Archives for April 2005


I’m basically going to repost here an entry from No-sword, because it’s an interesting question that I’m completely incompetent to answer, and I thought perhaps some of my more theoretically inclined readers might have some interesting comments:

Japanese is considered to have SOV word order and topic-comment sentence structure. So one uncontroversial way for a man to casually say, for example, “I don’t understand English” is

ore wa eigo ga wakaranai
I (topic) English (subject) be-understood-NOT
“As for me, English is not understood”
= “I don’t understand English”

But in spoken Japanese, it’s very common to hear something like this (note that the particles (wa and ga) have been dropped and wakaranai slurs into wakannai; these are uncontroversial changes):

eigo wakannai, ore
English be-understood-NOT, I

[Read more…]


Coming soon to a venue near you: Miguel de Cervantes will be promoting Don Quixote! (Thanks to Brecht for the tip.)

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Wagiman (or Wageman) is a nearly extinct language of northern Australia; the Wagiman online dictionary is a nicely done site that provides lexical and other information. The Introduction says:

Wagiman is an Australian Aboriginal language spoken in Australia’s Northern Territory. At the moment there are about ten people who speak Wagiman, mostly old people. Wagiman belongs to what linguists call the non-Pama-Nyungan language family. Within that family, it appears to fall into the Gunwinyguan language group, but it is not closely related to any other Aboriginal languages.
There are several dialects of Wagiman, with the most prominent distinction being between matjjin no-roh-ma ‘light language’ and matjjin gu-nawutj-jan ‘heavy language’. Helen Liddy and Lenny Liddy speak light language, and Lulu Martin, Paddy Huddlestone and Clara McMahon speak heavy language. There is not all that much difference, and no Wagiman speakers have any trouble understanding one another.

Ten speakers and “several” dialects! Now, that’s what I call stubborn diversity. (Via Plep.)


Thanks to a comment by ben wolfson, I present you with the preview for a forthcoming linguistic thriller:

Announcer: The English Language is about to E*X*P*L*O*D*E!
No refuge is safe from linguistic peril!
Mom: Here, I brought up “Gravity’s Rainbow” for a goodnight story.
Kid: Aw, Mom! Why did you bring that book I don’t want to be read to out of up for?
Mom: Aiiiiieeee! My brane is melting!
Announcer: A secret government agency must find a new ally…
MIB: Mr. Chomsky? We need your help with a linguistic crisis.
I’m with intelligence….

Go on, read the whole thing, you know you want to. But don’t blame me, blame Stephen Will Tanner, who is solely responsible. I’d better provide the disclaimer in case you need it before you reach the end:

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In an effort to find out something about the Isaurians and their language (a vain effort, and if anybody knows anything beyond “warlike” and “unknown” I’d appreciate hearing about it) I ran across Vassil Karloukovski’s Page, with its many Bulgarian-related links; what particularly attracted my attention was the section devoted to The Language of the Huns, Chapter IX of O. Maenchen-Helfen’s The World of the Huns (University of California Press, 1973). I’ll quote the meaty passage on Etymologies:

We must be prepared to meet among the names borne by Huns Germanic, Latin, and (as a result of the long and close contact with the Alans) also Iranian names. Attempts to force all Hunnic names into one linguistic group are a priori doomed to failure.
“Let no one,” warned Jordanes, “who is ignorant cavil at the fact that the tribes of men use many names, the Sarmatians from the Germans and the Goths frequently from the Huns.” Tutizar was a Goth and Ragnaris a Hun, but Tutizar is not a Gothic name and Ragnaris is Germanic. The Byzantine generals who in 493 fought against the Isaurians were Apsikal, a Goth, and Sigizan and Zolban, commanders of the Hun auxiliaries. Apsikal is not a Gothic but a Hunnic name; Sigizan might be Germanic. Mundius, a man of Attilanic descent, had a son by the name of Mauricius; his grandson Theudimundus bore a Germanic name. Patricius, Ardabur, and Herminiricus were not a Roman, an Alan, and a German as the names would indicate, but brothers, the sons of Aspar and his Gothic wife. There are many such cases in the fifth and sixth centuries. Sometimes a man is known under two names, belonging to two different tongues. Or he has a name compounded of elements of two languages. There are instances of what seem to be double names; actually one is the personal name, the other a title. Among the Hun names, some might well be designations of rank. It is, I believe, generally agreed that the titles of the steppe peoples do not reflect the nationality of their bearers. A kan, kagan, or bagatur may be a Mongol, a Turk, a Bulgar; he may be practically anything.

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In this week’s New Yorker there’s an article by Elizabeth Kolbert called “The Climate of Man—II.” (It’s not now online, as is the first part of the three-part series.) It’s very interesting, but I had to get over my initial disappointment that it wasn’t about Akkad, since that’s what it begins by talking about. What concerns me here is a phrase in the third sentence of the piece: “Sargon—Sharrukin, in the language of Akkadian—means ‘true king’; almost certainly, though, he was a usurper.” My initial reaction (aside from a reflexive grumble about falling editorial standards) was that the un-English phrase “the language of Akkadian” was a garden-variety confusion between “the Akkadian language” and “the language of Akkad”: she wrote one, half-changed it to the other, and no editor caught it (mutter, grumble). But it occurred to me that it might be taken as parallel to “the island of Manhattan,” and it also occurred to me that this might be an example of the increasing lag between the state of my own dialect and the ever-changing state of the language as she is spoke. So I’ll ask the Varied Reader: does the phrase “the language of Akkadian” sound acceptable?


Randy Cohen proposes an idea that appeals to me: “a literary map of Manhattan—not of its authors’ haunts but those of their characters.”

I began thinking about this map years ago while reading Don DeLillo’s ”Great Jones Street.” Bucky Wunderlick gazes out the window of his ”small crowded room” at the firehouse across the street. I realized: there’s only one firehouse on that street and few buildings that contain tiny apartments rather than commercial lofts. I know where Bucky Wunderlick lives. Or would live if he existed. He’s got to be at No. 35. Knowing this made walking around the neighborhood like walking through the novel. But I walked without a map. Shouldn’t there be a map of imaginary New Yorkers?
It would be a lush literary landscape—the house on Washington Square where Catherine Sloper waited and yearned, the coffee shops where the characters of Ralph Ellison and Isaac Bashevis Singer quarreled and kibbitzed, the offices where John Cheever’s people spent their days, the clubs where Jay McInerney’s creatures wasted their nights, the East 70’s and Upper West Side avenues where the Glass family bickered (Salinger gives several addresses), downtown where Ishmael wandered the docks.

He gives a number of examples of fictional locations, both exact and vague, and “can imagine maps of Brooklyn, Chicago, London and more.” (There is a certain amount of this in The Atlas of Literature by Malcolm Bradbury, but it covers too many areas and centuries to have much detail on any one place.) He says “Since nobody is widely enough read—I’m not widely enough read—to know the haunts and houses, the offices and bars and subway stops of so diverse a population, I appeal to Book Review readers to send in their favorites”; the address is
Update. The website is up.


For a good summary of the pronunciation of h in classical and ecclesiastical Latin, see Geoff Pullum’s self-flagellating post in yesterday’s Language Log. And don’t miss his touching peroration:

This morning in Language Log Plaza little knots of staff writers are talking to each other in low voices and then breaking off when I come by. When I go into our coffee shop, the Latté Linguistica, people get theirs to go so that they won’t have to talk to me; they rush off, or pretend to be looking down into their coffee cup as if they thought they’d seen a bug drop in there… I’m being ostracized. I made a remark on Language Log without checking it out yesterday. And today I am the lowest form of linguistic slime. I am no better than a BBC science reporter.
I am probably not going to be here very much longer. The call will come to present myself in the Big Office where MYL sits, and I will be introduced to the security guard who will help me carry the things from my desk to the front door. Then they will shut down my email account and scrub the hard disk on my desktop machine in preparation for handing it to the new staffer who will replace me…


The poet Robert Kelly has been quoted on LH before; here are his thoughts on the main focus of this blog:

Sermon on Language
This – I mean whatever comes to mind when you read this – is an organization – from the proto-Greek organ-grindo, “the music swells, the monkey dances”- dedicated to enshrining reality deep in the heart of itself. Its code name is Language, and it was invented a war or two ago – actually during the Second Gobi War, the one that ended the paleolothic – to con- fer on sunlight such blessings as “It is sunning,” or “The sun is raining,” or “Shine happens,” according to the by-laws of your local lodge. For individual languages – like Basque or Xhosa or Cantonese or French – are in fact created and sustained as lodges of the ancient freemasonic society of Speakers, the ones with Language on their side, the so-called humans. All other societies -and every form of society- is subsidiary to this, this elegant and persuasive artifact which self-embeds its rules and by-laws at once in every member who pays the dues of breath – what we call speaking. You do not have to think very long or hard to learn that all mysteries are ensconced in language and extractable from language, and that obedience to the intricacies of language in turn reveals the exact astro-dynamic efflorescent energy of place and circumstance we nickname Truth. The con- juncture. The lock. The habit the heart wears in the market, the song it hums in the bathroom, the text encoded in its midnight snores. Language is astrology indoors, it is the moon in the bed- room and the sun in your pocket, its rules are your rules and there is hardly a rumor – though there is a rumor – of anyone disobedient to its prescriptions. Timid Nietzsche and meek Blake followed its laws like lambs, and Lenin lay down with De Maistre to graze on public language. Only the one – there was one – who woke up to the sleep of named things ever broke the lodge law and got away with it. All the way away. Faint- ing, we follow.
Robert Kelly
20 April 1993.

(Via wood s lot.)


While we wait for La grande rousse to return from hiatus (or, as she puts it, activités carnetières limitées), there is consolation in the form of Les Amoureux du français, a language blog run by Fabienne Couturier, an editor at La Presse, and Paul Roux, “conseiller et chroniqueur linguistique.” This week they discuss “Les mots en «oune»”—a category peculiar to Québec. To whet your appetite, the list starts off with three sexy items:

Bizoune : pénis (se dit aussi « zoune »)
Foufoune : fesse
Noune : vulve

Thanks to Beth of The Cassandra Pages for the tip!
Update (2010). Alas, both La rousse and Les Amoureux are long gone, but the proprietor of Écarts de langage writes to let me know it’s covering similar territory.
Update (2013). Alas, alack: “ is no longer available. The authors have deleted this site.” For here on the internet have we no continuing city…