Archives for January 2007


If you, like me, enjoy spicy foods, one of your favorite Chinese dishes is probably 麻婆豆腐 mapo doufu ‘Pock-marked Grandma’s Bean Curd’; if, like me, you enjoy mixing food and etymology, you’ll be as pleased as I was to discover MMcM’s latest entry at Polyglot Vegetarian, which investigates the names of some of his favorite dishes at Mary Chung’s restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It turns out that the ma in mapo doufu is the same character as in 麻將 majiang and 麻雀 maque (literally ‘sparrow’), the Chinese names for mah jongg. Furthermore, the 擔 dan in 擔擔麵 dan dan noodles (another of my favorite spicy dishes) is the same as the dan, written tan in the traditional Wade-Giles transliteration and thus in English, that is defined in the OED as “A Chinese unit of weight equivalent to approximately 110 lb. or 50 kg.” (the more common word for this in English is picul, from Malay). So both of these food-related syllable/words are found in English dictionaries, though with different meanings! That’s just one of the many fun facts to be found in MMcM’s long and thoroughly researched entry (which also goes into the history of the restaurant which invented mapo doufu); I heartily commend it to your attention.


All the books in the world, that is? They think so, and they have a pretty good track record (though not a perfect one). I was quite excited recently when I started getting lots of hits entering Russian search terms into Google Book Search. The latest stumbling block is a lawsuit filed by a group of publishers, but everyone seems to think it will be settled out of court. You can read all about it in Jeffrey Toobin’s article “Google’s Moon Shot” in the latest New Yorker. I won’t try to summarize it; I just want to mention one very odd feature of the printed version. Where the online text says “Google has become known for providing access to all of the world’s knowledge…,” the magazine itself says “Google has become known for 8; providing access to all of the world’s knowledge.” I presume the “8;” is a remnant of some type of coding, but it’s distressing that it managed to make it into print. Shape up, New Yorker!


The word charivari “A serenade of ‘rough music’, with kettles, pans, tea-trays, and the like” (OED), the source of the fine American shivaree (Twain: “She turned on all the horrors of the ‘Battle of Prague’, that venerable shivaree, and waded chin-deep in the blood of the slain”), is from French, but beyond that the etymology is unknown; the OED says “various conjectures are mentioned by Littré.” Well, the estimable Conrad H. Roth of Varieties of Unreligious Experience has posted seven, count ’em seven, such conjectures, including “Greek καρηβαρία, ‘heaviness of the head’, because a deafening charivari can cause headaches,” “French hunting term harer, ‘to rouse dogs,'” and “Low Latin caria, nut, κάρυον, because nuts are thrown and a great din is kicked up on a wedding-day.” Anyone who enjoys picking through the detritus of the etymologist’s workroom should go over and contemplate hypotheses. (And while you’re there, immerse yourself in his tribute to the bridges of London.)


Bulbulovo links to LibriVox, a site which “provides free audiobooks from the public domain.” The vast majority (689) of the currently available texts are in English, but there are some in German (27), French (11), Russian, Spanish, Italian, Finnish, Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, Latin, Hebrew, Old English, Portuguese, and Swedish (all less than ten items); there is also a “Multilingual” category that includes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights read in a bunch of languages (including Walloon), two “Multilingual Poetry Collections,” and the Irish national anthem, “Amhrán na bhFiann.” If you want to volunteer to read texts, go here; I especially hope Russian-speakers will do so, because I don’t like the way the guy who does all the currently available texts reads (muttering quickly, with no discernable emotion, which is especially distressing with Dostoevsky’s “Notes from the Underground”: “I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased….”).


In yesterday’s post on the name Albany I mentioned in passing “the ancient Albania in the Caucasus.” The Persian name for the Caucasian Albania is Arran. Today, when I leafed through the NY Times Magazine, I glanced at the serialized fiction in the Funny Pages, which I usually skip (life being too short), and I saw a new serial by Michael Chabon (pronounced, in his words, “Shea as in Shea Stadium, Bon as in Jovi”) called “Gentlemen of the Road” whose first chapter bore the title “On Discord Arising From Excessive Love of a Hat” and whose dateline read “KINGDON OF ARRAN, in the Caucasus Mountains, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, A.D. 950.” I was immediately hooked. The first paragraph did not unhook me:

For numberless years a myna had astounded travelers to the caravansary with its ability to spew indecencies in 10 languages, and before the fight broke out everyone assumed the old blue-tongued devil on its perch by the fireplace was the one who maligned the giant African with such foulness and verve. Engrossed in the study of a small ivory shatranj board with pieces of ebony and horn, and in the stew of chickpeas, carrots, dried lemons and mutton for which the caravansary was renowned, the African held the place nearest the fire, his broad back to the bird, with a view of the doors and the window with its shutters thrown open to the blue dusk. On this temperate autumn evening in the kingdom of Arran in the eastern foothills of the Caucasus, it was only the two natives of burning jungles, the African and the myna, who sought to warm their bones. The precise origin of the African remained a mystery. In his quilted gray bambakion with its frayed hood, worn over a ragged white tunic, there was a hint of former service in the armies of Byzantium, while the brass eyelets on the straps of his buskins suggested a sojourn in the West. No one had hazarded to discover whether the speech of the known empires, khanates, emirates, hordes and kingdoms was intelligible to him. With his skin that was lustrous as the tarnish on a copper kettle, and his eyes womanly as a camel’s, and his shining pate with its ruff of wool whose silver hue implied a seniority attained only by the most hardened men, and above all with the air of stillness that trumpeted his murderous nature to all but the greenest travelers on this minor spur of the Silk Road, the African appeared neither to invite nor to promise to tolerate questions. Among the travelers at the caravansary there was a moment of admiration, therefore, for the bird’s temerity when it seemed to declare, in its excellent Greek, that the African consumed his food in just the carrion-scarfing way one might expect of the bastard offspring of a bald-pated vulture and a Barbary ape.

I have not read anything of Chabon’s before, but I will be reading this, and I figure there are bound to be at least a few of my readers for whom the conjunction of medieval Caucasian kingdoms, birds that spew indecencies in 10 languages, and hats will be as seductive as it was for me, so I am mentioning it here.
Also, my lovely wife pointed out to me a post at The Cassandra Pages that linked to a story by Irwin Block at The Gazette (Montreal) about 86-year-old George Butcher, whose “kitchen, bedrooms and hallways are stacked floor to ceiling with books covering every conceivable subject”—”15,000 is a fair estimate.” I can’t imagine what conceivable relevance this might have to me, but perhaps it will strike a chord with someone else out there, someone addicted to books. I don’t have an addiction, nosirree. I can stop whenever I want. I just haven’t chosen to stop yet.


I just had one of those moments in which you discover a hitherto unsuspected gap in your knowledge and become confused and (if you’re me) determined to get to the bottom of it. Our local radio station covers a wide area of the Northeast (and irritatingly insists on listing a dozen or so cities every time they do station ID), but their home base is in Albany, and this evening, hearing the word for the millionth time, I suddenly asked myself “Why is the capital of New York State called Albany?” I had a vague recollection that it was named for a Duke of Albany, but why would there be a Duke of Albany in England? Was I just thinking of Shakespeare’s duke (married to one of Lear’s daughters)? What was “Albany,” anyway? Did it have something to do with Albania? Fortunately, the internet came to the rescue: the city was named for James Stuart, Duke of Albany, who later became James II; the Duchy of Albany, purely notional by his day, had originally been a Scottish title, first granted by Robert III of Scotland (who, incidentally, changed his name from the then unpopular “John” upon ascending the throne, and eventually asked to be buried under a dunghill) to his brother Robert in 1398. Albany is an anglicized form of Albania, itself a latinized form of Alba, “the ancient and modern Scottish Gaelic name (IPA: [ˈaɫəpə]) for the country of Scotland” as Wikipedia puts it, continuing: “It was used by the Gaels to refer to the island as a whole until roughly the ninth or tenth centuries, when it came to be the name given to the kingdoms of the Picts and the Scots (Pictavia and Dál Riata), north of the River Forth and the Clyde estuary… (it is unclear whether it may ultimately share the same etymon as the modern Albania or the ancient Albania in the Caucasus).” So the confusion isn’t entirely cleared up, but at least I know why the city is called that, and what the Duchy of Albany was (there hasn’t been a duke of that title since 1919, when “Prince Leopold’s son, Charles, was deprived of the peerage… for bearing arms against the United Kingdom in World War I”; he later joined the Nazi Party and “spent the last years of his life in poverty and seclusion”).

TEXT-TO-SPEECH DEMO. has created a demo of their text-to-speech technology that’s fun and a little creepy (the animated woman’s eyes follow your cursor, and sometimes a male voice comes out of her mouth). You can pick from thirteen languages (Catalan, Chinese, Dutch, English, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish) and various voices (for Japanese, for example, Miyu [female] or Show [male]); just enter text in the language you pick and hit “Say it!” (Via MetaFilter, where one of the commenters indicates that you only get a certain amount of free access, so ration your experiments accordingly.)


An Economist article on a perennial subject, how different languages divide up the color spectrum and what that says about human psychology.

Like many debates in psychology, this one pits congenital, fundamentally genetic, explanations against explanations that rely on environmental determinism. Psychologists in the former camp think people are born with ingrained ideas about how hues are grouped. They believe the brain is preconditioned to pick out the six colours on a Rubik’s cube whatever tongue it is taught to think in. The other camp, by contrast, thinks that the spectrum can be chopped into categories anywhere along its length. Moreover, they suspect that the language an individual learns from his parents is the main explanation for where that chopping takes place.
As with most nature-versus-nurture debates, compromise seems in order. Two papers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggest where the middle ground lies.
In the more recent of the two, which appeared this week, Terry Regier, of the University of Chicago, and his colleagues, picked at the question of preconditioned language categories. They used a grid displaying all possible hues rolled into a globe, with black at the north pole and white at the south. In this model, colours stick out from the sphere according to how sensitive the visual system is to them… He thinks that useful languages should allot words in order to minimise the perceptual difference between colours of the same category, and maximise it between colours in different categories. Unlike national boundaries, linguistic boundaries should form only in the valleys of his colour globe, never over the hills.
Dr Regier therefore programmed his computer to find the best valley borders according to whether he told it to create three, four, five or six “countries” on the globe. Then, to judge whether people build languages around what their brains are best attuned to, he compared these theoretically best divisions with real-world dividing lines.
…The model closely fits some languages and points correctly to some details. For instance, three-colour language systems, which lump red and yellow together, generally exclude whitish yellow from that category—as does the model. But the results also explain where nurture gets its wiggle room. Real lexical boundaries tend to vary where Dr Regier’s algorithm produced several options that were almost as good as each other.

The second study, comparing perceptions from the right and left visual fields, “suggests both sides are correct. There is a fundamental—presumably congenital—distinction, as shown by the fact that the non-linguistic side of the brain distinguishes between blue and green. But there is also a language-mediated one, as shown by the linguistic side’s greater response.” Interesting stuff, and I’ll be interested to see what my commenters (almost all of whom will know more about it than I) have to say. (Thanks go to Paul and Trevor for the link.)


Mark Liberman at Language Log reports that the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal (WNT), the Dutch equivalent of the OED, will become freely available on the internet on January 27 (the site is here). The news came to him from Ruud Visser, whose blog has a full report on the development (including a translation of the account in the Leiden University newsletter), as well as a great follow-up on BabelFish’s bizarre “translation” of the name Harm Beukers as “Harm tired cherry.”


A Deutsche Welle article reports on one man’s efforts to keep fine old German words alive:

Some words simply fall into the black hole of disuse. Some are forgotten because they no longer apply to modern life. Still others are eventually rejected for sounding old-fashioned or out-of-date.
The older, and more literal “Schutzmann” (protection man) has been updated as “Polizist” (police officer), for example, while “Spielautomat” (slot machine) has replaced “Groschengrab,” which refers to the same thing, but in a more colorful manner. It literally means “penny grave.”
Bodo Mrozek, a 38-year-old author from Berlin, has taken on the Sisyphean task of rescuing endangered words and even trying to reinstate some of them into modern German speech.
“If you grew up in the 1980s then you heard about forests being cut down and whales becoming extinct,” said Mrozek in an interview with the Tageszeitung. “But no one lobbied for words and that’s why I think it’s important to take on this underestimated threat.”
In his quest to find the most beautiful endangered German word, Mrozek has invited the public to suggest their favorites through Feb. 28, 2007.
The person who submits the winning word, selected by a panel of five well-known German authors, will receive a trophy shaped like a cheeseball adorned with toothpicks. In German this party appetizer is called a “Käseigel,” which literally means “cheese hedgehog” and, appropriately, is among the many endangered words Mrozek is lobbying for. …

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