Archives for June 2006


A couple of years ago I did a post about an online translation of the Hyakunin-isshu, A Hundred Verses from Old Japan, and Miriam (of, if it’s still a going concern) left a comment discussing tournaments based on a game called karuta (from Portuguese carta ‘card’) and adding, tantalizingly, that she had “found a fantastic website on the history of karuta a few months ago” but didn’t know where to find it. Now Dave Bull has added a comment suggesting that she might be referring to his own 1996 essay Karuta: Sports or Culture?; I don’t know if it’s what Miriam had in mind, but it’s so well written and interesting I had to give it its own LH post. Dave starts out in medias res, with “an elderly gentleman” chanting poetry and a group of formally dressed people suddenly exploding into action, then goes into the history of the poems, the cards, and the game. Here’s a snippet to whet your appetite, but you’re going to want to read the whole thing if you have the slightest interest in Japanese culture:

Cards were formerly made in many shapes and sizes, and not only from pasteboard. Elegant sets were fashioned in lacquered finishes, or drawn on slips of thin wood. Well-known painters down the years have turned out sets of cards, perhaps the most famous of which is the much-photographed set by Ogata Korin, backed with fine gold foil, and of which reproduction sets sell for as much as 1,100,000 yen. In the Edo era it was apparently common for sets of cards to be produced by relatively upper-class people, as they had both the time, and the elegant calligraphy skills that were required. One drawback to this, of course, was that cards produced in such a way were quite difficult to read. This was especially so when the tori fuda [the cards with the final couplets, which the players must try to grab when they recognize the poem] were written in complicated Chinese characters, as was inevitably the case back in those times. It was in the mid-Meiji era that a newspaper company had the idea of producing sets of cards written using the cursive hiragana syllabary, which could be read easily by anyone, even young children. To give an impetus to the sale of their new cards, they began to organize large-scale competitions, and it is here that we see the origin of today’s nationally organized groups and competitions. (This Meiji-era burst of popularity in karuta saw the birth of another Japanese institution — the Nintendo company, of video game fame, who started out as producers of karuta and hanafuda, which they still make. Home entertainment has come a long way in a hundred years …)

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Many years ago I was reading a book about (I think) the Crusades in which there was a footnote mentioning a medieval exclamation of contempt, tprut, that turned up in a number of languages. I recently recalled this and thought I’d investigate; it turns out it’s in the OED:

prut, int. and n.
1. An exclamation of contempt.
c1300 in Langtoft Chron. (MS. Fairfax 22, lf. 4), Tprut! Skot riveling, In unsel timing crope thu out of cage. 1303 R. BRUNNE Handl. Synne 3014 And seyþ ‘prut for þy cursyng, prest!’ a1779 D. GRAHAM Janet Clinker’s Orat. Writ. 1883 II. 150 If they had tell’d me tuts, or prute no, I laid them o’er my knee, and a com’d crack for crack o’er their hurdies. 1870 LUBBOCK Orig. Civiliz. viii. 282 From pr, or prut, indicating contempt.

And the Middle English Dictionary has an entry, with a remarkable variety of spellings: “prut, interj. Also ptrot, tprut, tprot, thprut, trupth, trut. [AL ptrut, phrut & OF trout, trut, tproupt, tropt.] An exclamation of contempt or disapproval; ~ for a fig for (sb. or sth.).” Their first cite is the same as the OED’s (with different punctuation); their next is from Harley’s “The Execution of Sir Simon Fraser” (quoted here): “Tprot, scot, for þi strif!/ hang vp þyn hachet ant þi knyf,” and there are several more. It’s a pity this savory ejaculation has fallen out of use. Anybody have other examples from medieval languages?


While reading David Rieff’s NY Times Magazine article on Mexican politics, I was struck by a couple of names in this passage: “[López Obrador’s] economic team is led by Rogelio Ramírez de la O, a Cambridge-educated economist who is well respected in international business circles. And Carlos Slim, the telecom mogul who is Mexico’s richest man and the third-richest man in the world, has let it be known, without formally endorsing AMLO, that he finds nothing alarming about his candidacy.” Now Slim, while an unusual name for a Mexican, presumably reflects English ancestry, but I can make nothing of de la O. It’s a common surname, but I can find nothing about its origin except a suggestion on this page that it’s from “a place in Spain if I’m not mistaken, Palencia.. the name of the Church there is named after Our Lady… as Nuestra Senora de la O,” which makes no sense to me, and one here that it’s from a French name De l’Eau, which seems unlikely. Anybody have any information?
Update. The name turns out to come from the feast of the Expectation of Our Lady, the “O” coming from the expression of longing said in the office of the Mozarabic liturgy (see comments below); Sister Maria Philomena sent me a link to her post on the subject, which reproduces a poem by James J. Galvin, “Lady of O.” Thanks, Sister Maria!


A story by Pam Belluck in today’s NY Times describes the changing fortunes of the French language in Maine:

Frederick Levesque was just a child in Old Town, Me., when teachers told him to become Fred Bishop, changing his name to its English translation to conceal that he was French-American.
Cleo Ouellette’s school in Frenchville made her write “I will not speak French” over and over if she uttered so much as a “oui” or “non” — and rewarded students with extra recess if they ratted out French-speaking classmates.
And Howard Paradis, a teacher in Madawaska forced to reprimand French-speaking students, made the painful decision not to teach French to his own children. “I wasn’t going to put my kids through that,” Mr. Paradis said. “If you wanted to get ahead you had to speak English.”
That was Maine in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and the stigma of being French-American reverberated for decades afterward. But now, le Français fait une rentrée — French is making a comeback…

You can go to the article to read about the comeback; what I want to focus on is the bad old days. I can understand the reaction against the language of the enemy during wartime, against German during both world wars for example; it’s irrational and deplorable, but understandable. But why on earth were people subjecting their neighbors and their neighbors’ children to that kind of harassment in the ’50s and ’60s? It shocks me to learn that during the very years when I was happily learning French, others of my generation were being punished for using it in a supposedly free country. If anyone can explain this to me, please do. I mean, generalized “why can’t they speak English” griping is one thing; forcing people to change their name is quite another.
Incidentally, Benjamin Zimmer discusses this story in Language Log and demolishes the idea that “French-American French, derived from people who left France for Canada centuries ago, resembles the French of Louis XIV more than the modern Parisian variety.”

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Waggish is reading Finnegans Wake and reporting enticingly on the results. Of the two entries so far posted, the first is a general introduction:

The book is easier than its reputation would have you believe because it exudes purposeful meaning: everything is there for a reason, and usually several reasons. It’s more difficult than its reputation because underneath the surface text, there is no single plot, character, or explanation for what is buried under the opaque verbiage. This becomes most noticeable in most of Book III, where the text tends to be a lot less abstruse than in Book II, but in which the situations being portrayed are even less realistic than before, culiminating in the grandiose fantasia of III.3, in which four senile old men seem to be excavating the mound of history itself, until a litany of betrayals and suffering pour out. I found this section tremendously moving, however little I understood it. Though the book may be impenetrable, Joyce is not the most philosophical of writers: he constantly references the physical and the commonplace, and as much as we all know these things, we can read ourselves into bits and pieces of the Wake.

The second pursues a comparison with John Crowley’s Little, Big, which I haven’t read, but he makes an important point about Joyce’s this-worldliness:

One look at Finnegans Wake and it seems like mysticism. But Joyce is almost devoutly quotidian: the things he repeatedly, obscurely analogizes are the very basics of the world and more importantly, the known: male, female, parents, children, birth, death, day, night, sex, education, work, play. The most realistic scene (in III.4) appears to concern a pub-owner and his family, and the situation as far as I can discern it is hardly anything more unusual than Leopold Bloom’s in Ulysses. If anything, it’s more normal, as there’s far less information given to make these people unique. The pub-owner, named Porter, is a Protestant Irishman and well-respected citizen leading an typical middle-class life. Joyce loads the scene up with the usual allusions and such, and I take from it that this scene is to be put on an equal footing with all the complications and mysteries have gone before. The message: This is it. This is the world for all to see and all that anyone can see.

If you’re at all curious about Joyce’s famously “difficult” final work, this might be just the thing to get you started.

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I have to post about the National Spelling Bee that was broadcast last night; I’m fond of spelling bees in general (I still remember being furious with myself in grade school for blowing the word Christmas), but this one was particularly notable because the winning word was Ursprache ‘protolanguage’—a word dear to the heart of this Indo-Europeanist manqué. (It’s pronounced OOR-shprah-khuh, but the NPR newsreader who announced the result this morning made it rhyme with rake, which annoyed me mightily.) Oddly, the word that eliminated the second-place finisher (Canadian Finola Hackett, who’d lucked out with a string of French-derived words she handled easily) was also pure German (to the point of usually being capitalized): Weltschmerz. (The poor girl, after much agonizing, started off “V…”) Also oddly, several of the other late-round words were language-related as well: tmesis, koine, and tutoyer. Next year look out for laryngeal and aphaeresis!


Joel of Far Outliers has written a long and interesting post about Chamorro and Saipanese and their struggle for survival on the island. A tidbit on Saipan Carolinian to whet your appetite:

The Trukic languages form one long dialect chain, where speakers on neighboring islands can understand each other fine, but speakers from farther apart have increasing difficulty. There is no contrast between l and n in most of the dialects. Where this speaker writes aramasal Seipel ‘people of Saipan’, a speaker of a different dialect might write aramasan Seipen. Similarly, the town of Tanapag, settled by a different group of Carolinians, also goes by the name of Tallabwog.

Unfortunately, Joel is “going to have to concentrate on some high-priority projects with relatively tight deadlines, so posting will be very light” this summer. Work well and come back soon!