Archives for January 2006


This all started because while editing an article in MS Word for a veterinary journal, I noticed that the spellchecker did not recognize the word scrapie. That’s odd, I thought—it’s a reasonably common word that I (who am not given to browsing books about the diseases of livestock) have run across any number of times in my reading career. Why wouldn’t it be in the spellchecker’s dictionary? As is my wont, I went directly to the OED, where it was defined as “A subacute, invariably fatal, disease of sheep and goats, characterized by degeneration of the central nervous system, leading to uncoordinated gait and itching.” So far, so good. But the first citation was from 1910! Surely such a homely word referring to such a common rural phenomenon must have been around for centuries, and in fact the 1910 citation (from Vet. Jrnl. LXVI. 711) implies it’s not an innovation: “Shepherds and farmers.. class more than one disease with totally different symptoms under the head of Scrapy.” How can it not be attested before that?
So I thought I’d check to see how far back the comparable French word was attested, only to discover it wasn’t in any of my bilingual dictionaries. It’s not in my Russian ones either, but the Yandex online dictionary has it, and the translation they give is скрепи [skrepi], clearly borrowed from English. Do sheep not get this disease outside Merrie England? And did sheep there not develop it until the nineteenth century?


This is my favorite kind of discussion of translation—not a theoretical treatise filled with jargon, but a nuts-and-bolts analysis of particular issues that come up in the course of particular translations. And it’s by the wonderful J.M. Coetzee, so it’s well written as well as meaty. I’ll just quote a couple of tidbits to whet your appetite:

Dialogue comes with its own set of problems, particularly when it is very informal and incorporates regional usages, contemporary fashions and allusions, or slang. My dialogue is rarely of this kind. For the most part its character is formal, even if its rhythms are more abrupt than the rhythms of narrative prose. So hitting the right register ought not to be a problem for the translator.
Where my dialogue is aberrant is when it comes from the mouths of children or of characters for whom English is not a first language. In general, it is best for such speech to be translated not word for word but by speech typical of children in the language translated into (hereafter called the target language), or by the speech of a foreigner making typical foreign slips…

[Read more…]


A follow-up to this post: the exciting conclusion (pp. 190ff.) to Dixon’s discussion of Jalnguy (“mother-in-law language”).

I had intended that my Jalnguy questioning should fall into two parts. The first was now as complete as I could get it that trip—going through everyday language words and asking their Jalnguy equivalents. I took a day off to go down to the motel at Mission Beach to prepare for the second stage.
A six-by-four-inch card was made out for each Jalnguy verb, and on it were listed all the everyday-style verbs for which it had been given as correspondent. Since there was a many-to-one relation between everyday and mother-in-law vocabularies, I expected to finish up with a fair number of Guwal forms on each Jalnguy card. A couple had just one—Jalnguy yirrgunjinyu had only occurred as equivalent of Guwal miyandanyu “laugh”—but most had four, five or six Guwal verbs for the one Jalnguy item.
The jubumban card was fairly typical. This Jalnguy verb had been given by Chloe, and by George and Ginnie, as the equivalent of bijin “hit with a rounded object”, jilwan “kick with the foot or shove with the knee”, dudan “mash food with a stone”, dalinyu “deliver a blow to something on the ground, for example, fall on”. One Jalnguy verb and four Guwal equivalents…

[Read more…]


I’m catching up with teju cole, whom I recommended earlier and who I belatedly remembered is going to pull down the pillars of his blog at the end of the month, and I’ve just hit a remarkable (they’re all remarkable) entry called “amnesiac.” It begins with a quote from Tomas Tranströmer:

One can’t say it aloud, but there is a lot of repressed violence here. That is why the furnishings seem so heavy. And why it is so difficult to see the other thing present: a spot of sun that moves over the house walls and slips over the unaware forest of flickering faces, a biblical saying never set down: ‘Come unto me, for I am as full of contradictions as you.’

It goes on to describe the “fratricidal Yoruba wars of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries” and the bustling slave market they created, which thrived “in spite of a British ban on the trade (in 1808) and a British naval presence in Nigerian waters,” and tells us that “This history is missing from Lagos. There is no monument to the great wound. There is no day of remembrance, no museums.” And then he describes a visit to “the famous CMS bookshop on Lagos Island”:

[Read more…]


This is a follow-up to this post, with further excerpts from R.M.W. Dixon’s Searching for Aboriginal Languages: Memoirs of a Field Worker:

I’d only begun to work systematically on Jalnguy in the last few weeks in the field, and didn’t realize the full significance of it until I came to mull over the data back in London.
The many-to-one correspondence between Guwal [everyday language] and Jalnguy [“mother-in-law” language] vocabularies was a key to the semantic structure of Dyirbal. If one Jalnguy word was given as the equivalent for a number of distinct Guwal terms, it meant that the Guwal words were seen, by speakers of the language, to be related. For nouns, it revealed the botanical and zoological classifications which the Aborigines perceived. For instance, bayi marbu “louse”, bayi nunggan “larger louse”, bayi daynyjar “tick”, and bayi mindiliny “larger tick” were all grouped together under a single Jalnguy term, bayi dimaniny.
It could be even more revealing with verbs. The everyday style has four different words for kinds of spearing, and also such verbs as nyuban “poke a stick into the ground (testing for the presence of yams or snails, say)”, nyirran “poke something sharp into something (for example, poke a fork into meat to see if it is cooked)”, gidan “poke a stick into a hollow log, to dislodge a bandicoot”. All seven of these Guwal verbs are rendered by just one word in Jalnguy: nyirrindan “pierce”.
Sometimes Jalnguy grouped together verbs in a most surprising fashion. For instance, gundumman was given as Jalnguy equivalent of julman “squeeze, for example, squeeze a boil, knead flour”, and also of bugaman “chase, run down, as in catch a runaway steer”. What did these two verbs have in common? It was only when I had a chance to discuss it with Chloe that she explained gundumman means “bring together”. Hands come together in julman, while bugaman describes a pursuer coming into contact with what he is chasing…

[Read more…]


Looking up something else, I happened to notice that English has two words lemma: lemma ‘auxiliary proposition; glossed word or phrase’ and lemma ‘the lower of the two bracts enclosing the flower in the spikelet of grasses.’ Not particularly noteworthy in itself; what struck me was the etymologies: the former is from Greek lēmma (with long e) ‘thing taken, assumption,’ from lambanein ‘to take’ (compare the perfect passive eilēmmai), the latter from Greek lemma ‘husk,’ from lepein ‘to peel.’ Etymologically, they’re completely unrelated. Kind of neat.


It’s Gilbert Sorrentino day at wood s lot; I haven’t read much Sorrentino (Aberration of Starlight and, I think, Mulligan Stew), but I like his style. I very much like this interview by Alexander Laurence (from 1994). Asked about what’s happened since the glory days of Black Mountain, he says:

Hard to answer this question. I was on a panel a little while ago with Robert Creeley, and we were both being asked versions of your question. Apparently, young people are enormously interested in “how things were” in the Fifties. Creeley said something much to the point, to the effect that we all took art very seriously in those days, we were absolutely committed. He’s right, of course, there was a sense then among young artists that we were writing for our lives—but maybe more importantly, there was a really drab “establishment” in place at that time—artistic and social and political—and young artists felt, rightly or wrongly, that they were destroying it, “deforming the ideogram,” as Jakobson says.

And his response to a question about commercial publishing is a wonderful rant:

Joyce, Pound, and Williams commanded the smallest of audiences and were shunned by what we now think of as “major” publishing houses. Publishers have always been craven when the odds are not in their favor, it’s just enhanced nowadays because there is so much money to be made if the publisher can hit the shit machine. What is most surprising to me is the number of—what can I call them?—”absent” books published. These are books that have no literary merit, no spirit of aesthetic adventure, no rough but interesting formal design, and—this is most important—no chance of commercial success! That’s what is so amazing to me—not the number of Judith Krantz-like novels published, nor the Calvin Trillin-Garrison Keillor warm and wise and witty and wonderful malarkey, but the novels that just lie there: life and love in a small town in Northern California, sexual awakening in a Baptist family in Pennsylvania—daughter flees to Greenwich Village, meets bum who makes her pregnant, discovers feminism—and on and on. Were I running these houses, I’d can all these editors in a minute. If they can’t make millions, would be my thinking, I’ll be God damned if they’re going to put out excrement that will only break even, i.e., if we want to break even, I’d say, let’s publish BOOKS. But, of course, the chances are that the people who own these houses would not know a book if it buggered them.

And don’t miss his rave for my man Flann O’Brien.


This is another in a series of posts (1, 2) presenting excerpts from R.M.W. Dixon’s Searching for Aboriginal Languages: Memoirs of a Field Worker; this one deals with one of Dixon’s major interests, the avoidance forms common among Australian languages (you can see samples of so-called “mother-in-law language” here: scroll down to “2.3 Taboo and avoidance”). He introduces it on pp. 91ff:

Now that the rains had begun, we were keen to get back to Cairns before bad floods came; we had been warned that roads were often out for weeks at the height of the wet season. But Chloe insisted that before we left, we must go through one other type of language: Jalnguy. A special language that a man had to use when talking to—or even when talking in the presence of—his mother-in-law, and the mother-in-law would use it back. Jalnguy was also used between a woman and her father-in-law, and between certain types of cousins. Every member of the Jirrbalngan and Girramaygan tribes would know Jalnguy, and had to use it with relatives from these particular kin categories. They were people who should be kept at arm’s length in social dealings—one would not normally look them in the eye or be left alone with them without a chaperon—and the use of a special language, Jalnguy, was an overt index of this avoidance behavior.
There was never any choice involved, Chloe said. A man would talk with his wife in Guwal, the everyday language style, but if a mother-in-law was within hearing, he had immediately to switch to Jalnguy. All the texts and vocabulary I’d collected so far were Guwal. Some of the old people had warned Chloe that it wasn’t wise to divulge anything about Jalnguy, but she had decided to ignore them…
Everything, it appeared, had a different name in Jalnguy. “Water” was bana in the everyday style, Guwal, but jujama in Jirrbal Jalnguy. “Fire” was buni in straight-out Jirrbal but yibay in Jirrbal Jalnguy. “Man” was yara in Guwal and bayabay in Jalnguy, while “woman” was jugumbil and jayanmi respectively.
It appeared, though, that the grammar was the same—only the nouns, verbs, and adjectives differed…

[Read more…]


We here at Casa Languagehat believe in fairness to the point of gritted teeth, yea, unto the uttering of small yips of pain. Having twice this month (1, 2) spifflicated William Safire, the oft-erring language columnist of the New York Times, I now find myself in the acutely uncomfortable position of defending him against his own copyeditors, who, according to Sunday’s column, not only exist but challenge him on mistaken grounds:

These thoughts are triggered by the copy desk’s (two words) objection to the spelling of a word in last week’s column, which dealt with irregardless as a jocular redundancy and therefore, in my judgment, “arrant nonsense.” Last year, I chose that very phrase as an example of “wedded words,” like unmitigated gall, congenital liar and blithering idiot.[…]
As a language columnist, I have a license to use almost any taboo word or misspelling as an object of study, but not as part of my own prose. The objection was not to its being a word-wedding, cliché or fixed phrase, but because the desk held that arrant should be spelled errant. You could look it up, it (the desk) said, in the Dodger and Yankee manager Casey Stengel’s classic phrase.
I looked it up, in Webster’s New World, and in Merriam-Webster’s, and in American Heritage, and cannot fault the desk: there it was in all three of the best sellers: “arrant, adjective, variant of errant.” That was the lexicographers’ way of saying that although some spelling deviants insisted on arrant with a beginning a, most sensible people agreed with the establishment and spelled errant with an e. The Times’s copy desk was going by the book.

Safire is unquestionably right; as he says, “We are not dealing here with one word with one meaning spelled two different ways, one preferred and one variant; in my view, we are dealing with a word whose meaning has split, and the resulting ‘variation’ in spelling signifies the difference in the two meanings.” If indeed the copyeditors wanted him to make the change (and I can’t suppress a small voice that suggests he might be making the whole exchange up as an excuse to discuss the two words), they were not only wrong but a disgrace to their (and my) profession.

[Read more…]


In the course of editing a medical article I came across the phrase in silico, which at first mystified me; fortunately, Wikipedia has an admirably thorough entry that not only defines it—”performed on computer or via computer simulation”—but discusses the propriety of the word-formation:

Contrary to widespread belief, in silico does not mean anything in Latin… “In silico” was briefly challenged by “in silicio”, which is correct Latin for in silicon (the Latin term for silicon, silicium, was created at the beginning of the 19th century by Berzelius). “In silico” was perceived as catchier, possibly through similarity to the word silicate. “In silico” is now almost universal; it even occurs in a journal title (In Silico Biology:

The Wikipedia article also provides a citation for the first use: “Using the data available in libraries […] two sets of experiments were performed on computers (experiments in silico) using the consistency of the data extracted.” (Danchin A, Medigue C, Gascuel O, Soldano H, Henaut A. From data banks to data bases. Res Microbiol. 1991 Sep-Oct;142(7-8):913-6.) I trust it will show up in the OED in due time. (Although generally I prefer that words be properly formed, I have to agree that in silico is preferable to the longer form, and hell, silicium isn’t classical anyway.)