Archives for July 2005


Trying to find something else altogether (the Spanish writer José Jiménez Lozano, on whom there’s almost nothing available in English), I happened on the entry Jindyworobak movement in my Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature; struck by the name, I did a little research and thought I’d post what I found. The movement was founded in 1938 by the poet Rex Ingamells (1913-1955), “in response to L.F. Giblin’s urging that poets in Australia should portray Australian nature and people as they are in Australia, not with the ‘European’ gaze.” It started as a literary club in Adelaide and emphasized the spirit of place and the importance of Aboriginal culture; you can read more about it here and (in the South Australian context) here (pdf; HTML cache here).
And the name? Ingamells took it from the glossary of James Devaney‘s The Vanished Tribes (1929), where it was said to mean ‘to annex, to join’; it comes from Wuywurung or Woiwurrung, an extinct language of the Melbourne area that is not even listed in Ethnologue. (As a matter of fact, none of the “Victorian” languages mentioned in the last abstract on this page —Madhimadhi, Wembawemba, Wergaia, Yota-Yota, Wathawurrung, and Woiwurrung—are in Ethnologue; perhaps Claire can clear this up when she recovers from her fieldwork.)

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In 1939 Rolfe Humphries was asked to write a poem for Poetry. He was given the title (“Draft Ode for a Phi Beta Kappa Occasion”), the meter (unrhymed iambic pentameter), and a request that the poem contain one classical reference per line. The poem appeared in the June issue, and in August the magazine printed an outraged editorial note banning Humphries from the magazine for writing “scurrilous” material. Here’s the poem; see if you can figure out what they were so upset about. The explanation’s in the extended entry.
Niobe’s daughters yearn to the womb again,
Ionians bright and fair, to the chill stone;
Chaos in cry, Actaeon’s angry pack,
Hounds of Molussus, shaggy wolves driven
Over Ampsanctus’ vale and Pentheus’ glade,
Laelaps and Ladon, Dromas, Canace,—
As these in fury harry brake and hill
So the great dogs of evil bay the world.
Memory, Mother of Muses, be resigned
Until King Saturn comes to rule again!
Remember now no more the golden day
Remember now no more the fading gold,
Astraea fled, Proserpina in hell;
You searchers of the earth be reconciled!
Because, through all the blight of human woe,
Under Robigo’s rust, and Clotho’s shears,
The mind of man still keeps its argosies,
Lacedaemonian Helen wakes her tower,
Echo replies, and lamentation loud
Reverberates from Thrace to Delos Isle;
Itylus grieves, for whom the nightingale
Sweetly as ever tunes her Daulian strain.
And over Tenedos the flagship burns.
How shall men loiter when the great moon shines
Opaque upon the sail, and Argive seas
Rear like blue dolphins their cerulean curves?
Samos is fallen, Lesbos streams with fire,
Etna in rage, Canopus cold in hate,
Summon the Orphic bard to stranger dreams.
And so for us who raise Athene’s torch.
Sufficient to her message in this hour:
Sons of Columbia, awake, arise!

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Over at après moi, le déluge, silmarillion has posted a list of all the Spanish words borrowed from Arabic, using the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española (both printed and online editions), the Corpus Diacrónico del Español (CORDE), the American Heritage Dictionary, the Dictionnaire de l’Académie francaise, and the webpage Vocabolario Etimologico della Lingua Italiana. The post and definitions are in Spanish, but if you’re interested in the subject, that shouldn’t be much of a problem. My only quibble so far (having skimmed the list) is that some of the words go back to Turkish, not Arabic:
Chaleco – quizá del it. Giulecco, y este del turco yelek
Zapato del turco zabata
But I’m certainly not going to complain about too many etymologies, and besides, for lagniappe there’s a little annex of Basque words that come from Arabic. Gracias, amigos!


The annoying Richard Lederer, who has a Ph.D. in English and Linguistics from the University of New Hampshire but whose voluminous writings about language place him rather in the amateur class, is (quite appropriately) standing in for William Safire this week at the NY Times Magazine, and his column is about bloopers, a favorite topic of his. As he says, “Word botches are music to my ears, and over the years I’ve arranged five anthologies of fluffs, flubs, goofs, gaffes, blunders, boners . . . well, you get the idea.” In the first place, although they are language-related, bloopers are about as cliched a topic as could be imagined; you would think the Times would be approximately as thrilled as they would be with a story about how it’s so hot you can fry an egg on the sidewalk, as our intrepid reporter demonstrates! At any rate, the column illustrates why I lost interest in the subject several decades ago, once I realized that published bloopers are as reliably authentic as the letters columns in porn magazines. Verbal goofs caught in the wild can be very funny, but that happens rarely, and it’s much easier for teachers to make them up during boring stretches. Lederer says solemnly “As a word-bethumped language guy, I adhere firmly to the blooper snooper’s code, taking only what I find and contriving nothing,” but I believe him exactly as much as I believe a teller of tall tales who swears that this really happened. His culminating example is this:

Of the thousands of specimens of inspired gibberish that I’ve captured and put on display, my favorite is this gem from a student essay: ”Sir Francis Drake circumcised the world with a 100-foot clipper.” The statement is hysterically unhistorical, and we have no trouble believing that a student actually wrote it.

Actually, I have considerable trouble believing that. Furthermore, I’ll bet you money everything in the column is cut-and-pasted from one of his many books. It’s a lazy, useless excuse for a language column, and almost makes me long for Safire’s return from vacation.


The essay by Lu Xun on the Chinese national curse, mentioned in this post and the comments to this one, has been translated by Huichieh Loy of From a Singapore Angle; you can read it here. It begins:

Those who live in China will often have occasion to hear the swear: tamade (他妈的) and others like it. I think the geographical distribution of this phrase is probably as wide as the lands upon which the Chinese have set foot; and I’m afraid the frequency of its use may not be less than that of the polite nin hao ya (您好呀). If, as some have put it, the peony is China’s “national flower”, then this has to be considered China’s “national swear” (guoma 国骂).

It’s funny and interesting; Huichieh Loy says “The language used—earlier twentieth century (‘May Fourth’) Chinese, plus the many learned classical citations, make the piece not that easy for me to translate. I have not been literal in all instances, and suggestions for improvements are most welcome.”


The good people at Metropolitan Books sent me a copy of Guy Deutscher’s new book, The Unfolding of Language; I’m only a little over halfway through it, but I’ve accumulated enough things I want to talk about I thought I’d better start now, and leave the summing up for when I finish it. I will say that it’s a great pleasure to read a book on historical linguistics written for the layperson by an actual linguist, and I hope lots of people read it and get a better idea of how languages change, so they can understand how pointless are all the demands for preservation, warnings of doom, and nostalgic looks back at an imagined time of linguistic perfection from which we’ve supposedly degenerated. (On this subject, read the excerpt from Chapter 3 here to be convinced that “the English of today is not what it used to be, but then again, it never was.”)
To the details, then! The first thing that made me want to start blogging was a picture on page 117; it’s in black and white in the book, but you can see it in glorious color towards the end of the excerpts page. It shows a Greek moving van blazoned with the word ΜΕΤΑΦΟΡΕΣ [metaforés], which is the normal Greek word for ‘moves, removals’; as Deutscher says, “meta-phora is Greek for ‘carry across’ (meta = ‘across’, phor = ‘carry’). Or to use the Latin equivalent, meta-phor just means trans-fer.” I used to see such signs in Astoria (the heavily Greek part of Queens where I used to live), and I’d point them out to whoever I was walking with and explain that “metaphor” is a basic everyday word in Greek; I’m delighted to be able to send everyone to this picture (and get a nostalgic thrill myself).

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I wasn’t sure if I should post The Internet Chinese Text Archive, a huge collection of texts in Chinese (which I found at Plep), since anyone who can make use of it probably already knows about it, but when googling it I ran across A Brief History of Asian Studies Online (through 2003) by T. Matthew Ciolek, so I figured I’d post both and see if anyone’s interested. The “Brief History” has this under 1991:

sometime in 1991: Ulysses Li establishes “The Internet Chinese Text Archive” [now at chinese-text] the first Chinese text archive on the Internet. It was formerly known to web surfers as “Xiaoyu’s Collection” or “Carp Temple.” This collection had once been served by the server of Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars (IFCSS) Chinese Community Information Center (CCIC).


I dialetti italiani: Language and Dialect on the Italian Peninsula (via Plep) is a potentially useful site, with all sorts of interesting-sounding links. Unfortunately, none of the external ones work (“Last Modified: 12/27/96”), but there’s still a short essay and a map hosted on the site, so I figure it’s worth mentioning. There are functioning links on Italian dialects here and here and relevant Wikipedia pages here and here (and I vote with those who think those pages should be merged).


We’ve discussed Spanish and Russian swearing, and had a brief go at Chinese; now, courtesy of Dinesh Rao, I direct your attention to a more detailed post on the latter over at From a Singapore Angle, wherein a Chinese article by Lin Siyun, “Inquiry into the Chinese and Foreign Philosophies of Swearing,” is discussed and in part translated. Some very interesting stuff:

When a person does something wrong, the usual way in other countries is to swear at the culprit himself; the Chinese way is not to abuse the culprit directly, but to swear at his mother and ancestors. Foreigners found this peculiar way of doing things very hard to understand: This person did wrong, what’s it to do with his mother or ancestors? Anglo-Americans will say “F— you”, but usually not “F— your mother”; the Japanese will say “You bakaro“, but normally not “Your ancestors bakaro.” (bakaro = 馬鹿野郎 or ばかやろう; roughly, “dumbass”.)
And when the Chinese swear, they seldom use terms that displays racial discrimination (unlike the case of the Anglo-Americans), and in any case, such terms are rare in the Chinese vocabulary. Take the often encountered waiguo guizi (外國鬼子; i.e., “foreign devil”): if we were to think it through, we’ll realize that it actually contains an element of “respect”. It seems that the Chinese would only call those foreigners who had been able to bully or invade them “devils”—such as meiguo guizi (美國鬼子; i.e., “American devil”) or riben guizi (日本鬼子; i.e., “Japanese devil”). China fought wars with India and Vietnam before, but they don’t usually say yindu guizi (印度鬼子; i.e., “Indian devil”) or yuenan guizi (越南鬼子; i.e., “Vietnamese devil”)—it is as if these are not good enough to be guizi.

I don’t agree with everything the author has to say about English swearing, but I’m glad to know about the distinction in deviltry.


It’s a pleasure to be able to offer unalloyed praise for a NY Times story about linguistics, Michael Erard’s “How Linguists and Missionaries Share a Bible of 6,912 Languages.” I’ve been using Ethnologue in print form since I was in college (its availability online at no cost is one of the best things about the internet), and it was interesting to learn that it started as far back as 1951. There are some great quotes in the piece:

“I occasionally note in my comments to the press,” said Nicholas Ostler, the president of the Foundation for Endangered Languages, “the irony that Ethnologue’s total count of known languages keeps going up with each four-yearly edition, even as we solemnly intone the factoid that a language dies out every two weeks.”
This dissonance points to a more basic problem. “There’s no actual number of languages,” said Merritt Ruhlen, a linguist at Stanford whose own count is “around” 4,580. “It kind of depends on how one defines dialects and languages.”
The linguists behind the Ethnologue agree that the distinctions can be indistinct. “We tend to see languages as basically marbles, and we’re trying to get all the marbles in our bag and count how many marbles we have,” said M. Paul Lewis, a linguist who manages the Ethnologue database ( and will edit the 16th edition. “Language is a lot more like oatmeal, where there are some clearly defined units but it’s very fuzzy around the edges.”
The Yiddish linguist Max Weinrich once famously said, “A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un a flot” (or “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”). To Ethnologue, and to the language research organization that produces it, S.I.L. International, a language is a dialect that needs its literature, including a Bible.

I love the fact that he worked a Yiddish quote into a piece about a Christian organization, and remember, folks, you heard it here first! (I was wondering why I chose the spelling “diyalekt” in that entry, but it seems I picked it up from here; in any case, Erard’s version is undisputably better.)
Update. See now UJG‘s post, with an actual image of Weinreich’s original Yiddish.