Archives for March 2005


Bridget Samuels has a blog, ilani ilani, with the enticing description “Putting the ‘sin’ back in syntax and the ‘ho’ back in phonology.” Recent posts are on protosyntax and snowglobes (or whatever you call them). And in her first post she says this about the blog’s name: “The title comes from the Hittite expression for step by step, which perhaps explains the cuneiform background and the little pointy-headed figurine dude in the corner.”
I discovered her via Christopher Culver’s new Безѹмниѥ [Bezumnie], and anyone who remembers his former blog Nephelokokkygia will be as delighted as I am that he’s returned to blogging. In his Welcome post he says:

A year ago I managed a weblog called Nephelokokkygia, charting my interest in comparative Indo-European linguistics. I later took it down, feeling that I would be speaking too authoritatively for an undergraduate student, and frequently finding I had little to write about. Immediately afterward, however, my studies began to give me much more to think about, and I decided to see training in comparative Indo-European linguistics as a stepping-stone to comparative Uralic linguistics. Encouraged by some acquaintances, I have decided to set up a new blog. Безѹмниѥ (Old Church Slavonic for ‘Ignorance’ but the root of the Russian word for ‘Insanity’) will serve as a record of my progress as I have gotten way over my head in a field bent on maddening and impoverishing me.

Finally, Heidi Harley’s HeiDeas (ie, “Heidi’s”) describes itself as “Linguistics, science, books, movies, cartoons, whathaveyou,” but so far the focus is on linguistics, with recent posts on the phrase grand theft auto and Longer-than-your-average-compound compounds, the latter ending with a truly magnificent picture of a “run you over horse.”
Welcome, all!


So I finally got a copy of the new 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, and in flipping through it I happened on the unfamiliar word chukar. It represents a rather handsome partridge, Alectoris chukar, but what caught my attention were the pronunciation and etymology:
chukar \’chə-kər also chə-‘kär\ [Hindi cakor & Urdu chakor]
My immediate reactions were:
1) The preferred pronunciation sounds exactly like chukker ‘one of the periods of play in a polo match’ and doesn’t go with the etymology. What’s going on?
2) “Hindi cakor & Urdu chakor“? Those are the same word; you’re just using two different language names and transcription systems! What’s going on?
I went back to the 9th and 10th editions of the dictionary and found an interesting sequence:

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I’ve discovered an excellent new word, apophenia, described here:

Apophenia is the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena. The term was coined by K. Conrad in 1958 (Brugger)…
According to Brugger, “The propensity to see connections between seemingly unrelated objects or ideas most closely links psychosis to creativity … apophenia and creativity may even be seen as two sides of the same coin.”…
In statistics, apophenia is called a Type I error, seeing patterns where none, in fact, exist. It is highly probable that the apparent significance of many unusual experiences and phenomena are due to apophenia, e.g., ghosts and hauntings, EVP, numerology, the Bible code, anomalous cognition, ganzfeld “hits”, most forms of divination, the prophecies of Nostradamus, remote viewing, and a host of other paranormal and supernatural experiences and phenomena.

I presume the word (which has not yet made it into the OED) is based on Greek apophaino ‘show forth, display’ and thus represents a hypothetical *apophainia (the actual Greek derived nouns are apophansis and apophasis), so that the proper UK spelling would be “apophaenia” (though googling that form turns up only a page from a Russian medical dictionary giving it as the etymon of Russian apofeniya; a nice question is whether that can be considered a correct etymology).
Anyone curious about why this word should appeal so to me may consult my entries on Coincidence and More coincidence. Probability theory is extremely unintuitive for us poor Homo sapiens, doomed to see meaning in every damn thing.


Warning: Do not click on this link if you are subject to motion sickness; it’s an unsettling experience anyway. Simon Whitechapel has created a font in which each letter is constantly moving:

Rotor is an experimental script created to realize the concept of letters that literally move on the “page”. It consists of seventeen minimal pairs of graphemes in which the members of each pair are identical except for the way they move: unvoiced consonants and the first member of the pairs m n, w y, l r, h j, q x, a o, “. :”, “, ;”, “ ‘ ’ ”, and “! ?” turn clockwise, voiced consonants and the second member of the pairs turn anti-clockwise (c rocks first clockwise, then anti-clockwise). Of the remaining graphemes, e turns a vertical figure-of-eight and u a horizontal one, and i alone, consisting of two “zoophors” turning clockwise, is unambiguous when at rest.

While I admire the ingenuity, I cannot bring myself to regard this as a Good Thing. (Via No-sword.)


Joan Neuberger’s home page (which I searched out because I was so impressed by her book Hooliganism) has a very useful series of links, mostly relating to Russia; one of them is to Sher’s Russian Web, which contains (among many other things) Benjamin Sher’s piece “Nature vs. Art: A Note on Translating Shklovsky.” This goes into considerable detail about two translations of a single paragraph from Viktor Shklovsky’s famous essay „Искусство как прием“ [‘Art as technique/device’]:

“And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs…”
There are two current translations of this key passage from Shklovsky’s masterpiece, one in Lemon and Reis’s Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays (p.4), which includes the opening chapter from [Theory of Prose] and the other in my complete translation of Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose (p.6).
The reader may wonder which version is “closer” to the original text, Lemon and Reis’s or mine. Well, the answer is: neither one. After looking at the passage carefully and retracing my mental steps, I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that neither Lemon and Reis nor I are in actual fact close to the text.
Because this excerpt, at least, cannot be translated head-on. It can only be approached through the back door of “interpretation.” It is a veritable quagmire of elusive, shifting terminology.
There is only one way to translate a passage like this one and that is by interpreting it in terms of the translator’s implicit schema or set of preconceptions.

He goes on to give the two translations (as well as a “literal” version); I’ll add the original Russian here:

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A silent conquering army,
The island dead,
Column on column, each with a stone banner
Raised over his head.
A green wave full of fish
Drifted far
In wavering westering ebb-drawn shoals beyond
Sinker or star.
A labyrinth of celled
And waxen pain.
Yet I come to the honeycomb often, to sip the finished
Fragrance of men.
    —George Mackay Brown


I don’t know how many of my readers have worked in bookstores, but I’ve served time in a number of them, and I can join Ed Brisson, the creator of this comic strip, in asserting: “It’s all true, folks!”


Butterflyblue has a great post on Japanese family names. Did you know (to take one startling fact) that Japan has more such a large number of different surnames than any other country in the world (about 120,000)? I’ll let you discover various piquant examples in situ, but I can’t resist quoting the final paragraph:

Yes, in the Heian period and after, it was common to use “Kuso” [‘shit’ — LH] in names, which means just what you think it means. The famous poet “Kinotsurayuki,” who wrote the Tosa Diaries, is a notable example. His birth name was “Ako Kuso,” which means “my child…shit.” Amazing that a man with this kind of name grew up to be successful in life. Nor is he an isolated case. Names like “Kusoko” and “Oguso” were in vogue among the nobility. The book explains that this has to do with the belief in the god of the toilet. Since the toilet god keeps you healthy, it stands to reason he would be helpful in rearing a healthy child. This seems very out of place in the Japan of today, but it persists in a small way in the superstition that a pregnant woman should keep her bathroom clean if she wants to have a beautiful baby.

(Via No-sword.)
Addendum. Mark Liberman points out in the comments, and in more detail in this Language Log post, that the U.S. has far more surnames. Of course, in a sense it’s an unfair comparison, because the U.S. has surnames from just about every ethnic/linguistic group in the world, but butterflyblue’s statement is clearly incorrect as it stands.


In my never-ending quest to bring you the latest, hottest language news, herewith a BBC news story about a new animated television series:

Colin & Cumberland is an introduction to the Irish language through television, radio and online.
Launched on Monday, the website is is aimed at giving 18-40 year olds a taster of the Irish language.
The television programmes encourage the viewer to learn some key Irish phrases.
Cumberland, an Irish speaking sausage dog, is sidekick to Colin, a DJ on an Irish radio station despite the fact he cannot speak the language…

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I knew the etymology of this word was disputed (“Hooley’s gang”? the Irish name Hooligan? Houlihan?), but I hadn’t realized how suddenly it sprang on the scene. The OED says “The word first appears in print in daily newspaper police-court reports in the summer of 1898,” and the first few citations are all from that year (the first two being from the Daily News: 26 July 5/1 It is no wonder.. that Hooligan gangs are bred in these vile, miasmatic byways; 8 Aug. 9/3 The constable said the prisoner belonged to a gang of young roughs, calling themselves ‘Hooligans’). Furthermore, the borrowing khuligan first appeared in Russian that very year, “introduced… in 1898 by I. V. Shklovskii in one of the monthly columns about life in England that he wrote for Russkoe bogatstvo (Russian Wealth) under the pen name Dioneo”; I take this information from Chapter 1 of Joan Neuberger’s Hooliganism: Crime, Culture, and Power in St. Petersburg, 1900-1914, where a footnote adds the exact reference:“Iz Anglii,” Russkoe bogatstvo 9 (September 1898): 128ff. By 1900-01 khuligan was widely used to describe the gangs of young toughs who were frightening respectable citizens all over Russia, and it has never fallen out of favor since.