Archives for June 2006


So they say over at Sawf News:

“It’s true we Swiss Germans are becoming more isolated,” Marianne Junger, a 30-year-old English language instructor from Bern. “I would not marry outside my language group for example and most of us are reluctant to take jobs in other Swiss towns.”
The break with standard German came after World War I when Swiss Germans wanted to separate themselves from what was going on in Germany, according to Roy Oppenheim, a former director at the Swiss national broadcaster SRG/SSR.
“This trend was only strengthened after the Second World War and later during the 1970s it became fashionable for radio and television programs to broadcast in local dialect.”
Standard German remains the written language for the federal government, banking, school instruction, newspapers and literature.
But now fewer Swiss Germans speak proper German and are increasingly turning to dialect even in written form. For young Swiss Germans dialect has become the language of text messaging, e-mail and even poetry and rap music…

Of course, they include the standard “on the other hand” balance: “But the Forum Helveticum report may be pushing the pendulum back toward standard German with educators insisting it once again be the language of classroom instruction beginning this year.” Not to mention the standard self-interested quotes (“‘Young people are limiting themselves in their contact with the outside world…,’ said Pablo Barblan, director of the Forum Helveticum, which encourages communication among Switzerland’s diverse language communities”) and idiotic statements about language (“Unlike high German, dialects have simple grammar”); furthermore, they say “to mark this year’s 60th anniversary of The Little Prince, a translation has appeared in Bernerdeutsch under the title Dr Chyl Prinz,” but I couldn’t help but notice that in the picture accompanying the story the title is clearly Der Chly Prinz. Still, an interesting piece; anybody have any thoughts on linguistic developments in Switzerland? (Thanks to Sidcup for the link.)


Lameen at Jabal al-Lughat has a thoughtful post on Moroccan linguistic and educational policy. He starts by linking to a brief MoorishGirl post on the subject (“I’m fully in favor of using Darija, because of the huge impact it would have on the creation of a reading culture”) and expands on it:

Developing a literature of sorts in Darja would allow kids to get into the habit of reading way earlier. A fair number of kids in the West are reading by the age of three; for an Algerian or Moroccan kid to even understand much of the language his/her books are written in at that age would be unheard of. With Darja literature for them to use, they could start reading before they ever started school; it might even lead to them acquiring literary Arabic faster. Moreover, an oral literary tradition already exists, best exemplified by the traditions of melhoun poetry and chaabi lyrics; the language used in these is recognizably a literary register, and all that would be needed would be to write it. My puristic instincts would also rejoice in a move with the potential to stem the tragic loss of inherited vocabulary, and overuse of French, now afflicting Darja.

If you’re at all interested in the situation of minority languages, read the whole thing. (More on Darija here.)


Things announcers have said while I’ve been trying to watch soccer/football:
1) “A bit of a row has broken out between employers and employees…”
Unexceptionable, you say? Ah, but row was pronounced as in “Row, row, row your boat.” Had the fellow never heard it spoken, or was he simply having a brain spasm?
2) “My hero as a childhood boy was Beckenbauer.” That one’s definitely a brain spasm.
Incidentally, I trust today’s 6-0 thrashing of Serbia-Montenegro has convinced everyone of what I’ve been saying since the beginning: Argentina is going to win this thing. Oíd, mortales, el grito sagrado: “libertad, libertad, libertad!”


Like most people, I read Dear Abby for the Schadenfreude, but today’s column was interesting to me in my capacity as Languagehat. The subject was people who talk about others thinking they can’t be understood, and there were some great anecdotes sent in by readers. A couple:

DEAR ABBY: My son, an 18-year-old college football player of Italian/Irish heritage, was sitting in an airport in Austin, Texas, during a layover. A family from Japan was sitting next to him, complaining about their flight and their food, and finally, that someone nearby smelled bad. My son turned to them and, in perfect Japanese, said, “Yes, something does smell funny.” He said they looked at him in shock, got up and literally ran away. He said the same thing your writer did: People shouldn’t automatically assume others don’t speak their language, even those visiting our country. —DORIS IN KAILUA, HAWAII
DEAR ABBY: My mother is from Germany, and I speak German. I vacationed there with my husband, two children, my mother and my in-laws. On the way home, my father-in-law and I went to the flight desk to check in. The woman behind the counter told us our plane had left two hours before! Then, in German, she said to her co-workers that we were stupid Americans, and she’d make us stay another night and take a flight the next day. I replied in German that we were not stupid, and we’d take a flight that day. Her jaw dropped, and her boss came over and ran with us to the next flight. —CAROL IN PORTLAND, ORE.

So remember, you never know what languages that person you desperately want to mock might know!


A simple AskMetaFilter question (“What does this pin say, and what does it mean?” Answer: Leningrad) inspired a woman with the username posadnitsa (“The posadniki were the medieval mayors of Novgorod. There was one posadnitsa, Marfa Boretskaia, but unlike her I have never incited Tsar Ivan III to invade my hometown…”) to comment: “My host mother in St. Petersburg made annoyed noises whenever anyone brought up Solzhenitsyn; how can anyone take him seriously, she asked, when he actually suggested renaming the beautiful city of St. Petersburg Nevograd?” Needless to say, this caught my attention; some googling turned up an article by Ekaterina Vidyakina on the history of the city’s names that said (my translation; the Russian’s in the extended entry):

The discussion was started off by a letter to the newspaper Smena [‘Change’] by the dissident writer Solzhenitsyn, who at that time [1991] enjoyed greater popularity; he announced that in his opinion the city’s name should not be changed back to “Sankt-Peterburg,” since “it was foisted on [the city] in the 18th century, contrary to the Russian language and Russian consciousness.”
Solzhenitsyn’s letter attracted many replies, in which Leningraders, as well as inhabitants of other cities, proposed their own names for the “nameless” city. Bearing in mind that Russians have never suffered from fantasy [?], one should not be surprised at the variety of names which our good fellow citizens wished to bestow on our city: Petropol, Nevograd, and the like.

So it sounds like it wasn’t Solzhenitsyn himself who proposed it, though it was in response to a letter of his. But I also turned up this sci.lang post by Andrey Frizyuk, who says:

As the name St.Petersburg isn’t particularly poetical, Russian poets (Derzhavin, Pushkin, etc) invented Greeko-Slavic names for the capital: Petropol(is), Petrograd, Nevograd, etc. When the WWI started 90 years ago, there was a discussion if the name should be changed to Petrograd or to Nevograd. The former version proved more popular in official circles, because it was first used by Pushkin in “The Bronze Horseman”. The popular nickname has always been Peter.

Anybody know anything more about this (to my ears stupid-sounding) proposed name?

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Sally Thomason at Language Log has a post in which she describes how she came to learn the synonyms stot and pronk, both of which describe the “hilarious pogo-stick bounds” of mule-deer (and antelope, gazelles, and the like). The etymology of stot is unknown, but pronk is “from an Afrikaans word meaning ‘to show off, strut, prance’, and ultimately from Dutch pronken ‘to strut’; and it was first applied to the spectacular bounds of the little South African antelope called a springbok.” I felt it my bounden duty to tell you about these wonderful words, even if few of us will have the chance to use them in the course of our daily lives.


Tom Montag, aka The Middlewesterner, gave a talk about Lorine Niedecker (one of my favorites) at UW-Baraboo/Sauk County in Baraboo, Wisconsin; he’s kindly posted it, and its a good, detailed, meaty examination of how the great, too-little-known poet got her effects—just keep following the “Continued here” links at the end of each page, and for ease of reference I’ll link to the Exhibits (bits of her poems that he discusses) and Notes. This is very well said:

I think Niedecker was not particularly concerned with “meaning” in the denotative sense. She was concerned with the thing, and with “something else” beyond that, but it doesn’t seem to me that she was intent on making unequivocal and definitive statements. I’ll venture that for Niedecker, poetry was closer to painting than to philosophy. The painter dabs color onto the canvas just so, but what do color and shape and line mean? What does a dab of cobalt put here mean? That’s not a question Niedecker would ask.

Thanks to Dave Bonta for the link, and I envy both Tom and Dave their visit to Montreal for a blogswarm (which I found out about via this post of Lorianne’s).

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“Beyond Power/Knowledge: an exploration of the relation of power, ignorance and stupidity” (pdf) is a riveting look at “the link between coercion and absurdity” by the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber (whom Yale has cravenly refused to rehire); though I recommend the whole thing, I cite it here for this look at the nexus between language and behavior in Madagascar:

What’s more, one result of the colonial experience was that what might be called relations of command—basically, any ongoing relationship in which one adult renders another an extension of his or her will—had become identified with slavery, and slavery, with the essential nature of the state. In the community I studied, such associations were most likely to come to the fore when people were talking about the great slave-holding families of the 19th century whose children went on to become the core of the colonial-era administration, largely (it was always remarked) by dint of their devotion to education and skill with paperwork. In other contexts, relations of command, particularly in bureaucratic contexts, were linguistically coded: they were firmly identified with French; Malagasy, in contrast, was seen as the language appropriate to deliberation, explanation, and consensus decision-making. Minor functionaries, when they wished to impose arbitrary dictates, would almost invariably switch to French. I particularly remember one occasion when an official who had had many conversations with me in Malagasy, and had no idea I even understood French, was flustered one day to discover me dropping by at exactly the moment everyone had decided to go home early. “The office is closed,” he announced, in French, “if you have any business you must return tomorrow at 8AM.” When I pretended confusion and claimed, in Malagasy, not to understand French, he proved utterly incapable of repeating the sentence in the vernacular, but just kept repeating the French over and over. Others later confirmed what I suspected: that if he had switched to Malagasy, he would at the very least have had to explain why the office had closed at such an unusual time. French is actually referred to in Malagasy as “the language of command”; it was characteristic of contexts where explanations, deliberation, ultimately, consent, was not really required, since they were ultimately premised on the threat of violence.

(Via MetaFilter.)


I keep meaning to post about a journal called Sudanic Africa cited by Eliza in a comment to this Yoruba post, and now I’ve finally gotten around to it. Only a minority of the articles are available online, but all the book reviews seem to be, and there’s a lot of interesting material about a too-little-known part of the world:

Sudanic Africa is an international academic journal devoted to the presentation and discussion of historical sources on the Sudanic belt, the area between the Sahara and the Bay of Niger, the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans. The journal typically presents such sources in the original language and in translation, with comments.

Here (pdf), for example, is an article called “A Sudanese Missionary to the United States: Satti Majid, ‘Shaykh al-Islam in North America’, and his Encounter with Noble Drew Ali, Prophet of the Moorish Science Temple Movement”:

Sometime in the late 1920s there was an encounter, direct or indirect we do not know for certain, between two figures from two very different traditions of ‘Islam’. The present article partially documents this encounter, presenting a tantalising glimpse of African American Islam’s earliest encounter with global Sunnı Islam. On the one side is a Sudanese ‘ālim, the very model of Nile Valley Islamic orthodoxy; on the other is an African American, a generation only removed from slavery, an actor in the great northward migration that was to transform the African American worldview, as it was later to transform world music. The Sudanese ‘ālim was Sātti Mājid Muhammad al-Qādi from Dongola; the African-American was Timothy Drew, later known as Noble Drew Ali, from North Carolina. The topic also opens up new avenues for research into the missionizing activities of immigrant Sunnis, Ahmadis, and other Muslim groups, and for the history of the Moorish Science Temple, which latter movement may, in some sense, have been—even unconsciously—a link between the Islam of some African slaves in the antebellum South and the Lost and Found Nation of Islam of Elijah Muhammad.

Thanks, Eliza!


OK, this is very nitpicky, but I’m a confirmed nitpicker, so it’s driving me crazy, and if anyone can help I’ll be most grateful. I’m reading The Anarchist Prince: A Biographical Study of Peter Kropotkin by George Woodcock and Ivan Avakumović (you can apparently read it online if you’re a member of Questia), and I’m getting quite annoyed by the sloppiness on display. At the top of page 110, for instance, the authors refer to Oberstrass, where Kropotkin briefly lived in Zurich, as a “street”; it isn’t, it’s a section of the city (it was an independent municipality until 1893, when it, along with Unterstrass, Fluntern, and other nearby towns were assimilated into the city, like Brooklyn into NYC a few years later). They refer to the revolutionary Karakozov as “Karakazov” throughout. And on page 109 they say:

In Zurich he was immediately among friends. His brother’s sister-in-law, Madame Sophie Nicholaevna Lavrov [sic—should be Sofya Nikolaevna Lavrova], was studying there; she lived with another Russian, Nadeshda [sic—should be Nadezhda] Smezkaya, a wealthy woman who later financed some of the insurrectionary efforts of the Italian anarchists and who was already a disciple of Bakunin.

Now, there is no such name as “Smezkaya”; my reference books and Google come up empty (I tried both Смезкая and Смезкий). Does someone happen to have any sources that would identify this woman so I can leave Zurich and move on to Geneva along with Prince K?