Archives for May 2007


Natalia at A Spoonful of Russian (“learning Russian one bite at a time”) has been making videos of how to write Russian cursive letters, and Language Geek has conveniently gathered the links in one post. When you’re learning a language, it’s important (as far as I’m concerned) not only to master the pronunciation and grammar but to learn to write as the native speakers do; it’s a painful experience to see (for example) a foreign student of Chinese painstakingly writing horrible boxy characters that would make any Chinese cringe. So if you’re studying Russian, this is a good way to make sure you know how to write cursives properly. (Mind you, there’s more than one way to write some letters, and for т I prefer the form that looks more like the printed version but with the vertical extending below the line, because that’s the way Mandelshtam wrote it.)


I enjoyed Deborah Tannen‘s book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation—it’s so nice to see a real linguist connect with a wide public, instead of the likes of Lynne Truss!—so I was glad to encounter her account of “New York Style” in PBS’s Do You Speak American? series. Sure, it’s anecdotal, but it comes with a bibliography, and the anecdotes are great:

New Yorkers seem to think the best thing two people can do is talk. Silence is okay when you’re watching a movie (though it might be better punctuated by clever asides), or when you’re asleep (collecting dreams to tell when you awake), but when two or more people find themselves together, it’s better to talk. That’s how we show we’re being friendly. And that’s why we like to talk to strangers—especially if we won’t be with them long, such as in an elevator or on a bank line. This often makes non-New Yorkers think we’re trying to start something more than a conversation.
Once, when I was visiting San Francisco, my friend and I stopped in the street to look something up in her guidebook, and she complained that the book wasn’t very clear. A man who was walking by turned to us and said “Oh, that book’s no good. The one you should get is this,” pulling a guidebook out of his bag to show us. I couldn’t resist checking out my hypothesis, so I asked where he was from. He had just flown in from New York.
After we talked about New York-California differences for a few minutes, the visiting New Yorker suggested that we exchange our guidebook for the one he recommended, so we all went back to the store where my friend had bought her book a few hours before. In the bookstore, our new friend called over his shoulder, “Have you read Garp?” I answered, “No should I?” “Yes,” he said, animatedly. “It’s great!” Then I heard a voice behind us saying, “Oh, is it?” I’ve been thinking of reading that.” I looked around and saw a woman no longer paying attention to us. I asked her where she was from: another New Yorker.

(Thanks for the link, Amelia!)


There’s an extremely interesting discussion going on over at Jabal al-Lughat. Lameen starts by pointing out that “in all dialects of Arabic, adjectives normally follow the noun” but quotes T. M. Johnstone (Eastern Arabian Dialect Studies, Oxford UP 1967):

The (Persian) adjective kooš precedes the noun it qualifies. It does not occur in association with defined nouns. It is not inflected for gender or number. Thus:
  kooš walad, bint  a good boy, girl

and asks about the situation of the word in Persian (where it is now pronounced khoš and its meaning is ‘pleasant, happy’ rather than ‘good’). Much interesting discussion follows; MMcM (a frequent commenter in these parts) gives a useful link to Paul Horn’s Grundriss der neupersischen Etymologie, where you can see related words in the Iranian languages, and bulbul (ditto) quotes Haim Blanc’s Communal dialects in Baghdad. The most recent comment at the moment is by Eli (I don’t know whether he’s the Eli Timan mentioned by Peter Austin in this thread), who says:

1- khOsh is used in all Iraqi dialects. it is common to both noun-adjective and adjective-noun sentence structre positions, although it is normally placed before the noun it qualifies. It is of common gender and number. Examples خوش ولد خوش بنت
2- It behaves almost like an adverb, and denotes more than just ‘Good’. It is like aHsan walad (best boy). It emphasises the quality of the noun it qualifies…

(He gives more information on the word’s use and connotations.) I find all this fascinating, and I look forward to whatever else may turn up on the word’s origins, spread, and syntactical oddities.


In the course of reading The Last Jews in Baghdad (see this LH post), I encountered references to “the Arabic spoken by Jews” and wondered what that was all about: was there really a separate dialect, not just regular Iraqi Arabic with a few Hebrew words tossed in? A little googling turned up a thread at WordReference Forums on this very topic, started by Nun-Translator’s question:

I am reading an autobiographical novel written in Hebrew by Eli Amir that takes place in Baghdad in the 1940s. He frequently refers to “Jewish Arabic” and “Muslim Arabic”. I’m not clear if he is talking about accents or dialects… Are you aware of “Jewish Arabic”? Is it an accent or a dialect? (The way Amir uses the term, it sounds more like a dialect.) Does it still exist? And one more question: Is there a distinctive “Christian Arabic” in Iraq or elsewhere?

The answer turns out to be that there are two major dialects in Iraq, a northern and a southern, conventionally distinguished by their pronunciation of the letter qaf as /q/ (hence “qeltu” for قلت) and /g/ (“gilit”) respectively, and the distinction accidentally became a religious one in Baghdad, as explained by a commenter who goes by the handle smooha:

This happens to be a subject of great interest to me. I had the privilege of having read several books on the subject, most notably Haim Blanc’s Communal Dialects of Baghdad.
As clevermizo noted, the Mesopotamian (Iraq and eastern Syria) varieties of Arabic can be divided into qeltu and gilit types. The gilit type is overwhelmingly of Bedouin origin, from the tribes to the south and west of the rivers. If my memory serves me correctly, virtually all Baghdadis (Muslims, Christians, and Jews) spoke in a qeltu variety, from the Abassid era until the late 19th c (?), which saw an unprecedented process of urbanization, with a vast number of Bedouin tribesmen (previously nomadic) became the majority. The original urban Baghdadi Muslims assimilated with the new majority, while the Christian and Jewish communities maintained their respective dialects (which, though to a significant extent mutually intelligible, contained numerous differences in lexicon).

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Lameen at Jabal al-Lughat has a post on the Songhay languages, which he’s studying for his dissertation; I hadn’t realized that the group’s membership in the Nilo-Saharan family was so shaky. (Lameen says “if it were spoken in the Americas, it would undoubtedly be classed as having no relatives whatsoever.”) He links to a number of resources he’s finding useful, including Jeffrey Heath’s webpage, a treasure trove of material about not only Songhay but Dogon. Dogon, it turns out, is not a single language (despite the claims of French colonialists and the Malian government) but a group of related languages; as Heath says in his 730-page Jamsay Grammar (pdf, to be withdrawn once the book is published):

Using the test of mutual unintelligibility as diagnostic, on the other hand, there are clearly many distinct Dogon languages in Mali. We do not yet have Dogon-wide data in a form that would permit accurate identification of language boundaries and of genetic subgrouping. However, having surveyed the varieties spoken in the northern and northeastern parts of Dogon country, I can report the following as distinct languages…: 1. Jamsay (aka Diamsay)…; 2. Beni-Walo, spoken in three separated microzones…; 3. Nanga (naŋa)…; 4. Tabi-Sarinyere, spoken by the people sometimes called Tandam…; 5. Najamba (= Bondu)…

The grammar has a substantial bibliography of material on the Dogon (not just language-related). My thanks to Lameen for pointing me to this great site!


A story by Judith Ann Schiff in the Yale Alumi Magazine (May/June issue) explains the origin of the word frisbee; I had heard it was named for a pie tin, but Schiff gives plenty of details:

It was 50 years ago this spring that a novelty company called Wham-O started mass production of the famous plastic disc that was called, at first, the “Pluto Platter.” But by the time the discs arrived at the Ivy League, the students already had a game called “Frisbie,” named after a pie tin, and theirs was the name that stuck.
Exactly when Yale students started tossing around tin pans made by the Frisbie Pie Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut, isn’t clear. Most histories of the Frisbee, as well as lists of “Connecticut Firsts,” put the date at about 1920. Students would fling the empty pie tins to each other as they crossed the campus and shout “Frisbie!” as a warning, like golfers shouting “Fore!”…
In 1948, a Los Angeles inventor named Walter “Fred” Morrison, hoping to cash in on the rash of UFO sightings, came up with a disc he called the Flyin’ Saucer. In 1955 he and his wife, Lucile, improved the design and renamed it the Pluto Platter. It caught the eye of the Wham-O toy company owners, who took out a patent on behalf of Morrison and began mass production in 1957…
In August 1957, Gay Talese, in a New York Times article on fad toys, wrote, “The Frisbee . . . is now marketed by half a dozen manufacturers under various names, including Flying Saucers, Scalos, Space Saucers or Wham-O Pluto-Platters. Frisbee is strictly the nom de Ivy League.”

The paper version of the article has a photo of an actual pie tin not reproduced online, but you can see one here.


Regular readers will know I’m a sucker for the writing of Adam Gopnik, who has a feature article in this week’s New Yorker called “Angels and Ages: Lincoln’s language and its legacy.” He starts off talking about reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, and how moved he was by the famous moment at Lincoln’s deathbed when “Stanton stood still, sobbing, and then said, simply, ‘Now he belongs to the ages.'” He decided to “start reading the new Lincoln literature”:

For the flight home, I picked up James L. Swanson’s “Manhunt,” a vivid account of the assassination and the twelve-day search for John Wilkes Booth that followed. Once again, I came to the deathbed scene, the vigil, the gathering. The Reverend Dr. Gurley, the Lincoln family minister, said, “ ‘Let us pray.’ He summoned up . . . a stirring prayer. . . . Gurley finished and everyone murmured ‘Amen.’ Then, no one dared to speak. Again Stanton broke the silence. ‘Now he belongs to the angels.’ ”
Now he belongs to the angels? Where had that come from? There was a Monty Python element here (“What was that? I think it was ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers,’ ” the annoyed listeners too far from the Mount say to each other in “Life of Brian”), but was there something more going on?

The rest of the piece is an attempt to answer that question (I don’t think it will spoil anyone’s reading experience to say that yes, there was something more going on), but I want to select one casual pun as an example of why I love Gopnik so much. Talking about the young Lincoln’s law practice, he says:

In the old hagiography, Lincoln the lawyer was a fiery, folksy fighter against injustice; to more recent, disillusioned revisionists, he was a corporate lawyer, a “railroad” lawyer doing the work of the new industrialists. Dirck shows that both accounts are overdrawn.

If you don’t like that bit of clever wordplay, well, tastes differ, but you’re missing a lot of fun.


Christian Jarrett’s BPS Research Digest Blog has an intriguing post called “Tongue-tied: When bilinguals switch languages involuntarily” that reports on a study on “the case of two bilingual patients who, during the course of brain surgery for epilepsy, appear to have had their ‘switches’ involuntarily flipped”; the conclusion is “These case studies support the notion that, in bilinguals, specific regions at the front of the left hemisphere act as a language switch.” Fascinating stuff. (Thanks, Trevor!)


From Michael Specter’s recent New Yorker profile of British entrepreneur/adventurer Richard Branson, creator of the Virgin empire (Virgin Megastores, Airlines, Limousines, Games, Brides…), which began in 1970 with Virgin Records:

His next indictment, under the 1889 Indecent Advertisements Act, was in 1977, when the Sex Pistols released their only album, “Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols,” on the Virgin Records label. ” ‘Bollocks’ was considered an unforgivably rude word,” Branson said. The playwright and lawyer John Mortimer successfully defended him by producing an expert witness to demonstrate that the word “bollocks” was derived from an Anglo-Saxon term and could be used to refer to a priest. The witness even turned up in court wearing clerical garb. The judge, to his dismay, was forced to dismiss the charges, saying, “Much as my colleagues and I wholeheartedly deplore the vulgar exploitation of the worst instincts of human nature for the purchases of commercial profits by both you and your company, we must reluctantly find you not guilty.”

I love everything about this except the magazine’s insistence on putting album titles in quotation marks.

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In the continuing adventure of reading Proust to my wife at bedtime, we’ve gotten well into The Guermantes Way and are comfortably ensconced in Mme de Villeparisis’s godawful party, where everyone is busily engaged either in sucking up or in putting down. The Duchesse de Guermantes (with whom the young narrator is hopelessly in love for no reason except that she is the Duchesse de Guermantes) is being catty about Robert de Saint-Loup’s mistress, an actress named Rachel, and says (in the Moncrieff/Kilmartin translation we’re reading) “And then, if you’d heard the things she recited! I only remember one scene, but I’m sure nobody could imagine anything like it: it was called The Seven Princesses.” Another guest, the Comte d’Argencourt (the Belgian chargé d’affaires), responds, “Seven Princesses! Dear, dear, what a snob she must be!” Even though we’re reading the novel in English, I often check the original (which I keep on the night table by the bed), and here I found that Argencourt actually says “Les sept princesses, oh! Oïl, oïl, quel snobisme!” On the next page, the Duchess mocks Rachel for “uttering a sentence, no, not so much, not a quarter of a sentence” and then stopping “for a good five minutes,” to which Argencourt again responds “Oïl, oïl, oïl!” (the translation has “Oh, I say”).
Now, I was familiar with oïl only as an Old French word for ‘yes’ (descended from Latin hoc ille and developing into modern oui), and I had seen it only in the phrase langue d’oïl (which distinguishes French dialects that use descendents of hoc ille from langue d’oc, which uses descendents of hoc); I was completely baffled to see it turn up in a modern novel, and I have absolutely no clue what its connotations are. I’ve checked all my dictionaries, and even the largest only give it as a medieval affirmative (Trésor de la langue française informatisé: “Au Moyen Âge, mot exprimant l’affirmation dans les régions de France approximativement situées au Nord de la Loire et qui est devenu la particule oui en français”). At least I’ve learned that it’s now pronounced /ojl/, pretty much like the English word oil; I’ve always given it two syllables, oh-EEL, as it presumably sounded in Old French. But can any of my Francophone readers enlighten me as to what is conveyed by this archaic word on the lips of Argencourt?
Update. In the comments, D Filippi has the answer: it’s Proust’s respelling (mocking Belgian pronunciation?) of what is usually written ouille or ouïe—it can mean ‘ouch!’ (in response to physical pain) but also seems a close equivalent to Yiddish oy! (in response to more existential pain). The TLF says (after giving the ‘ouch’ definition):

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