Archives for August 2005


John Latta, poet and proprietor of the apparently now shuttered Hotel Point, has moved to Rue Hazard, where he has been doing some “rough translating” of Emmanuel Hocquard’s Ma Haie: Un privé à Tanger 2. He interrupts the numbered paragraphs of Englished Hocquard to say:

Stray notes, translating. Th’impulse is mostly to avoid the literal: disappointment with the loss of exoticism of the French results in a certain tendency to gussy up th’English. Tant mieux. I’m trying to make a device as thrilling to the tactile tongue of the ear in English as I find even the most maladroit or mundane French original. La camionette est en panne, il me faut marcher. It is an unutterly untenable comme but. I cannot decide if my meretricious English combined with my slaughterhouse French is “up” to the task. That is, if th’execrable is of service.
It is preposterously slow work, even done “messily.” Am I entering into Hocquard’s head? No. I am riffing, rambunctious, one way to begin. Le Commanditaire, and Battman: completely unbeknownst and mystifying. The Pound lines: wolfishly aping filler for Loup qui fait sa cour pour de la nourriture. The Hammett via Marcus: “somebody ought to check that.” Don’t ask, as Philip Levine’d say.

(The “Pound lines” are in paragraph 10: “Then when the grey wolves everychone / Drink of the winds their chill small-beer / And lap o’ the snows food’s gueredon”; they’re from “Villonaud for This Yule.”)
I like his style. And currently at the bottom of the Rue is a quote that speaks to me and shames me:

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This page, maintained by John Cowan, “comprises a list of 736 ‘essentialist explanations’ of the form ‘Language X is essentially language Y under conditions Z’.” [N.b.: 1080 as of August 2018.] I think quoting a few samples will give you the idea:

English is essentially bad Dutch with outrageously pronounced French and Latin vocabulary.
English is essentially Pictish that was attacked out of nowhere by Angles cohabiting with Teutons who were done in by a drunk bunch of Vikings masquerading as Frenchmen who insisted they spoke Latin and Greek but lacked the Arabic in which to convey that.
Danish is essentially Norwegian spoken with a sore throat.
German is essentially a philosophical cough.

Lots of funny stuff there. (Thanks, Thandi!)


The Yiddish Dictionary Online is just what it says; you can open it in English or Yiddish alphabetical order or use the search box. This will save me having to go over to the bookshelf and pull down my Weinreich, and most people don’t have a Weinreich to pull down, so this is a great thing to know about. (Via Plep.)
Addendum (2010). Another online dictionary is here.


The Academia Mexicana de la Lengua maintains on its website the Diccionario breve de mexicanismos, containing Spanish definitions of words peculiar to Mexico, and the Diccionario geográfico universal, whose entries often give “local pronunciation” and the Spanish adjective derived from the place name (e.g., Acaya ‘Achaea’ has the adjective aqueo ‘Achaean,’ which is logical but might not immediately occur to the inquiring mind; that for Acapulco is acapulqueño). The geographical dictionary gives Latin forms when available (Adour, latín Aturus) but no other etymologies; for Mexican place names, however, the etymology is often available via the adjective’s listing in the Diccionario breve de mexicanismos:

acapulqueño, acapulqueña. (De Acapulco, Acapolco, municipio del estado de Guerrero, del náhuatl Acapulco, literalmente = ‘lugar de grandes cañas’, de acatl ‘caña, carrizo’ + pol, aumentativo, + –co ‘en, lugar de’; la ciudad fue fundada en el siglo XVI.) 1. adj. Perteneciente o relativo a Acapulco. || 2. m. y f. Nativo o habitante de Acapulco.

There’s also a Refranero collecting popular sayings. A valuable site.


Today’s NY Times has an article by Larry Rohter on a 17th-century language still spoken in a remote corner of Brazil, língua geral or Nheengatú (Ethnologue: Nhengatu).

When the Portuguese arrived in Brazil five centuries ago, they encountered a fundamental problem: the indigenous peoples they conquered spoke more than 700 languages. Rising to the challenge, the Jesuit priests accompanying them concocted a mixture of Indian, Portuguese and African words they called “língua geral,” or the “general language,” and imposed it on their colonial subjects.
Elsewhere in Brazil, língua geral as a living, spoken tongue died off long ago. But in this remote and neglected corner of the Amazon where Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela meet, the language has not only managed to survive, it has made a remarkable comeback in recent years.
“Linguists talk of moribund languages that are going to die, but this is one that is being revitalized by new blood,” said José Ribamar Bessa Freire, author of “River of Babel: A Linguistic History of the Amazon” and a native of the region. “Though it was originally brought to the Amazon to make the colonial process viable, tribes that have lost their own mother tongue are now taking refuge in língua geral and making it an element of their identity,” he said.

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I do love a good language rant, as long as it’s the sensible kind and not the usual prescriptivist lament, and fev of the copy-editing blog headsuptheblog (active since April) has a dandy one, called “Is that a mote in your eye, or are you just glad to see me?”:

OK, we wouldn’t all be gathered ’round this little electric campfire if we didn’t think whingeing about language was fun, right? A downside, as some of you might have noticed already, is that those who would complain about language should do it really, really carefully, lest they be held up as examples for the rest of us.
Hence today’s food for thought, a column from one of the two leading local daily papers. The problem with it is not necessarily that it’s prescriptivist. We all have a little prescriptivist in us (some of us have a lot). Rather, it’s the array of side dishes – grammatical glitches, inability to distinguish fundamentals, dialect chauvinism, BoCoMo ethnocentrism, hyperformal usage and annoying J-school-isms – served up along with the implausible, and essentially untenable, thesis.

Details are gone into, and a conclusion is drawn:

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Reading Brodsky always sends me to my dictionary, but usually it’s my Russian dictionary. Making my way through Пятая годовщина (“The Fifth Anniversary”), I ran into the usual slew of difficult Russian vocabulary (и к звездам до сих пор там запускают жучек ‘and to this day they’re still flinging zhuchkas to the stars’—zhuchka looks like a diminutive of zhuk ‘beetle,’ but it turns out it’s an affectionate name for a pet dog) and learned that лишая, the genitive of the word for ‘lichen,’ is accented lisháya these days instead of lishayá as my dictionaries have it, but the worst trouble I ran into was with the line я чувствую нутром, как парка нитку треплет ‘I feel in my gut the Fate something-ing the thread.’
Trepát’ is one of those verbs I’ve never managed to assimilate because it bundles ideas that don’t go together in English: it can mean ‘dishevel (by tugging at),’ ‘blow about,’ ‘pat,’ ‘fray,’ ‘pull (someone’s hair, ears, &c),’ and ‘whip,’ among other things; trepát’ yazykóm ‘to trepát’ with the tongue’ is ‘to babble, chatter,’ and the reflexive trepát’sya (‘to trepát’ oneself’) is ‘flutter,’ ‘go around,’ or ‘talk nonsense.’ But here, in the context of the Fates and thread, it clearly takes on its primordial meaning, ‘to scutch.’ Yes, that’s the first definition in my trusty Oxford: “to scutch, swingle (flax, hemp, etc.).” Well, it was off to the OED with me, where I found it means ‘to dress (fibrous material, flax, hemp, cotton, silk, wool) by beating.’ (There is another verb scutch meaning ‘to strike with a stick or whip, to slash, switch,’ but although it is “not impossible” that this is “a transferred use of [the verb meaning ‘to dress by beating’],… more probably the present verb is an independent onomatopœic formation: cf. scotch vb.”) Unfortunately, due to my deficient understanding of the process of turning fibers into thread, I still don’t have a clear picture; this page helps: “The flax is passed through it, slamming the break as you go, until the brittle outside layer starts to fall away, leaving the fiber intact. Then you ‘scutch’ it, which requires scraping the last of it away with a dull knife.” At least I’m pretty sure it’s Clotho (Клото [Kloto]—why did Greek theta give Russian t here rather than f?) who’s doing the scutching.

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The Kaurna Warra site reproduces a 19th-century dictionary of the now extinct language of the Kaurna people of southeastern Australia (the second link says the name is “pronounced garna”):

In Adelaide, 1840, a remarkable event occurred. Reverends Teichelmann and Schürmann published their work Outlines of a Grammar, Vocabulary, and Phraseology of the Aboriginal Language of South Australia. The amazing feature relates to its creation. Two German priests recorded essentially the language of the Kaurna people for the English speaking colonists to read. Indeed, these two remarkable men began teaching the Kaurna children in their own vernacular until forbidden to do so by the government.
Their book was originally self published. Advertisements in the local newspaper detailed the availability of this work. But interest was slight and copies sold slowly. If the Kaurna people were now subjects of the king, it was important that they deal in the king’s English…

I’m not sure why the creators of the site felt the need to sneer at attempts to revive the language (“The good folk of Adelaide will not accept the learning of an ancient language as a substitute for English because of sentimental reasons”)—or why the site renders my Back button inoperative, which is extremely annoying—but it’s an interesting enough site I’m posting it anyway. There’s a nice links page too. (Via Plep.)

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Speculative Grammarian is “the premier scholarly journal featuring research in the neglected field of satirical linguistics,” if they do say so themselves.

We are nearing the end of our transition from the real world to online, and we have nearly completed digitizing the tattered remains of our once glorious Archive, re-publishing each issue on the internet.
Having re-emerged from the shadow of our most recent exile, we are, of course, also looking for submissions for forthcoming issues of SpecGram. Standards have never been lower, so get published while you can!

They have just put online Better Words and Morphemes:The Journal of the Linguistic Society of South-Central New Caledonia, Volume I, Number 3 (May 1991), with (among many other items of equally dubious value) an entirely new scientific folk etymology of wombat. You thought it was of Australian Aboriginal origin? Well, you’re right, but they’ll do their damndest to convince you it’s “a purely English descriptive compound.” Go, enjoy, but don’t say I didn’t warn you you might get your brains addled.


Frequent commenter Tatyana just sent me the word ouguiya, which is in the dictionary and legal for Scrabble use. I had never heard of it but was thrilled to know it existed; when I googled it, I discovered the equally marvelous word ariary, of a similar nature. What do these exotic lexical items mean? The answers lie within.

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