Archives for October 2006


Brigid Brophy doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, but Bernard Hoepffner (who’s been working for a decade on a French translation of her In Transit that he can’t get publishers interested in) has an interesting discussion of the problems of translating a novel full of multilingual puns—a novel, to make things worse, whose narrator is of indeterminate gender:

This creates different problems in English and in French, and it is of little importance to try to work out in which language the constraint is more difficult to overcome (e.g. personal pronouns in both languages, possessive pronouns in English, adjectives and participles in French); it is sufficient to know that when writing the book, the author, if faced with a particular problem which seems impossible to solve, can always choose an alternative formulation (decide to remove a word, a sentence, a paragraph, scrap the whole book even); this solution is not available to the translator, who must translate each sentence as it was written, more or less each word, but unfortunately not as it was written (Pierre Ménard was not a translator)… To take just one example, the adjectives applied to the narrator, innocuous enough in English, are gendered in French. To take a single instance, in the sentence «The problem was the more acute because I was alone in a concourse of people» «I was alone» would normally be translated by «j’étais seul» or «j’étais seule» depending on the gender; this being impossible, another construction had to be found: «Ma solitude au milieu d’une foule de gens ne faisait qu’aviver le problème», which would retranslate back into English as «My solitude in a concourse of people made the problem more acute.» A different sentence although not a mistranslation. Numerous examples show that, in the case of a translation of In Transit, the French text will rarely be, through the simple test of back-translation, a strictly faithful translation of the English original. A count of the adjectives used in the translation would certainly indicate that a great number of them (at any rate a greater percentage than is normally found in a text written in French) do not change according to gender (propre, aimable, etc.). In most cases, the passé composé was also ruled out as the auxiliary être requires a past participle with an «e» if the subject is a woman, or, if the verb is constructed with avoir, the object (if the object is the narrator) cannot not be placed before the verb («Il a regardé Patricia», «Patricia, quand il l’a regardée»).

He says “In Transit has been a frequent companion; in the same way that, in nineteenth-century novels, it was through the Bible that the children of the poor were taught to read and write, I somehow learned to read English «in transit».” Even if I’m not enthusiastic about the idea of reading the actual book, I enjoyed reading about his difficulties in wrestling with it. (Via wood s lot.)


Through the magic of Technorati, I’ve become aware of two blogs I want to bring to your attention, and through the kindness of a correspondent a news story only tangentially related to language, but what the hell. First the blogs:
Transient Languages & Cultures “covers many different projects and groups all with the common theme of endangered languages and culture”; it’s hosted at the University of Sydney and has been going since June. The latest post, by Jane Simpson (it’s a multi-author blog), is about an online course in Pitjantjatjara:

It’s been very hard for ordinary city-dwelling Australians (i.e. most of us) to learn Indigenous Australian languages. Most universities don’t teach them, and getting to Alice Springs for courses at the Institute for Aboriginal Development is out of most people’s reach. Summer schools, such as the Gumbaynggirr and Gamilaraay ones mentioned in a previous post are rare. So it had to come, and it has, but in a rather unusual way. The first public online course in an Australian Indigenous language is run out of a demountable building in Alice Springs by the Ngapartji Ngapartji group…

All Mouth and Trousers has a more limited ambit: “Dedicated to preserving and promoting the great Northern English phrase ‘All mouth and trousers’ against barbarism and neglect.” It has only one post so far, and for all I know it may never have another, but that one is enough to make it immortal in my eyes; he says his mission “requires defending this venerable phrase against the more recent Southern perversion ‘all mouth and no trousers'” and goes on to quote Michael Quinion (“This strange expression comes from the north of England and is used, mainly by women in my experience, as a sharp-tongued and effective putdown of a certain kind of pushy, over-confident male”) and rail against “promulgators of the Metropolitan vulgarisation.” Such extreme devotion to authentic local usage deserves our honor and respect.
Finally, Seth Borenstein of the AP reports “Grammar-based peptide fights bacteria”:

Using grammar rules alongside test tubes, biologists may have found a promising new way to fight nasty bacteria, including drug-resistant microbes and anthrax.
Studying a potent type of bacteria-fighters found in nature, called antimicrobial peptides, biologists found that they seemed to follow rules of order and placement that are similar to simple grammar laws. Using those new grammar-like rules for how these antimicrobial peptides work, scientists created 40 new artificial bacteria-fighters…

So study that grammar, kids, if you want to fight disease! (A hat tip to Songdog for sending me the story.)
Update. Mark Liberman has blogged this story at Language Log; please proceed thither for actual scholarly discussion. It turns out the paper is Christopher Loose, Kyle Jensen, Isidore Rigoutsos and Gregory Stephanopoulos, A linguistic model for the rational design of antimicrobial peptides, Nature 443, 867-869 (19 October 2006).


This is one of those things I must have known at some point, but it came as a fresh shock to me when I ran across it today: price, prize, and praise are, historically, the same word. Here’s what the OED has to say:

price, n.
[ME. a. OF. pris (mod.F. prix):—earlier *prieis (= Pr. pretz, Sp. prez, It. prezzo):—late L. precium, orig. pretium ‘price, value, wages, reward’; in OF. also ‘honour, praise, prize’. The long ī of ME. pris was variously represented by ii, ij, iy, yi, y, ie, and indicated later by final e, prise; but to avoid the z sound of s between two vowels (cf. rise, wise), prise was changed to price (as in dice, mice, twice). The pl. had, sometimes at least, the z sound (cf. house, houses) and was commonly written prises, prizes in 16-17th c.; but though (‘praɪzɪz) is still common dialectally and with individuals, the standard pronunciation is now (‘praɪsɪz) after the sing., prices being thus distinguished from prizes. ME. pris had all the OF. senses ‘price, value, honour, prize, praise’; it first threw off the last of these, for which in 15th c. the n. preise, PRAISE, was formed from the cognate vb. preisen, PRAISE. During the last 300 years it has also thrown off the fourth sense, for which the by-form PRIZE has been established. The sense ‘honour’ is obsolete, that of worth or value (‘a pearl of great price’) obs. or arch., so that price now retains only the primitive sense of OF. pris and L. pretium.]

That’s the kind of thing that made me want to be a historical linguist. (Via


The latest post on Far Outliers introduces me to a wonderful term which Joel cites (from his newly acquired Encyclopedia of Ships) as tumblehome, but which my own treasured copy of The Sailor’s Word-Book gives as tumbling-home “The opposite of wall-sided, or flaring out.” I decided to let the OED settle the issue; here’s their entry:

tumbling home: the inward inclination of the upper part of a ship’s sides; opposed to FLARE n.1 4: see TUMBLE v. 11. Also tumbling-in.
1664 E. BUSHNELL Compl. Shipwright 11 Then set off the Tumbling Home, at the Height of the two first Haanses. 1769 FALCONER Dict. Marine, Encabanement, the tumbling-home of a ship’s side from the lower-deck-beam upwards, to the gunnel. 1832 Encycl. Amer. XI. 367/2 Nothing can be urged in favor of tumbling in.. but that it brings the guns nearer the centre. c1850 Rudim. Navig. (Weale) 157 The topsides of three-decked ships have the greatest tumbling-home, for the purpose of clearing the upper works from the smoke and fire of the lower guns.

So I’m going with tumbling home for my post title. [From the comments, I learn that the current form is in fact tumblehome; I’m keeping the older form as my post title because I like the ring of it, but I don’t want to mislead anyone. If you have a boat you want to describe, you should mention its tumblehome if you want to be au courant.] Joel adds that the curve was “at one time designed to make room for projections at deck level to clear the wharf, or to make boats easier to paddle, but [is] also found in vessels like submarines designed to slice through the waves rather than ride over them” and asks: “Does anyone know the French, Dutch, Portuguese, or Japanese equivalent?” The French equivalent, as you can see from the second OED cite, is encabanement, but I too would be curious to see equivalents in other languages (especially Russian). Such specialized terms are not found in general bilingual dictionaries, of course, and it’s possible that most languages don’t have an equivalent term (simply saying “inward-sloping” when the need arises), but I just thought I’d ask.

[Read more…]


I didn’t realize the Weekly World News had moved into Onion territory (I thought their stories were, like professional wrestling matches, supposed to be taken as true by the hypothetical simple-minded consumer, rather than being obviously for laughs), but I much enjoyed FRENCH DIET SECRETS REVEALED: SWALLOW CONSONANTS, FEEL FULL ALL DAY by Elizabeth Morgan:

FLINT, Mich.–The French ability to remain slimmer than Americans despite a diet higher in fats and overall calorie density has puzzled nutritionists for decades. But a new study suggests that scientists are looking in the wrong place for the secret of Gallic leanness, and that staying svelte may have nothing to do with food at all.
“The answer is swallowed consonants,” said Dr. Eric Gross, professor of biology at Lester College in Flint. “We’re finding that the pronunciation of these sounds can induce a feeling of satiety in French speakers, and can lead, over the long-term, to lower body weight.”
In French phonology, nearly all terminal consonants tend to be ‘swallowed’—silenced via a complex sequence of mouth and throat movements. Researchers still debate the mechanism by which these movements result in feelings of fullness. Nevertheless, most scientists have focused their investigations on the flow and vibration of air in speakers’ nasal passages. The hypothalamus—which regulates hunger—sits directly above these passages, and may be affected by air movements beneath.
Regardless of the cause, the salutary effects of French phonology remain certain. Dr. Gross’ correlational study, soon to be published in the journal Nomos, reveals that university students enrolled in French language classes actually dropped four to six pounds during the course of a twelve-week semester.
“Obviously, the degree of weight-loss increases in language-immersion programs, like the Lester College Junior Year Abroad in Aix-en-Provence,” Dr. Gross said.
Some scientists have rejected the new data, citing smaller portion size in French culture, or the effects of increased wine consumption, as the real determinants of Gallic thinness. But Dr. Gross predicts that these researchers will abandon their theories when faced with the flood of data from a global swallowed-consonant craze.
“They’ll be eating their words, like everyone else,” Dr. Gross said.

Thanks to Ben Zimmer at the Log for bringing this to the attention of the linguistic world!


I discovered Frank Samperi’s poetry completely by accident in the late 1970s, hanging around an all-night bookstore and trawling the poetry shelves for unfamiliar names. I opened a tall, thin book called The Prefiguration, found a table of contents with no page numbers, turned a couple of blank pages and found the title “Song Book,” turned a couple more blank pages and found:

On the night of my death
fires will lace
the shoreline
of some unknown beach—
and children
      in loose
      blue gowns
will sing my dirge
as unknown vagrants
place my body
on a raft
     covered with lilies
     and seaweed—
and after they have
fastened down my body
with rope
     they (the vagrants)
and the children
will set
          the raft

I was absolutely smitten. I’d never read anything like it, and I walked around the store muttering it until I knew the whole thing by heart. (They were used to me at the store, I played Jeopardy with them till dawn when I wasn’t pacing and muttering.) Then I bought it and took it home and read it, and came back and bought the companion volumes, Quadrifariam and Lumen Gloriae. I couldn’t believe no one had heard of this wonderful poet.
When I moved to New York a couple of years later, the first thing I did was look him up in the phone book, call him up, and ask if I could visit him in his Brooklyn apartment. He seemed bemused but invited me over. I had him sign my copies of his books and got him talking about the intellectual sources of his poetry, about how both Augustine and Aquinas were resolved in Dante and what their ideas meant to him (I still have the notes I scribbled: “Is society really concerned with unitive way or with way of differences? How is problem of persona solved? In Christianity (Dante) person is reward of reason. Boethius on Trinity: READ!”… and more obscurely: “regressive adhesiveness in Amer./ modern assumption of “earning”—/ won’t give to squirrel—/ true work lies in word/ Bonaventure/ Bruno”). His young daughter Claudia brought us snacks and was clearly both proud of and amused by her passionately intellectual poet father. I left feeling I’d made contact with an unknown great of our time.
Just now I googled him and discovered he died in 1991—he didn’t even make it to 60. And still nobody’s heard of him, but at least John Martone and Station Hill Press have put out Spiritual Necessity: Selected Poems of Frank Samperi (there’s a very nice review by Jack Foley). I recommend it to anyone who wants to expand their poetic horizons. And if Claudia comes across this post (not unlikely, since his name gets relatively few Google hits): your dad was a generous man and a superb poet. I wish he were still around.


It’s been a while since I’ve gone after the affably ignorant William Safire and his weekly maunderings about language, but once again a remark of his is so dunderheaded that I have to point and scoff. Today’s column is about the word rant. I’m used to his pretending that whatever word or phrase he’s decided to pick on is “enjoying a boom” and having a “sudden, unforeseen blossoming,” so that’s not what bothered me. No, it was this, from his obligatory paragraph on etymology: “The German verb ranzen, ‘to dance about gaily, to frolic,’ was picked up in English in Richard Brome’s 1641 play, ‘The Joviall Crew’: ‘The more the merrier, I am resolved to Rant it to the last.'” There are two species of idiocy here. The first, the Common or Garden Variety of Safire Idiocy, is the pretense that the first citation in the OED is the very first time the word was used in English, so the user (in this case Ben Jonson’s pal Richard Brome, pronounced “broom,” whose comedy A Jovial Crew was the last play performed before the closing of the theaters under the Puritans) is said to have invented it or personally imported it, whichever applies. The second is the claim that it is from German ranzen. Every dictionary I have says it’s from the (obsolete) Dutch verb ranten, which (as you will note) looks and sounds a lot more like the English word; the OED (presumably where Safire or his assistant went for the information) adds “cf. G. ranzen to frolic, spring about, etc.” Cf. means ‘compare,’ and the German is added as a related word; it clearly was not the direct source. And whatever the source, the word was presumably borrowed by somebody who hung out with foreigners and liked the word enough to start using it; it caught on and was used by an unknowable number of merrie olde Englishmen before Brome put it in his comedy and became the First Citation. Please, Safire & Co., use your heads before repeating this tiresome error!
By the way, speaking of OED citations reminds me that in my post about Dancing on Mara Dust I forgot to mention an achievement of Vivien’s I envy even more than her getting a book published: she’s cited in the OED! The June 2005 draft revision of the parcel entry includes this as definition 10.d.:

[Read more…]


The mail brought a welcome surprise: a very kind reader took advantage of the Amazon wish list link tucked away in the right column to send me a copy of Daniel Weissbort’s From Russian With Love: Joseph Brodsky in English. As any regular reader of LH knows, I love both Brodsky and discussions of translation, so this is an exciting acquisition. Weissbort returns over and over (as I can see from the table of contents) to the wonderful untitled poem “Я входил вместо дикого зверя в клетку,” which he calls “May 24, 1980” from the date of composition, and I’ll enjoy seeing what he has to say about it. Thanks, map!


I’m as aware as anyone of the high percentage of words that don’t have known etymologies (boy and dog, for instance), but every once in a while an example strikes me with particular force. Just now it was griot, in the words of the OED “A member of a class of travelling poets, musicians, and entertainers in North and West Africa, whose duties include the recitation of tribal and family histories; an oral folk-historian or village story-teller, a praise-singer.” I was aware that the Mande languages spoken in the area don’t use this word or anything like it (the Bambara word, for example, is jeli), but I was surprised to see the OED’s “uncertain ulterior etym.” Merriam-Webster simply says it’s from French. So I went to the Trésor de la langue française informatisé and found that it went back to 1637 (as guiriot) and that the etymology is, yes, uncertain: “peut-être issu, par l’intermédiaire d’un parler négro-port., du port. criado « domestique ».” Hmm. I don’t much like it, but I guess it’s possible. Why wouldn’t they have adopted a local word for such a characteristic local phenomenon, though?


My friend Vivien Smith has sent me a copy of the book her mother, Nancy Mathews, wrote about her South African childhood, called Dancing on Mara Dust (Vivien wrote a concluding chapter bringing the story up to date). As the jacket copy says, “The book tells of lifestyles that have disappeared, of people and places who are but shadowy memories, interspersed with unique observations of animal life and with snapshots of royalty and famous names from long ago.” Mrs. Mathews grew up in the 1920s and ’30s on a farm in the sparsely settled north of the Transvaal, near the Soutpansberg (‘salt-pan mountain’), and the work and ingenuity necessary to make a go of it there are amazing to someone who grew up decades later in easier circumstances. I enjoyed the loving descriptions of the land and its inhabitants, both human and animal (there’s a splendid description of fish eagles on page 140), but of course I particularly appreciate the use of language: “zithering” is exactly right for the sound of cicadas, but it would never have occurred to me. And I’ve learned some new words, like inspan for ‘to yoke, harness’ (apparently only South African). To add to my pleasure, there are bits of Northern Sotho/Sepedi scattered through the book (and a helpful glossary in the front). I highly recommend the book to anyone with an interest in South Africa, growing up on farms, or just a good (if sometimes very sad) story.