Archives for September 2005


I liked floor_mice’s post so much I thought I’d translate it for the non-Russophones among us:

Not long ago we discovered a neighborhood… park? Well, a well-kept area under high-voltage wires, anyway, much like similar places in Russia where dog-lovers and pets walk their leashes. The difference is that throughout the “park” winds an asphalt path, the grass is mowed, the blackberry bushes are thoughtfully trimmed into little round islands so that you can pick the berries just by strolling around, without having to push through the brambles.
As you enter the park there’s a plywood board with simple rules: no alcoholic beverages, no fires, don’t let your dog off the leash, and be sure to pick up the… products of metabolic activity. And there’s a little roll of clean new black plastic bags, and all through the park are placed bins where the bags can be deposited when full.
All this is just setting the stage; the story follows.

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This has been around for almost nine years, but I’d somehow missed it until now.

Third, there is NO evidence that transitional languages ever existed. What use is half a language? A noun without verbs conveys no meaning! Sure, there is middle and old- English. But these are ENGLISH! A complete nontransitional language. We do not deny that micro-linguistics can happen, but this process can create only DIALECTS. There is NO EVIDENCE that a series of random micro-linguistic events can create a WHOLE NEW LANGUAGE. I’ll believe in Macro-linguistics when I see a video tape of a child growing up in an Eskimo village suddenly become fluent in Armenian!

Heh. (Via Taccuino di traduzione.)


One of my favorite correspondents (thanks, Carol!) has sent me a NY Times story by Nicholas Wade about “a new way of linking languages, which [linguists] say has allowed them to reconstruct a network of the languages spoken in islands near New Guinea.”

The new method is designed for languages so old that little trace of their common vocabulary remains. It forges connections between languages through grammatical features, which change less quickly than words.
With the new tool, historians may be able to peer considerably further back in time than the 5,000 to 7,000 years or so that many linguists see as the limit beyond which no sure connections can be made between languages.
The authors of the new method say the relationships they can construct may be 10,000 years or older.
The researchers, who were led by Michael Dunn, of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, Holland, have published their work in the current issue of Science.

I know nothing about the Papuan languages, so I can’t evaluate the conclusions they come to, but it bothers me that the scientist quoted praising the approach and saying it will be “widely emulated” is a biologist, not a linguist. None of my fellow linguabloggers has discussed the story, so consider this a call for comment: anybody have an informed opinion on whether this is valuable or just another bit of linguistic cold fusion?


People keep e-mailing me articles based on a new book called The Meaning of Tingo: And Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World, by Adam Jacot De Boinod. (The publisher must have one hell of a PR person.) I didn’t really feel like going into the “weird furrin words” thing again, so I’m glad to report that Benjamin Zimmer has done a good job in Language Log. He’s a little too polite for my taste, calling it “unfair to prejudge de Boinod’s book based solely on early press accounts” (if you can’t be unfair about fake language mavens, who can you be unfair about?), but he demolishes the Malay material with gusto. And he provides this delightful anecdote:

As an aside, the reliance on sketchy online dictionaries and wordlists can yield unintentionally humorous results. Take, for instance, the Maserati Kubang. Unveiled in 2003, this “concept car” is supposedly named after “a wind over Java.” (Maserati has a tradition of naming cars after exotic-sounding winds.) Close, but no cigar — the actual word is kumbang, not kubang. Angin kumbang literally means “bumblebee wind” in Javanese and Indonesian, and it refers to a very dry south or southwesterly wind that blows into the port of Cirebon on the north coast of Java. But this got mangled on various websites listing winds of the world…, and kumbang was changed to kubang. What does kubang mean in Indonesian? “Mudhole, mud puddle, quagmire.” Probably not the image Maserati was going for!

The Maserati Mudhole—has a ring to it, doesn’t it?


That’s the title of Volume 2, number 2 (summer 2003) of EnterText, an “interdisciplinary e-journal for cultural and historical studies and creative work” out of Brunel University. The issue has sections on Postcolonial Translation (e.g., John Gilmore on “Parrots, Poets and Philosophers: Language and Empire in the Eighteenth Century“), Transcreation (J. Gill Holland, “Teasing out an English Translation from a Classical Chinese Poem: with a translation from T’ao Ch’ien“; Debjani Chatterjee, “An Introduction to the Ghazal“), and Languages of the Americas (César Itier, “Quechua, Aymara and other Andean Languages: Historical, Linguistic and Socio-linguistic Aspects“; Paul Goulder, “The Languages of Peru: their Past, Present and Future Survival“). Lots of interesting-sounding stuff; I should warn you that the papers themselves are pdf files. (Via wood s lot.)

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Michele Berdy, the Moscow Times language columnist, reviews a new dictionary of Soviet-era jargon:

The dictionary, compiled and newly revised by the linguists Valery Mokiyenko and Tatyana Nikitina, is titled Толковый Словарь Языка Совдепии [Explanatory dictionary of the language of Sovdepia], a name which, like much of the language it contains, is hellishly difficult to translate. Cовдеп was the abbreviation of Cовет депутатов (in full form, the “council of worker, peasant and Red Army deputies”) that came to be shorthand for the Soviet Union. Over time, it came to be used especially in the form Cовдепия as a derogatory phrase for the worst of the old regime. To convey the flavor of the original, it might be translated as “The Dictionary of the Worker’s Paradise.”
For those who have forgotten that world or never visited it, the dictionary is a gold mine of information. It deciphers all those abbreviations that once slid off the tongue and now are frustratingly opaque: КCCР? Казахская Социалистическая Советская Республика (Kazakh Socialist Soviet Republic). ПГК? Партийно-государственный контроль (party-state control). БПП? Без права переписки (without the right to correspondence, part of a prison sentence that really meant execution)…
If you read the dictionary the way I did, from start to finish as if it were a novel — and with an old Bulat Okudzhava tape playing in the background — you dissolve into the Soviet past, which visually comes to life with illustrations of posters and billboards. Anyone who wants to read Bulgakov or Ilf and Petrov in the original Russian will find this dictionary indispensable.

Sounds like a useful thing to have, even if “indispensable” may be overstating it in this era when such expressions can presumably be deciphered via the magic of search engines. (My thanks to John McChesney-Young for the heads-up.)


While trying to figure out if Muskogean (the language family to which Choctaw and Chickasaw, among others, belong) is considered to be part of any larger grouping (apparently some people take it for granted it’s part of the “Hokan-Siouxan” group while others treat it as independent, Wikipedia calls Hokan itself “a hypothetical grouping of a dozen small language families spoken in California and Mexico” and says “few linguists today expect Hokan as a whole to prove to be valid,” and I’m certainly not qualified to even have a thought about the matter), I ran across an interesting paper (pdf file; abstract here) by Prof. George Aaron Broadwell called “Reconstructing Proto-Muskogean Language and Prehistory: Preliminary results” that’s chock-full of the kind of detailed lexical comparisons and reconstructions I so enjoy. One thing that makes it exotic from the point of view of someone trained in Indo-European (where the inherited vocabulary includes terms for ‘beech,’ ‘birch,’ ‘wolf,’ and ‘salmon’) is the list of “Reconstructable Proto-Muskogean terms,” which includes words for chestnut, chicken snake, chickenhawk, chigger, chinquapin, chipmunk, civet cat (?), clam/spoon, copperhead, corn, cotton, and crawfish, to take only the c‘s (the full list is on pages 15-16 of the paper). But what impelled me to post about it is the point he makes about a common problem in historical linguistics:

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BabelMap is “a Windows character map utility that allows you to find and copy any Unicode character. BabelMap always supports the latest version of Unicode (currently version 4.1.0). It is free and fully functional, and there are no disabled features or time restrictions.” You can download it from the page I linked and start playing with it immediately; I will call to your attention the very useful Font Analysis Utility, which lists all Unicode blocks covered by a particular font and all fonts that cover a particular Unicode block (it’s under Tools, or just hit F7): if you want to quote Glagolitic, scroll down the “Select Unicode block” menu till you get to Glagolitic, then go to the Font Analysis Utility and select the right-hand side (“List All Fonts That Cover This Unicode Block”), and it will tell you you need the Dilyana font; if you have it, the characters will display appropriately. If you need a font not supplied by your version of Windows, go to Alan Wood’s Unicode Resources page and click on Unicode fonts for Windows computers, where you should be able to find anything your heart desires. And now I can show the title of the Parnis novel I was looking for yesterday with the proper rough breathing on the article: Ὁ διορϑωτής.
(Via Abecedaria.)


While trying to find the original publication date of the novel O diorthotis by Alexis Parnis for my LibraryThing catalog (I have the translation The Proofreader, but I like to add these scholarly details), I ran across a wonderful page on “Modern Hellenic (Greek) Literature: Literature of Authors of Greek origin: Ελληνική Λογοτεχνία,” just part of Michael Lahanas’s wide-ranging personal site (“WHO AM I? A Hellene and European. I provide with this website some maybe interesting information about Hellas.”). He has sections on Ancient, Medieval, and Modern Greece, which I confess I have not explored, because I’m so happy with the modern literature section: it’s an idiosyncratic selection of writers somehow connected with Greece (including Patricio Lafcadio Tessima Carlos Hearn, Ugo Foscolo [Ούγος Φώσκολος], and Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington), erratically supplying biographical information, personal evaluation, and outside links. It’s not easy to find information on Greek authors, and such a rich trove is this that I forgave him the fact that he had nothing useful for Parnis, not even the Greek version of his name. (I did find a bookseller’s site that indicated at least one edition of the book was published in 1978, so I’m provisionally using that.) Efkharisto, Mikhali!


The Vindolanda Tablets Online site presents “writing tablets excavated from the Roman fort at Vindolanda in northern England” in a rather complicated interface that takes getting used to, but once you start accessing the tablets themselves, scrupulously transcribed and translated, it becomes addictive. To help you out, the Finding Tablets in the database page says:

In order to browse or search the tablets for more specific information, for example the texts written by the same person, texts in which a certain word, term or name occurs, or that refer to a particular subject or come from the same archaeological context, follow ‘search’ or ‘browse’ from the side menu. Within ‘search’ there is also a tool for finding tablets using the alternative numbering systems by which they have been identified, the numbers used in Vindolanda Tablets I and the Vindolanda archaeological inventory numbers (see The print publication and the online edition for more details). Remember too that the scholarly introductions to the tablets can also be searched.
There are two main categories of search, ‘Latin text search’ and ‘General text search’, as well as a search by tablet number.

For the Latin search you use the dictionary form (nom. sg. for nouns, 1 sg. pres. for verbs); the general search “allows you to search the English translations, commentaries, notes and cataloguing data (‘metadata’) for each tablet, via a text box.” They thoughtfully provide a highlights page to get you started; the third item, tablet #164, reads:

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