Archives for November 2005


Lameen Souag of Jabal al-Lughat doesn’t post freqently, but when he does, it’s always interesting. His latest entry discusses “the oldest dictionary of an African language.” He rejects the claim of Carradori’s Dictionary of 17th Century Kenzi Nubian, and says:

The oldest arguable dictionary of an African language that I am aware of so far is the Greek-Coptic Glossary of Dioscorus of Aphrodito, which apparently dates back to the 6th century. Ibn al-‘Assal’s Arabic-Coptic sullam muqaffa, written in the 1200s, can quite unhesitatingly be described as a dictionary; following a then-current Arabic tradition, it was arranged alphabetically from the last letter of the word backwards (so, for instance, “apple” would be close to “people” but far from “apricot”.) This arrangement was meant to aid in the composition of rhymed prose and verse…
After Coptic, the next oldest is an Arabic-Berber lexicon written in 1145, containing some two thousand words… What other African dictionaries predate Carradori’s? I don’t know, but I can hazard some guesses—Geez, Swahili, Kanuri, and Nubian itself would certainly be worth checking.

Anybody have any contributions?


A few months ago I issued a preliminary report on Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language; prompted by a request from C. Max Magee of The Millions to name my favorite language books of the year (he’s posted them here), I decided it was high time I gave a final assessment. I enjoyed the book a great deal and hope a lot of people read it; it gives a good sense of how language changes and what it is historical linguists study, and it’s written very engagingly, with digressions and interpolated dialogues à la Hofstadter.
But I have one major gripe with it, which is that the latter part of the book is increasingly taken up with Deutscher’s own theories about the origin of the Semitic verbal system, with its fixed grid of consonants and changing vowel patterns. It’s a very interesting topic to a linguist, but to include it in a book for the general reader is a bad idea: the reader is not in a position to judge the theory, and is likely to accept it simply because the book is enjoyable and the rest of the information seems reliable. It’s like sticking an untried medicine in with the Halloween candy. I would have advised Deutscher to save the Semitic verbs for a specialized journal and use the space saved with more examples of undoubted linguistic facts to dazzle and educate the lay reader.
But that’s water under the bridge. The book is as it is, and it’s a fine read anyway. Go forth, Unfolding, and spread enlightenment!


A new blog, amidaworld, focuses on Japanese and life in Japan, and there’s already a lot of interesting material; a couple of entries particularly relevant here:
New Japanese Word describes his discovery of the Wikipedia page for Mt. Fuji, “where I learned a great new Japanese phrase: ‘Fujiyama geisha,’ the Japan that is misunderstood by the West. I never heard it used in Japan, though there were many instances where it could have been: ‘Kill Bill? That movie was so full of Fujiyama geisha nonsense!'” (As the Wiki page makes clear, the Japanese phrase 富士山 is read Fuji-san, not “Fujiyama,” by native speakers.)
Lost in Translation in Translation quotes a Confucius saying so gnomic nobody’s known what it means for the last couple of millennia:

The Analects of Confucius Book 3 number 5:
D.C. Lau’s translation:
“The Master said, ‘Barbarian tribes with their rulers are inferior to Chinese states without them.'”
Arthur Waley’s translation of the same passage:
“The Master said, ‘The barbarians of the East and North have retained their princes. They are not in such a state of decay as we in China.'”
So which is it—is China better or are the barbarians? We don’t need to feel bad. Looking at commentaries from the Han Dynasty onward, we can see Chinese people of different eras were just as lost as we are, and also needed a “translation.” They had to explain the text in more understandable language.
Many commentators read 亡 (Waley’s “decay”) as being 無 (Lau’s “without”), and then there’s the matter of what you want to do with the 不如, “not like.” Both Lau- and Waley-style interpretations can be found.

Amida’s proposed translation: “The Master said, ‘The Yi and the Di with rulers are not like the states of Xia without them,'” accompanied by “a big fat footnote,” which seems to me the ideal solution. The comment thread has a fascinating discussion of whether the impossibility of knowing the author’s intent in such cases is a good or a bad thing. (In my younger days I would have felt the same frustration as Azuma, but I’ve come to terms with the unknowability of the past and can now share Amida’s pleasure in the fact that “the openness of the text has created space for all sorts of readings.”
There’s a follow-up post by Matt of No-sword comparing translations of an almost equally difficult passage (傳不習乎 in Analects 1:4), “which character-by-character is ‘transmit not practise (question)'”; in the comments, Amida provides an even more cryptic example:

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John Ross presses the claims of disappearing languages in When a Language Dies:

Because just a few people speak most of the world’s languages—4% of the world’s people speak 96% of its languages—most linguistic systems are extremely vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life and death.
Linguistic diversity flourishes in the south—half of the world’s languages are concentrated in just eight countries: Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Australia, India, Nigeria, Cameroon, Brazil, and Mexico. Mexico’s Oaxaca state, smaller than Portugal, is host to 16 distinct ethnic groups and speaks more languages than all of Europe.
“Cuando muere una lengua
todo lo que hay en el mundo,
mares y rios,
animales y plantas,
ni se piensen, ni se pronuncian
con atisbos, con sonidos,
que no existan ya.”
“When a language dies,
all that there is in this world,
oceans and rivers,
animals and plants,
do not think of them,
do not pronounce their names,
they do not exist now.”
If each language was a room than Mexico would be a great mansion of 62 rooms, linguist/poet/historian Carlos Montemayor reflected at a recent presentation of a newly translated volume of Mexican indigenous poetry. “These languages are not dialects but rather complete linguistic systems. Purepecha is as complete as Greek, Maya as complete as Italian. There are no superior language systems. All have grammar and syntax and vocabulary and etymology. It is an expression of cultural racism to consider indigenous languages to be dialects.”

Of course it’s not necessarily a huge tragedy every time a language dies, but it is a shame if you enjoy diversity, and if it can be prevented or delayed by helping people record and pass on their own languages, I’m all for it. And I do enjoy rants on the subject. People should be passionate about language! (Yes, even the people who are wrong-headedly passionate about changes in English; I deplore their ignorance but admire their passion.)

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The Classical Language Instruction Project “contains samples of Greek and Latin prose and poetry texts, read by various scholars and in different styles. It is designed to help students of the classical languages to acquaint themselves with the sound of Greek and Latin and to practice their own reading skills.” (Via wood s lot.)


This is fun for those of us who spend our time poring over books like Compendium of the World’s Languages: list all the living languages you can without looking them up. I’ve come up with 242 (I had provisionally put down my pencil when it suddenly occurred to me I’d completely forgotten about Balto-Slavic); as I said in the post at Tenser, said the Tensor, where I found this pastime (you probably shouldn’t click on the “post” link if you’re going to try it yourself, since he provides his own list therein), “it’s very frustrating when you know there’s a language in a particular spot but you can’t remember the name. (For instance, I could only remember three of the four main Dravidian languages, and there’s two Siberian languages with very similar names that are staying stubbornly on the tip of my tongue…).”


If you like Borges, you’ll probably enjoy Ahua, the Water Language by “N. Aalberg” (actually Richard Kennaway). It’s my favorite kind of constructed language, the purely conceptual; if I want details of morphology, I’ll go to one of the many slow-cooked varieties proffered by actual languages that have been in use for centuries. Sample bits from the description:

As in France, so in Ahua: to speak the local language is at once compulsory and forbidden. Speaking in one’s own language one will be indifferently tolerated; speaking in Ahuan one will be even more indifferently tolerated. Either way, the Ahuans’ conviction that outsiders are forever barred from Ahuan culture by their inferior understanding is upheld. The Ahuans believe that no-one can learn the Ahuan language, and they do everything possible to ensure that this is the case.
In Ahuan, everything not absolutely essential to the meaning is omitted. That which remains is referred to obliquely, by allusion, again with the minimum of detail. The sentence “One thing is not another” may, according to context, mean almost anything; yet to an Ahuan, the precise meaning in any particular context will always be crystal clear…
The Ahuans look with mild amusement on our efforts to speak Ahua. An outsider invariably falls into certain faults which instantly mark him out, to an Ahuan, as having only a childish grasp of the language. He will attach fixed meanings to the words, and he will memorise stereotyped expressions. Ahuans take pride in the fact that their language is always changing. An Ahuan will never use the same word twice with the same meaning. There is a constant striving for unfashionability—indeed, no fashion of speaking can ever assert itself, for when an Ahuan notices that some word, or phrase, or any other feature of speech is beginning to be used with any consistency, he deliberately flouts that incipient rigidification. For this reason, no bilingual dictionary can ever be made of the language. Curiously, there are Ahuan dictionaries. They are considered to be among the greatest works of Ahuan literature. They partake of the elliptical and allusive style of the everyday language, and are more like poetic meditations on the words of Ahua than definitions. Needless to say, they are completely useless for the foreign learner of Ahua.

I enjoy very much the idea of such a dictionary, although an attempt to produce one in English would probably exhaust its interest after a quick perusal. (Via Plep.)

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Maciej of Idle Words is translating Ilf and Petrov’s Золотой теленок [Zolotoi telyonok, The Golden Calf] and has had the brilliant idea of creating a LiveJournal, baconmeteor, where he can ask questions about difficult points and get answers from the entire online universe of Russian speakers. For instance, in this post he asks about “this overheard bit of Soviet speak: На ваше РКК примкамера есть, примкамера! What is РКК, and what is a примкамера?” It turns out РКК is рабоче-крестьянский контроль (‘workers’ and peasants’ [financial] inspectorate’) and примкамера is примирительная камера, in Maciej’s words “like what the Brits call an industrial tribunal.” It would have taken a lot of digging through reference works and histories and a certain amount of luck to get that information (internet sources were of no help). If more translators did this rather than fudging or omitting difficult passages, there would be better translations.
Oh, and one of the comment threads introduced me to, a splendid site for Russian abbreviations and acronyms that got instantly bookmarked. (Thanks for the tip, Tatyana!)


Anyone interested in the Classical Japanese verbal system should hie themselves to this post at IbaDaiRon Blog and the subsequent lengthy analysis at No-sword (1, 2). I can grasp only the basics myself, but here’s a summary of current thinking (at least on Matt’s part):

A CJ verb consists of stem + ending. There are three main types of verbs:
* C-type verbs are consonant-stem (sC) (e.g. omoh.u).
* V-type verbs are vowel stem (sV) (e.g.,
* D-type verbs have a consonant stem (sC) and a vowel stem (sV) (e.g. sug.u/sugi, at.u/ate) The vowel stem is used whenever “available” (usually for MZ, RY and MR) and the consonant stem otherwise, but for some reason the RT and IZ consonant stems always take the post-vowel allomorphs.

Those of you who know what’s going on will definitely enjoy the discussion and perhaps want to contribute. Doozo!


I have received an e-mail from a firm of solicitors alleging “extremely serious defamatory allegations and innuendoes posted on your web site” by a commenter; they add: “The impact of these scurrilous allegations on our clients has been compounded by your endorsement of the allegations in the final paragraph of the posting” (i.e., in my next comment, which basically said “Thanks for the information”). They go on:

We demand that you immediately remove these outrageous defamatory allegations from your web site forthwith and agree to publish a full retraction and apology in terms to be first agreed with us. We also require your proposals for compensating our clients for the serious damage caused to their reputation.
We await hearing from you within the next seven days, failing which we have instructions to institute legal proceedings against you without further notice.

Needless to say, I hate to remove a blog post just because somebody with access to lawyers was offended by it, but I also have no desire to be forced to defend myself against a lawsuit: even if it’s thrown out in the end, I can’t afford the costs. So: anyone know what a safe and appropriate response would be? (Obviously, I am not asking for technical legal advice, but I’m hoping some of you will have experience with this sort of thing and have some useful suggestions. “Tell them to go to hell,” while appreciated as an expression of solidarity, is alas not useful advice without a convincing reason why that would not wind up costing me money.) If you want further details, e-mail me at languagehat at gmail dot com. Thanks!