Archives for February 2006


Lameen Souag of Jabal al-Lughat has a fascinating entry on the use of be as a suppletive form of go, but only in the past participle: you can say I’ve been to Finland or I’ll have been to Finland five times, but not *I’ll be to Finland or *I am to Finland. I’ve used the construction all my life, but never really thought about how it works; Lameen finishes up with this thought-provoking bit of research:

Google does reveal a couple of instances: “I’ll be to bed in a minute”, “I’ll be to work way early”, and perhaps most strikingly, “I’ve been to more than half of the counties, and in the next six weeks, I’ll be to the other half of the counties”. So it seems we have a change in progress. Does this depend on the region? Will it culminate in a complete merger of “go” and “be”? Are there any parallels to this outside English? What do you think?

And while you’re at the mountain of languages, don’t miss his latest post on classical Kanembu and its relation to Kanuri and Arabic:

Most strikingly, since vowel length is non-phonemic in Kanuri, it seems to use vowel length to indicate high tone instead; thus, for example Arabic al-‘aakhirah “the afterlife” has been borrowed as láxíra, and thus gets spelled as لاخِيرَ. As far as I know, this would make it the only Arabic orthography to mark tone.


Mark Liberman of Language Log introduces me to a new word, sketchball. It’s apparently a sort of generalized insult (you can see a variety of attempted definitions at Urban Dictionary, which should never be taken as a serious reference since anyone can put anything they want in it); it’s obviously formed on the model of screwball and its many offspring (goofball, nutball, oddball, sleazeball, slimeball…), but what bothers me about it is that I have no intuitive sense of it. To me, sketchy (from which the noun is built) means simply—in the words of the Tenth Edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate—”of the nature of a sketch, roughly outlined; wanting in completeness, clearness, or substance.” But the Eleventh Edition has a new sense “questionable, iffy: got into a sketchy situation, a sketchy character,” and this has not entered my linguistic consciousness, so that the insult sounds to me like a ball with a drawing outlined on it. Intellectually, I’m resigned to the inevitability of falling further and further behind the colloquial form of my native language, but my gut has yet to accept it; I’m not ready to be the clueless old geezer wondering what in tarnation these young folks are going on about.


Last Sunday’s NY Times book section has a review by Jim Holt of Darrin M. McMahon’s Happiness: A History that begins as follows:

The history of the idea of happiness can be neatly summarized in a series of bumper sticker equations: Happiness=Luck (Homeric), Happiness=Virtue (classical), Happiness=Heaven (medieval), Happiness=Pleasure (Enlightenment) and Happiness=A Warm Puppy (contemporary). Does that look like progress? Darrin McMahon doesn’t think so.
In olden times, McMahon observes in his engaging book, happiness was deemed a transcendent, almost godlike state, attainable only by the few. Today, however, the concept has become democratized, not to say vulgarized (think of that damned ubiquitous smiley face): it is more about feeling good than being good…

Now, maybe I’m missing something obvious (semantics was never my specialty), but what sense does it make to say that the concept of happiness has changed? We don’t say that the concept of silliness has changed because silly (or its earlier form seely) once meant ‘Happy, blissful; fortunate, lucky, well-omened, auspicious’ or ‘Spiritually blessed, enjoying the blessing of God,’ then ‘Innocent, harmless,’ then ‘Deserving of pity, compassion, or sympathy,’ ‘Helpless, defenceless,’ ‘Weak, feeble, frail; insignificant, trifling,’ ‘Unlearned, unsophisticated, simple, rustic, ignorant,’ and finally the modern ‘Lacking in judgement or common sense; foolish, senseless, empty-headed.’ We say that the word has changed meaning, that the semantic space once occupied by seely/silly is now occupied by other words like lucky or harmless while silly has gone on to occupy a different one.
Why is the situation of happy/happiness not parallel? Happy is from hap ‘chance, fortune’ and therefore originally meant ‘lucky, fortunate; favoured by lot, position, or other external circumstance’; the fact that it has shifted over the centuries to the meaning ‘glad, pleased’ says nothing about changing concepts of happiness, only about the changing semantics of the word. And ancient Greek philosophy seems even less relevant; does anyone seriously think that because Aristotle wrote about virtue, your average Greek did not feel what we call “happy” when he unexpectedly came into money or his harvest was abundant or someone else bought the drinks? It seems to me there is serious confusion here about words and meanings. But as I say, I’m no expert in this area, and I welcome the thoughts of others.


Liz at ALTAlk Blog has a brilliant idea:

Announcing the first Carnival of Blog Translation! Tuesday, Feb. 28th, 2006!
On the day of the Carnival, a participant translates one post by another blogger, and posts it on her own blog with a link to the original. She would need to email me, or post in the comments right here, and I’ll compile one big post on the day of the Carnival with links to all the participants.
You can translate any blog entry that was posted in the month of February 2006. It can be your own blog entry, if you like.

See her post for requirements and suggestions, and I hope lots of polyglots will participate.
Liz also wants to publicize the call for translations of “Gonāh” [گناه ‘sin’] by Forough Farrokhzad for a future issue of Composite; if you know Farsi/Persian, give it a try (the text is in the “call” link).


When I entered college back in the fabled year of 1968, like all freshmen I was confronted with the need to buy armloads of course books and experienced severe sticker shock. Well, in the course of cleaning out the garage at my father’s house (and let me tell you, a lot of stuff builds up in 30-plus years) I ran across a yellowing slip of paper, the receipt for one such armload (dated 22 Sep 68). Here are seven items I marked “Civ” (for the college’s two-year series of courses called “History of Civilization,” one of the reasons I chose to attend):
The Scientific Revolution 2.95
Essay on Man 0.50
Eighteenth-Century Philosophy 1.65
The Anatomy of Revolution 1.95
Classic, Romantic, and Modern 1.45
Phaedra (Racine) 0.65
Hunchback of Notre Dame 0.75
Those were new books, not dogeared discards. The most expensive thing on the receipt is my math text, which set me back $11.50 (I’m sure I swallowed hard before adding it to the pile). I know there’s been a fair amount of inflation since then, but I’ll bet the cost of an equivalent stack of books would be a lot more than would be covered by the changing consumer price index.
As for History of Civ (as we called it), it taught me an amazing amount about the world, and I’m grateful to it to this day. Unfortunately, my class was the last to get the benefit of it, because the lefties bullied the administration into dropping it from the curriculum—it was “Eurocentric” and insufficiently “relevant.” I haven’t given the college a dime since I graduated for that very reason. You know what they say about those who forget the past.


Zheng Chenggong (Chinese: 鄭成功) was a military leader whose loyalty to the Ming dynasty led him to fight the new Manchu Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty until his death in 1662; because he recovered Taiwan from Dutch colonial rule, I heard a great deal about him while I was teaching English in Taiwan, and I wondered why he was known in English as Coxinga. It turns out Joel of Far Outliers has wondered too, and in the course of reading (and blogging) Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty by Jonathan Clements he found the answer:

Coxinga … was said to have greatly impressed the bookish Emperor of Intense Warring [the remaining Ming pretender who had retreated to Fuzhou as the Manchus invaded]. Still only a youth of twenty-one, the former Confucian scholar was made assistant controller of the Imperial Clan Court. The childless Emperor also commented that he was disappointed not to have a daughter he could offer to Coxinga in marriage, and bestowed him with a new name. Once Lucky Pine [Fukumatsu], then Big Tree [Da Mu, a nickname from Sen ‘Forest’], the boy was now given the appellation Chenggong, thereby making his new given name Zheng Chenggong translate literally as ‘Serious Achievement’. In a moment of supreme pride for his family, the boy was also conferred with the right to use the surname of the Ming ruling family itself. It amounted to a symbolic adoption, and he was often referred to as Guoxingye, the Imperial Namekeeper. Pronounced Koksenya in the staccato dialect of Fujian, and later transcribed by foreign observers, the title eventually transformed into the ‘Coxinga’ by which he is known to history.

Or, as the Wikipedia article linked above to his name puts it, “Koxinga or Coxinga is the Dutch Romanization of his popular name ‘Lord with the Royal Surname’ (國姓爺).”


Hello all! I’m writing you from balmy Santa Barbara, where my brother is kindly letting me use his computer. I was supposed to be in frigid Massachusetts by now, but my flight yesterday was canceled thanks to a winter storm, and I’m now scheduled to return Tuesday night (please join me in hoping conditions have improved by then!). Continue talking amongst yourselves, and if you’re looking for a good novel, I highly recommend Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (which I finished as the plane’s wheels touched down in Santa Barbara).
Update. I’m back; regular posting will resume as soon as I work through the comments and terminate all the spammers. Thanks for your patience!


I’m off to California for a week to deal with family matters. Talk amongst yourselves; I hope someone solves the egreto problem, and if you see a spammer lurking about, terminate with extreme prejudice. (I may or may not drop by, depending on internet access, but I’ll definitely be here as of Sunday the 12th.)


Mark Liberman at Language Log has posted about a couple of Nabokov’s interviews (which are not like anybody else’s); he finished up with this quote:

This exchange with Alvin Toffler appeared in Playboy for January, 1964. Great trouble was taken on both sides to achieve the illusion of a spontaneous conversation. Actually, my contribution as printed conforms meticulously to the answers, every word of which I had written in longhand before having them typed for submission to Toffler when he came to Montreux in mid-March, 1963. The present text takes into account the order of my interviewer’s questions as well as the fact that a couple of consecutive pages of my typescript were apparently lost in transit. Egreto perambis doribus!

Neither Mark nor I has any idea what the jocular polymath might have meant by that last bit of pseudo-Latin, nor (as far as I can tell by googling) does anybody else on the internet, so I’m throwing the floor open to suggestions. Egrets given to the perambulating Dorians??


A while back I posted about the English word Shanghainese; now I’m reporting on a site where you can learn the actual language. It’s run by Shanghainese students at the University of Chicago, and they won my heart right on the front page by quoting Max Weinreich (though without naming him, tsk): “A shprakh iz a diyalekt mit an armey un a flot.” The Background page would be worth a post all on its own; along with gorgeous photos, it’s got history:

The name 上海 (Shanghai) first appeared in 1077 AD on the store name of a winery in what is today the Nanshi district of Shanghai. Its name literally meaning ‘on the sea’… The term Wu (吴, variant characters: 吳 or 呉) comes from the historic Kingdom of Wu (吴国) first united by Wu Taibo (吴太伯) as Gouwu (句吴) with its capital just 80km from present day Shanghai during the Autumn and Spring period… Wu today descends from the languages spoken in Eastern Chu and the Wu and Yue kingdoms, along with northern and Han influences later on.

That’s followed by a nice “Map of Chinese topolects” and a discussion of why the so-called “dialects” of Chinese are considered separate languages by most non-Chinese linguists (“topolects” is a neutral term coined to avoid the controversy) and an “Overview of the phonology and grammar”:

[Read more…]