language everyone in the region speaks) as the Sandžak and traditionally in English as the Sanjak (which is how you pronounce the Serbo-Croatian word). Wood does a suprisingly good job of separating nationalistic claims from reality and puncturing the idea of a separate language:

Since their country fractured, their culture and language has, too. Croatia, Bosnia, and even Montenegro have all sought to reassert traditional differences and distance themselves from Serbo-Croatian, a language some felt was too heavily dominated by Serbian.
What were considered dialects until recently are now regarded as their own language. In fact, three “new” languages – possibly four, if one counts Montenegrin – have appeared, distinguished as much by national pride (and perhaps pronunciation) than any deep distinction in grammar.
Vocabulary differs here and there. The Serbs and Montenegrins also use the Cyrillic alphabet, while Bosnians and Croatians use the Latin alphabet. But many people read both.
Still, before the war, Yugoslavs most everywhere in the country could understand each other. The same holds true through the region today. There is in fact probably less difference in spoken language and accent between and a Sarajevan and a Belgrader than between a Londoner and Glaswegian.

I have highlighted the crucial phrase (though of course “as much” should be “more”). Wood goes on to explain the political background:

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Bruce Byfield has a brilliant analysis of the origins of, and problems with, prescriptivism called “Tech Writers, Grammar, and the Prescriptive Attitude.” I urge anyone interested in the topic to read it; I’ll just quote a bit that I particularly want to emphasize:

Writing well, as George Orwell observes in “Politics and the English Language,” “has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax.” If it did, then two centuries of prescriptive grammar in the classroom should have resulted in higher standards of writing. Yet there is no evidence that the language is used more skillfully in 2001 than in 1750. The truth is that, prescriptive grammar and effective use of English have almost no connection. A passage can meet the highest prescriptive standards and still convey little if its thoughts are not clearly expressed or organized. Conversely, a passage can have several grammatical mistakes per line and still be comprehensible and informative. Prescriptive grammars are interesting as a first attempt to approach the subject of language, but today they are as useless to writers as they are to linguists. So long as writers have a basic competence in English, prescriptive grammar is largely a distraction that keeps them from focusing on the needs of their work.

There’s nothing wrong with following the “rules” if you enjoy playing that game (or if it’s required by the publication you’re writing for), but it has nothing to do with the quality of your writing, which is (or should be) paramount. I also recommend Jean Hollis Weber’s fine piece on the proper focus of editing, “Escape From the Grammar Trap.”
Thanks to aldiboronti of for the link to Echo Tan’s blog X Reverie, where I first saw these articles posted, and to suchi in the comments below for the proper attribution.


In the course of a serial savaging of Strunk and White, first Mark Liberman and then Geoff Pullum analyze the prescriptivist pair’s strange insistence that “however” must not come at the beginning of a sentence; Mark then extends the analysis to other adverbs and suggests that there may have been “a large-scale change in adverb-placement fashions at the end of the 19th century.” Most interesting. And the investigation involves an extremely useful link: the Hyper-Concordance of the Victorian Literary Studies Archive, covering a wide range of authors.