Archives for December 2005


A great anecdote from Geoff Pullum at Language Log makes me nostalgic for New York City and its immense Greek community (I once wandered into a restaurant that was officially closed for a christening party—but was invited in to join the proceedings and share the delicious meal):

I’m in New York for the American Philosophical Association’s Eastern Division meetings, and I’m having breakfast at the Art Cafe on Broadway, at 52nd Street. It’s all bustling efficiency, staff zooming hither and thither. Two eggs up with bacon and wheat toast arrive within a couple of minutes. Suddenly there’s a shattering crash from behind the counter, and the Greek proprietor is looking down mournfully at the coffee cup he dropped on the tile floor to smash into a thousand pieces. Four or five nearby waitresses turn in shock. For two seconds of silence they stare at the scene of the accident. And then one of the waitresses yells excitedly: “Opa!” — the traditional Greek cry of encouragement to dancers and musicians and drinkers at those wild parties where they smash plates on the floor as they dance just to show what a great time is being had. And then the entire staff cracks up, and they all resume working at high speed, but now laughing till tears come to their eyes — the boss included. It’s only breakfast time in New York, but already, thanks to one well-chosen interjection, it’s like a party.

Lift a coffee cup in my direction, Geoff! And if you’re ever in Astoria, try Opa! Tony’s Souvlaki, right under the 30th Ave. station on the N line; the gyros and super-garlicky skordalia are delicious.


A correspondent sent me a link to the Project Gutenberg online edition of The German Element in Brazil by Benjamin Franklin Schappelle, first published in 1917 (Americana Germanica Press, Philadelphia). It starts off with a history of German immigration (going back to the mid-16th century) and a description of the German colonies in the various states, then gets down to business:

The settlers, largely drawn from the agricultural class, naturally brought with them from Europe a variety of German dialects. These were more or less preserved depending on the relative isolation of the colonies. In cases where a considerable and constant influx of settlers either by direct or indirect immigration was kept up after the first years of the history of any particular colony the original dialect largely gave way to a modified form of High German, due primarily to the normalizing influence of the German school and church. Such is the case in the ‘Stadtplätze’ of Dona Francisca, Blumenau, Santa Cruz and São Lourenço.
The preceding statements are intended to present, as it were, the background or basis on which the new dialect was developed. We now come to the most potent influence in the formation of that dialect. It is the Brazilian Portuguese, a language which has no connection with the Germanic group. In this point, therefore, our case differs radically from that of the student of the German dialects which have been developed in North America.

It explains how German words were changed (including family names: “Emmich became M’. The Portuguese could not pronounce the ‘-ich’ and consequently it dropped off, resulting in the formation of what is probably one of the shortest family names in existence”) and provides sample texts and a glossary; apparently so many Brazilian Portuguese words were borrowed that the dialect could be incomprehensible to visitors from German-speaking parts of Europe.
(Thanks, Dirk!)


Jeremy Osner sent me a nonsense poem by Ogden Nash, “Geddondillo,” that he’d run across on Kiyo’s bilingual (English and Japanese) Mythos and Poetry site; the actual Nash page at the site is oddly laid out and the Japanese characters don’t render properly, but for some reason the Google cache looks great. The poem itself is only three stanzas (I’ll put it below), but Kiyo’s annotations are well worth perusing.

While googling for references to Nash’s poem, I ran across an amazing find: The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition online, complete and gratis! (In the words of the Library of Congress: “This edition combines the notes of Gardner’s 1960 The annotated Alice with his 1990 update, More annotated Alice, as well as additional discoveries and updates drawn from Gardner’s encyclopedic knowledge of the texts.”) Anyone who loves both the Alice books and Gardner’s idiosyncratic, wide-ranging annotations will be as glad of this as I am.

The sharrot scudders nights in the quastron now,
The dorlim slinks undeceded in the grost,
Appetency lights the corb of the guzzard now,
The ancient beveldric is otley lost.
Treduty flees like a darbit along the drace now,
Collody lollops belutedly over the slawn.
The bloodbound bitterlitch bays the ostrous moon now,
For yesterday’s bayable majicity is flunkly gone.
Make way, make way, the preluge is scarly nonce now,
Make way, I say, the gronderous Demiburge comes,
His blidless veins shall ye joicily rejugulate now,
And gollify him from ‘twixt his protecherous gums.
  —Ogden Nash

Update (August 2015): The Alice site is dead (unsurprisingly); the text of the Nash poem has been corrected thanks to Steve Zaslaw in the comments.


Joel of Far Outliers has a post quoting the late University of Hawai‘i professor Donald M. Topping at length on linguists and endangered languages; Topping makes disturbing and important points:

Surprisingly, a major obstacle to the success of the Micronesian linguistics project is one that was unanticipated, and may be fairly assigned to the linguists themselves. That is the problems presented by the “new” orthographies. Mr. Leo Pugram, Coordinator for Curriculum and Instruction in Yap, made the following statement, “When the new orthography was established, it was a time for problems, confusion, and hatred for the new orthography. This still exists today on Yap.”
Obviously, the linguists left their mark: the “new orthography.” The complaint articulated so bluntly by Mr. Pugram was echoed by nearly every other Micronesian educator who attended the Guam conference…
Where then, are the linguists? Have they played a role? Do they now? Each of the three languages in question was described and lexified by nonnative linguists during the 1950s and early sixties. At the time of their work these linguists issued the call of alarm about the precarious status of the languages. Their calls, however, appeared to fall on deaf ears, for there was little response. It took the coming of another generation of young people who were not afforded the opportunity to learn their heritage language at home before the threat of total language loss became real.

Joel has a follow-up post quoting another University of Hawai‘i linguist, Kenneth L. Rehg, on the same subject:

…we set out to promote literacy in the Micronesian languages, but some of our efforts had just the opposite effect. Disputes over orthographies, unrealistic expectations concerning standards, an insufficient understanding of the literacy needs of these communities, and reliance on external funding all hindered progress toward that goal. Consequently, I have come to believe that if the linguistic community is serious about documenting and supporting the threatened languages of the world, we must move such endeavors into the mainstream of our discipline.

Incidentally, Joel recently made his 1,000th post: congratulations!


First of all, I’d like to thank all of you who have written comments or e-mails about my father’s passing; it means a great deal to me. One such e-mail also contained a welcome distraction: a link to a pdf file of James A. Matisoff’s Handbook of Proto-Tibeto-Burman: System and Philosophy of Sino-Tibetan Reconstruction. I don’t quite grasp how they can put a 792-page book that retails for $95.00 online for free, but I’m certainly glad; ever since a dear friend introduced me to Shafer’s work on Sino-Tibetan over 30 years ago, I’ve been curious to get an up-to-date take on the field, and this looks to provide it, at least for the Tibeto-Burman branch:

This 800-page volume is a clear and readable presentation of the current state of research on the history of the Tibeto-Burman (TB) language family, a typologically diverse group of over 250 languages spoken in Southern China, the Himalayas, NE India, and peninsular Southeast Asia. The TB languages are the only proven relatives of Chinese, with which they form the great Sino-Tibetan family.
The exposition is systematic, treating the reconstruction of all the elements of the TB proto-syllable in turn, including initial consonants (Ch. III), prefixes (Ch. IV), monophthongal and diphthongal rhymes (Ch. V), final nasals (Ch. VII), final stops (Ch. VIII), final liquids (Ch. IX), root-final *-s (Ch. X), suffixes (Ch. XI). Particular attention is paid to variational phenomena at all historical levels (e.g. Ch. XII “Allofamic variation in rhymes”).
This Handbook builds on the best previous scholarship, and adds up-to-date material that has accumulated over the past 30 years. It contains reconstructions of over a thousand Tibeto-Burman roots, as well as suggested comparisons with several hundred Chinese etyma. It is liberally indexed and cross-referenced for maximum accessibility and internal consistency.

Thanks, Carlos! And while I’m on the subject of Tibeto-Burman, let me pass on a request from Julia Yeates, who is about to become the owner of a Tibetan terrier (“he’s male, black and white and very hairy…”) and would like “a Tibetan name for the puppy that means ‘blessing’ or ‘good fortune’ or something similar and something that we can call when he disappears in the woods.” Alas, Tibetan is not one of my languages, but I’m sure somebody out there can help; you can leave a comment or write her directly at julia_yeates AT


I apologize for bringing a moment of sadness into the holiday season, but I want to take this occasion to commemorate my father, Joseph C. Dodson, who died this morning at the age of 90. He had broken his hip and badly fractured his elbow in a fall last month and never really recovered. Fortunately, he was able to spend his final weeks in a place where he was cared for both lovingly and professionally; he was in no pain, we were able to say our farewells while he could still take them in, and at the end he drifted into a final nap. There are worse ways to go.
Dad grew up in small towns in eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas; his father was a schoolteacher, and they moved around a fair amount. It was a large family by today’s standards, and he and a brother slept out on the porch because the indoor bedrooms went to the older brothers and sisters. The Depression hit while he was in high school, and he had to work hard to put himself through college. He had thought of going into journalism but wound up going to grad school in agricultural economics, where he met my mother (who was a department secretary—her family was also large, and they could only afford to send the boys to college, so she went to work). After his service in World War Two, he got a position on a commission supervising elections in Greece (a country he always remembered fondly) and then, through the good offices of a friend, was invited to join the occupation staff in Tokyo, where my mother joined him and I was born.

He had a good career in the Foreign Service and could have had an ambassadorship if he’d wanted it, but he didn’t enjoy the kind of socializing that would involve. He gave his three sons not only a fine education but exposure to life in several countries in Asia and South America, a rare opportunity to see the world with a wider perspective than most people get (and doubtless the impetus for my love of languages). As much as he enjoyed traveling, I’m afraid he often didn’t enjoy life very much. He was given to depression and insisted on peace and quiet when he was home, which could be hard for three opinionated boys to live with; he had the psychology typical to men of his generation, with their strong-but-silent ideal, and was never comfortable with intimacies. Only towards the end of his life did he learn to say “I love you” to his sons and begin to talk freely about his past. But he was a good and generous man, and he never tried to impose his ideas of how life should be lived on his children. No matter how many times I went off in directions incomprehensible to him, dropping mathematics for linguistics and that for poetry, quitting grad school for a feckless life earning minimum wage in bookstores, no matter how many Christmases I brought home entirely new women for him to accept as a temporary part of the family, he was tolerant and good-humored about it. He let me feel that life was a good thing to be taken as it came, and that is perhaps the greatest gift a father can give.

I’m playing Benny Goodman in his honor, and “After You’ve Gone” has just come on. Listen to the joyous sweep of that clarinet! He may not have been able to articulate it, but he was drawn to the abandon of that music, and Mom always said he was a wonderful dancer. I like to think of them dancing in the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria, still young and as carefree as you could be in those wartorn times, looking forward to a life of unpredictable adventures. I hope he was pleased with how it all turned out. I’ll miss you, Dad.


Some of our neighbors exhibit the same variety of laziness as Geoff Pullum’s:

Some of the more antisocial neighbours near where we live did not bother to bestir themselves with a snow shovel the way we did after the big early snowfall that hit the Boston area on December 9. Their laziness, plus some partial meltings and re-freezings, has turned parts of the sidewalks between our Inman Square apartment and the Harvard/Radcliffe area into a treacherous glacier.

He goes on to provide a lesson in the various forms of the verbs lie and lay, in the process quoting one of my favorite carols (understandably, since my given name is Stephen):

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay all about
Deep and crisp and even

The feast of Stephen, otherwise known as Boxing Day in some quarters, is tomorrow; for today, let me wish all my readers a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah (which begins today), or whichever other greetings may be applicable or welcome.
(For the origins of Christmas words, see here, and here‘s the parallel page for Hanukkah.)


My learned and musical friend zaelic made one of his typically informative comments on Thursday’s post about ROMLEX, the Romani database, in the course of which he documented the Romani “terms for different kinds of fart. One for loud messy ones, and one for silent-but-deadlies.” In Lovari, for instance, they are khaj (noiseless) and ril (audible). Since this has already been picked up by BatesLine (“A commenter to the entry notes that Romani has two words denoting different kinds of flatulence”), I thought I’d point out that this is an ancient Indo-European inheritance (the distinction, not the words themselves): Proto-Indo-European had *pezd- ‘fart silently’ and *perd- ‘fart audibly.’ Russian has preserved these beautifully, as бздеть/набздеть [bzdet’/nabzdét’] and пердеть/пёр(д)нуть [perdét’/pyór(d)nut’] respectively (the former is from the zero grade of the verb, without the -e-, so *pzd- got assimilated to bzd-). I don’t have to provide a complete list of forms, because Angelo of sauvage noble has kindly done so already. An ill wind blows down the millennia…


William Annis’s, “dedicated to the study of ancient Greek poetry from the Epics to Anacreontics,” has a page on Classical Greek Haiku, which presents, yes, haiku in Greek, with extensive discussion of technical details (“Also, I’ve used a genitive absolute phrase for the second line. The unspecific relationship between the main clause and the absolute phrase is quite suited to haiku.”). He even has a Greek version of Basho’s famous frog poem. And I learned from him that Woodhouse’s English-Greek dictionary is online!


ROMLEX is a project to document the major Romani (“Gypsy”) languages of Europe.

ROMLEX is not a Romani dictionary in the usual sense. ROMLEX is a lexical database. It contains data that are representative of the variation in the lexicon of all Romani dialects, and offers almost complete coverage of the basic lexicon of the Romani language. At present, data are available online covering 25 different Romani dialects. These are accompanied by translations into English and, depending on the Romani dialect, into other European languages as well. By providing an electronic resource of the highest quality, which can constantly be updated, the ROMLEX database can serve as a foundation for future dissemination of Romani literary resources and Romani language literacy itself.

You can access the database itself here; if you want some information about the various dialects, it’s here; and here is a discussion of the Roma, Sinti, and Calé and where they and their language came from:

Roma means all groups residing in central and eastern Europe, or respectively, those who in the 19th and 20th century emigrated from central and eastern Europe to western Europe and overseas. The term Sinti comprises those subgroups which entered the German speaking cultural area at a relatively early point in time and who for the most part live in western Europe today (Germany, France, Italy, Austria, etc.). Calé defines, among others, groups who have been living for a long time on the Iberian Peninsular (Spain, Portugal)…

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