Archives for January 2006


Mark Liberman has a Language Log post about an oddly formed adjective that’s always pleased and puzzled me, Shanghainese. Where does that intrusive –n– come from? I assumed it had something to do with Chinese, but Mark provides more parallels:

But my guess is that this starts with the analogical shadow cast by the place names ending in ‘n’—Japan, Taiwan, Canton, Bhutan—whose adjectival forms (and the corresponding language names and/or ethnonyms) add ‘-ese’—Japanese, Taiwanese, Cantonese, Bhutanese. Then there are the cases where a final syllable is elided in the place names to get adjectival forms that happen to end up ending in ‘-nese’: Chinese, Lebanese.
Finally—and most relevantly—there are some long-established cases where there is an intrusive ‘n’: Java → Javanese, Sunda → Sundanese, Bali → Balinese, etc. The oldest of these seems to be Javanese, which the OED traces back to 1704[…] and which may derive from an earlier Javan
The preference for -ese as the adjectival ending for places in the “East Indies” presumably reflects the influence of Dutch, which also (I think) regularly has intrusive –n– in such words: Javanees, Sundanees, Balinees, etc. I don’t have access to a historical dictionary of Dutch—is there one?—but I assume that these words date back at least to the early 17th century, if not the 16th. I also don’t know whether the use of intrusive –n– to repair hiatus is the general pattern in Dutch, or whether (as in English) it’s just one of many quasi-regular local options.

He expressed surprise that the OED’s earliest citation for the word Vietnamese is from 1947; I reminded him (via e-mail, LL having no comments) that “until WWII and Ho’s independence movement, there was no such thing as Vietnam—what we think of as Vietnam was three provinces of French Indochina, and you’d use Tonkinese, Annamese/Annamite (interesting that there was no settled form), or Cochin-Chinese as called for.” And I added the following observation, which I repeat here as perhaps of interest to such of my readers as are interested in recondite geographical terminology:

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From Sturrock’s translation of Sodome et Gomorrhe:

I addressed these words to Francoise: “You’re an excellent person,” I said smarmily, “you’re kind, you’ve a thousand good qualities, but you’re no further on than the day you arrived in Paris, either in knowing about women’s clothes or in how to pronounce words properly and not commit howlers.” This was a particularly stupid criticism, because the French words we are so proud of pronouncing accurately are themselves only “howlers” made by Gallic mouths in mispronouncing Latin or Saxon, our language being simply the defective pronunciation of a few others. The genius of the language in its living state, the future and past of French, that is what should have interested me in Francoise’s mistakes. Was her “amender” for “mender” not equally curious as those animals surviving from remote epochs, such as the whale or the giraffe, which demonstrate to ust the stages through which animal life has passed.

The original:

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I just ran across a fine old slang word, spifflicate or spiflicate—the former spelling is preferred by the New Oxford American Dictionary, which defines it as ‘treat roughly or severely; destroy,’ the latter by the OED, which defines it more elaborately: “To deal with in such a way as to confound or overcome completely; to treat or handle roughly or severely; to crush, destroy.” Some OED citations:
1796 New Brighton Guide 39 Come, spiflicate that scoundrel Care, Gruel him, bruise him, never fear.
1818 MOORE Fudge Fam. Paris ix. 223 Alas, alas, our ruin’s fated; All done up, and spiflicated!
1842 BARHAM Ingol. Leg. Ser. II. Babes in Wood xi, So out with your whinger at once, and scrag Jane, while I spiflicate Johnny!
1873 Brit. Q. Rev. LVII. 276 The way in which the learned, racy old Hector smashes and spiflicates scientific idiots.. is delicious.
The participle occurs in this bit of dialogue, which I shall have to remember for future use:
1891 MEREDITH One of our Conquerors x, You’ve got a spiflicating style of talk about you.
The etymology? It’s a “fanciful formation.”


Lameen Souag at Jabal al-Lughat posts infrequently, but it’s always worth reading. Last month I meant to blog his post comparing the traditional (but probably erroneous) etymology of Istanbul < Greek εις την Πόλιν, pronounced /istimbóli(n)/ and meaning 'to the City,' with

‘usquuf, “bishop” in Arabic, which apparently derives from a Coptic reinterpretation of Greek episkopos “bishop” as e-pi-skopos “to the skopos“, due to which skopos was reanalyzed as meaning “bishop”.I am unqualified to judge the validity of the latter etymology, but it’s certainly interesting.
And this month he has a post about one of the easternmost outposts of Berber, El-Fogaha (الفقهة) in central Libya, where some archaic Berber words are retained and there are some interesting phonological developments.

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Winter is good – his Hoar Delights
Italic flavor yield
To Intellects inebriate
With Summer, or the World –
Generic as a Quarry
And hearty – as a Rose –
Invited with Asperity
But welcome when he goes.
   Emily Dickinson

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After my long post on eggplant words, I was delighted to come across a similar post on taro over at qB’s Frizzy Logic. It starts with some linguistic discussion:

“What is this delicious vegetable?” I remember asking Dr B’s parents many years ago. I was sure I’d had it before, somewhere else. “Gollogassy” they chorused. Bappou (grandpa, aka Dr B’s father) told me how to grow it and warned of the care that has to be taken in preparation. Nobody knew an English translation. It was, I was told, a speciality of Cyprus.
I was pretty sure that whatever it was (sweet potato? no, not orange; yam? not quite; cassava? no, not the same) must also be an African and/or Caribbean staple since it was, apparently, freely available in Bristol which is not noted for its enormous Cypriot community.
The mystery remained unsolved until our trip to Cyprus. There I discovered that Cypriot Greek pronunciation differs from mainland or “standard” Greek (and also from the ancient Greek I endured for the minimum time possible at school). The letter kappa, for instance, sounds not like a k as in “kite” but roughly like the g in “gone”. So “gollogassy” is in fact “kolokasi”…

There’s plenty about Cypriot food and culture, as well as qB’s marvelous photographs.


By popular demand (in this thread), I am discussing the various words for ‘eggplant’ (Solanum melongena, a comestible with a far wider variety of shapes and colors than most of us are aware of—there’s a very nice photograph of “a smorgasboard of eggplants” here). The word eggplant itself is the odd man out here (and odd it is, too, until you see the variety it must originally have referred to: scroll most of the way down this page for a dramatic photograph of what do indeed look exactly like eggs with green stems); the English word that will start us on our voyage is aubergine. This is, as you might guess, borrowed from French; the French word is from Catalan albergínia, which is from Arabic al-bādinjān (with the definite article al-), itself borrowed from Persian bādingān, which is probably from Middle Indo-Aryan *vātiñjana-, vātingana-; most sources attribute the latter form to Sanskrit, but I don’t find it in my dictionaries.

The Arabic word is the source also of Spanish berenjena, which the Italians (assimilating it to mela ‘apple’) borrowed as melanzana, which they then folk-etymologized as mela insana ‘mad apple’; Hobson-Jobson, in its usual discursive fashion, says:

The Ital. mela insana is the most curious of these corruptions, framed by the usual effort after meaning, and connecting itself with the somewhat indigestible reputation of the vegetable as it is eaten in Italy, which is a fact. When cholera is abroad it is considered (e.g. in Sicily) to be an act of folly to eat the melanzana. There is, however, behind this, some notion (exemplified in the quotation from Lane’s Mod. Egypt. below) connecting the badinjān with madness. [Burton, Ar. Nights, iii. 417.] And it would seem that the old Arab medical writers give it a bad character as an article of diet. Thus Avicenna says the badinjān generates melancholy and obstructions. To the N. O. Solanaceae many poisonous plants belong.

This is under the heading brinjaul, a form now spelled brinjal, of which the OED (which classifies it as “Anglo-Indian”) says: “Few names even of plants exemplify so fully the changes to which a foreign and unintelligible word is liable under the influence of popular etymology and form-association… The Malay berinjalā, prob. from Pg., illustrates the Anglo-Indian form… In the West Indies brinjalle has been further corrupted to brown-jolly.” The Portuguese form referred to is spelled beringela in Portugal and berinjela in Brazil; Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) has both berengena and merengena (the former used among the Istanbul Sephardic community according to my dictionary); and the Neapolitans, idiosyncratic as usual, borrowed the Arabic as mulignana.

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I’m sorry, I know we just did this last week, but dammit, I can’t let this stuff go uncorrected. In today’s column he discusses a certain negative prefix:

That got me wondering about ir- words, from irresponsible to irreverent, and irrespective to irrational. There’s no doubt about the meaning of the prefix ir-; it means “not.” Why, then, don’t we use the standard prefixes that turn around a word’s meaning, like in- or un-?
The reason is that language is created to fit the mouth. It is easier to pronounce irresolute than inresolute or unresolute, which is why those clunkier forms never got off the ground. Somewhere in the mist of early mouthings, English speakers found the n uncomfortable before words beginning with r. So – why not scrap the “inr,” with its two separate sounds, and go with a simple “ir-“? In most cases we dropped the n of in-, leaving only the i, pronounced “ih.” Then, because spelling is the handmaiden of pronunciation, when it came to writing down the way the word sounded, we decided to double the r.

I think I’ve already used the phrase “mindbogglingly stupid” to describe a Safire column, and I hate repeating myself, so let me ask him one simple question: if it’s a question of English phonology, how come we say inroads instead of irroads and unresolved instead of urresolved? Answer: because it’s not a question of English phonology, as he could have found out by looking at a dictionary, any dictionary. Let’s try irrational. What does Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate say? Why, it says “Middle English, from Latin irrationalis, from in– + rationalis rational.” So we’re talking about Latin phonology. Yes, Virginia, Latin did have an assimilation rule that changed n+r to rr (and n+l to ll, which is why we say illiberal and illiterate); that’s why only words derived from Latin show this assimilation. Now, was that so hard? Again I ask: does nobody at the Times dare question the man?


A comment by Ran in this thread was so interesting I thought I’d give it its own post. He quotes from Bescherelle: La Conjugaison pour tous, a comprehensive description of French verbal conjugation (I’ll give his translation, slightly emended by me, since the original French is available in his comment):

131 Some remarks on past participle agreement
The subject of past participle agreement involves significant developments that could suggest that it’s one of the most important aspects of the language. To take an accurate measure of the import of the problem, the following remarks should be kept in mind.
– A matter of spelling
Past participle agreement is almost exclusively a matter of spelling. Gender agreement makes itself heard in speech in only a small number of participles: for example, offert. By far the greater number of past participles have masculine forms ending in -é, -i, or -u, and only mark their feminine forms in spelling: -ée, -ie, -ue. As for agreement in number, it never manifests itself in speech, except in the case of liaison, itself rather rare.
– Little-respected rules
Even in those cases where gender agreement is apparent in speech, we often find, in today’s language, that the rules aren’t observed, notably for the agreement of a past participle with a preceding direct object. We very often hear *les règles que nous avons enfreint or *les fautes que nous avons commis instead of the regular enfreintes and commises.
– An artificial rule
The rule of agreement of a past participle with a preceding object is one of the most artificial in the French language. Its introduction can be dated with precision: the poet Clément Marot formulated it in 1538. Marot took as his example Italian, which has since partially abandoned this rule.
– A political matter?
Marot’s rule was nearly abolished politically. In 1900, a courageous minister of public education, Georges Leygues, published an order that “allowed” [tolérait] non-agreement. But the French Academy brought so much pressure to bear that the Minister was forced to replace his order in 1901 with a text that did away with the acceptance of non-agreement except when the participle is followed by an infinitive or a past or present participle: les cochons sauvages que l’on a trouvé or trouvés errant dans les bois.

This little story is a perfect illustration of the idiocy both of imposing artificial rules on a living language and of allowing academies to keep the language from throwing them off. Georges Leygues, je vous salue!


One of the main “characters” in Dixon’s book is Chloe Grant, his main informant for the first language he studies, Dyirbal. She is introduced in Chapter 2 (pp. 24 ff.):

We asked about Chloe Grant. “Oh yes, Chloe’d know a good bit too. Been with the whites a fair amount, but she was brought up by the tribe[…]
…And there was Yabbon: a white-painted wooden house set on blocks about two feet off the ground, with a water-tank and windmill off to the right. The yard was fenced and bare, except for a few clumps of grass and weed among which the dogs—and a goat—ran.
Chloe invited us up to sit on a wooden bench and chairs on the front verandah. We said what a nice house it was.
“Yes,” she agreed, “used to be white people live here until two months ago. But I’m a poor widow since my husband pass away, and I’ve got these three girl to bring up.[…] So old Ormy Butler he let me live here. But now he say he want me to move. I’m not going.” Chloe’s voice moved up an octave as she almost sang the last word. “I’ve got nowhere to go.” Then without any pause and in a matter-of-fact tone: “Yes, what can I do for you?”
I explained, stammered, that I’d come from England to learn something about the original language of Murray Upper and that Les had said Chloe might help us. What I really wanted was stories, just telling a traditional tale, or something about her early life, talking into the microphone for five or ten minutes.
“I don’t think I can help you there.” There was a pause, while Chloe fiddled with her cigarette. “There were two languages on the Murray, not just one.”
“No, I didn’t know that.”
“Oh yes. The other side of the river that was Jirrbal and this side was Girramay.”
“Were they very different?” I asked.
“Oh, long way. Jirrbal call ‘water’ bana but Girramay say gamu. And ‘fire’, that’s buni over there but this side they call yugu.”

It’s the start of a long and productive relationship. Dixon says “Black-haired, bespectacled, of medium height, Chloe exuded a vivacity and intelligence that made it hard for me to keep up.” She reminds me of my late, beloved Aunt Bettie, to whom I was a surrogate son; she even looks like her (there are pictures of many of the informants in this well-designed book). Later on, describing another visit (the year is 1963), he says (pp. 73 ff.):

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