Archives for May 2007


There’s something romantic about language isolates. The most famous is Basque (subject of much crackpottery); others are Ainu and the Siberian languages Ket and Nivkh (also known as Gilyak). In and around the Hunza Valley of northern Pakistan, almost 90,000 people speak a language called Burushaski; I’ve known about it for over 30 years, ever since I read W.B. Lockwood’s A Panorama of Indo-European Languages in grad school and found a paragraph on it full of wonderfully exotic names:

In the western part of the Karakorum an isolated language, Burushaski, survives in two enclaves: an eastern form found in Hunza and Nagar, a western form in Yasin, where it is termed Werchikwar. To the north there is contact with Wakhi, in Yasin also with Khowar, otherwise with Shina, a language which has advanced in the Gilgit area at the expense of Burushaski… Dumaki forms a diminutive Indo-European enclave within the Burushaski of Hunza and Nagar. To all intents and purposes, Burushaski is a purely oral medium.

Well, in a comment to this post, David Marjanović linked to an online version of a book containing a compact grammatical description of the language, Dick Grune‘s Burushaski − An Extraordinary Language in the Karakoram Mountains (pdf, HTML cache), whose very first words told me I’d been pronouncing the name wrong all these years: “Burúshaski (stress on the second syllable)…” The book is very clearly and enjoyably written, an unusual pleasure in this kind of text (“The bad news is that Burushaski has perhaps as many paradigms as Latin, but the good news is that they are much more regular”). Grune discusses the possible relationships of the language:

Although Burushaski has been compared to almost any language on earth, no fully convincing relationships have yet been established. Modern taxonomic methods are, however, beginning to yield results. Ruhlen (1989) [lit.ref. 7] still classified Burushaski as a language isolate: ‘its genetic affiliation remains a complete mystery’ (p. 126), but Ruhlen (1992) [lit.ref. 7] reports on a possible classification of Burushaski as a separate branch of a newly proposed Dené-Caucasian superstock. More recently, Blažek and Bengtson (1995) [lit.ref. 8] list tens of etymologies relating Burushaski to the Yeniseian languages, spoken by a hundred people along the Yenisei river in Siberia. Where appropriate, we have included these etymolgies in this survey.

(I’m not sure what the “lit.ref.” numbers refer to; the list of references at the end is not numbered and has only one entry for Ruhlen, his Guide to the World’s Languages: Volume 1 [1987; 1991].) He begins his description of the language with this summary:

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Mark Liberman has a typically incisive Language Log post about that satisfying expletive chickenshit, sparked off by this quote from a Washington Post story: “McCain… used a curse word associated with chickens and accused Cornyn of raising the issue just to torpedo a deal.” (Mark says “Amazingly, Andrew Sullivan was… baffled by this bit of bowdlerization,” but I confess when I read the story earlier I myself was baffled. I associate chickenshit with bosses, not chickens, and wondered vaguely if McCain had squawked in outrage.) After a thorough lexicographical examination, he says “It seems to me that there is some philosophical work to be done here, along the lines of Harry Frankfurt’s pathbreaking exegesis of bullshit,” and I couldn’t agree more. I disagree, however, with Mark’s suggestion that “the essence of chickenshit — or at least a critical factor in chickenshit — is misrepresentation of motives”; that seems to me an ancillary, not a defining, factor. In an update he quotes an excellent analysis by Paul Fussell, whose book Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War contains an entire chapter “Chickenshit, An Anatomy”:

Chickenshit refers to behavior that makes military life worse than it need be: petty harassment of the weak by the strong; open scrimmage for power and authority and prestige… insistence on the letter rather than the spirit of ordinances. Chickenshit is so called — instead of horse- or bull- or elephant shit — because it is small-minded and ignoble and takes the trivial seriously. Chickenshit can be recognized instantly because it never has anything to do with winning the war.

Gallus gallus may vanish from the face of the earth, but chickenshit will always be with us.


I posted earlier about a site that has the Anglican Book of Common Prayer online in various versions (including Welsh, Scots Gaelic, and Hawaiian); now I offer you a comprehensive history and discussion of translations of the BCP—well, comprehensive as of 1913, when William Muss-Arnolt, was a linguist at the Boston Public Library, published The Book of Common Prayer among the Nations of the World, online thanks to the Society of Archbishop Justus. Muss-Arnolt begins, as is only proper, with Latin and Greek (meaning, of course, Ancient Greek), continues with Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the Near East (beginning with Modern Greek and ending with Pashtu), The British Empire in India and the Far East (beginning with Hindi and ending with Ainu), Australia and the Pacific Ocean (“The Aborigines of Australia Sadly Neglected”), Africa (“The Land of Good Hope”), and The Amerinds or American Indians in North and South America (beginning with Mohawk—”The Mohawk were the most easterly tribe of the Iroquois confederation, the “Romans of the New World,” and hereditary foes of the Algonquians”—and ending with Yahgan, a language familiar to regular readers of LH). The book is very well presented:

The complete text of the book is presented here, as it was in the original, to the extent that HTML will allow. Additionally, the individual BCP’s discussed are identified by their reference number from Griffiths’ Bibliography of the BCP. Also, scans are included of a number of title pages of the BCP translations. Nearly all of these are from the web author’s collection.

The discussions of the men who produced the various versions are interesting and often touching (“A memorable figure under Magellan’s clouds was this solitary possessor of a language, who held, as it were, the spiritual life of a people in the scored and ruffled leaves of his version”), and the accounts of the peoples and languages, though sometimes inaccurate and condescending from our enlightened point of view, make lively reading. Who can resist a sentence like this? “The Right Rev. Alexander Charles Garrett, bishop of Dallas, Northern Texas, translated in 1862, while missionary at Victoria (1861-67), on Vancouver’s Island, portions of the Prayer Book into the Chinook jargon; but the jargon was so hopeless that he never printed a line.”

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Lameen of Jabal al-Lughat has found several good sites for learning Oneida (Ethnologue, Wikipedia): the Oneida Language Revitalisation Program, Oneida Language Tools (including a grammar section that links to pdf files of “a 165 page document that describes the basic sound, word, and sentence structures of Oneida”), and Tracy Williams’ site (warning: automatically launches video clip). As Lameen says, “It’s great to see this much material online for a language with less than two hundred speakers; this should make it a lot easier for would-be speakers to make a good start at learning it.”


Occasionally publishers send me copies of their recent or imminent publications, obviously in the hope that I’ll mention them; sometimes I don’t, either because the books are too far from the LH beat or because they irritate me. The latter was the case with Ben Yagoda‘s When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It; I opened it with anticipation because I’ve enjoyed Yagoda’s writing, but a few pages into the introduction I hit this:

I’m with the prescriptivists on enthuse. The “descriptivists,” by contrast, would go to their deaths defending the use of hopefully to mean “it is to be hoped that” simply because people use it that way. These are the linguists and academic grammarians whose motto, borrowed from Alexander Pope, is “Whatever is, is right.”

And a few pages later comes this:

The main flaw of the descriptivists shows up in their own inconsistency. People such as Harvard linguist Steven Pinker, whose book The Language Instinct contains a chapter roundly ripping the “language mavens,” and the editors of the jaw-droppingly comprehensive Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage put forth an it’s-all-good philosophy, yet in their own writing follow all the traditional rules.

Now, I don’t like ignorant assaults on straw-man “descriptivists” when David Foster Wallace perpetrates them, and I don’t like them coming from Yagoda either. Yes, descriptivists (better known as “linguists”) describe language as it is, not as they might like it to be, just the way astronomers describe the universe as it is and physicists describe subatomic particles as they are. What would be the point of an astronomer condemning a planet for not being the kind of planet he prefers? And the point about descriptivists following all the traditional rules is just silly—nobody’s saying it’s bad to write according to traditional rules of style or that anything can and should be said anywhere. Obviously, with language as with clothing, there’s a time and a place for everything; most of us wouldn’t go to a fancy restaurant in ripped jeans and t-shirts, and when we’re carrying on an erudite conversation or writing a scholarly book we don’t say “ain’t.” The point is that there’s nothing wrong with ripped jeans or ain’t; in the right context they can be far more appropriate than “proper” alternatives. Context is all. And Ben, there’s nothing at all wrong with hopefully except that you personally don’t like it. Try not to confuse your preferences with the English language.
Now that I’ve got that off my chest… I reopened the book recently and discovered that it’s actually a lot of fun. Yagoda loves words and good writing and has spent years saving up good quotes, which he lavishes on his book; it’s worth flipping through just for the lists of quotes like this one in the chapter on adjectives (titled “Adj.”; all his chapter titles are dictionary-style abbreviations):

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Freelance writer Eve Kushner has been “fascinated by kanji ever since I started learning the characters in fall 2002,” and she’s started posting weekly essays about them at Kanji Curiosity. Her first is called “Neck and Neck,” and begins:

Do Japanese people regard the nose of an airplane as its neck?!
I initially thought so when I examined the kanji for 機首 (kishu: nose of plane):

機 = machine
首 = neck

I imagined a plane as a long, headless neck with wings! Then I realized that 首 (SHU, kubi) means not only “neck” but also “head,” “beginning,” and “first.” Associated meanings include “forepart of a vessel” and “occupying a head position” or “main.”
Ah, now the kishu compound makes more sense. But still I was tickled, because I have a deep affection for 首, which shows up in fascinating places:

手首 (tekubi: wrist)   hand + neck
足首 (ashikubi: ankle)   leg + neck

The wrist is the “neck” of the arm, and the ankle is the “neck” of the leg. Similar thinking applies to flowers:

花首 (hanakubi: the place where a flower joins its stem)    flower + neck

We have a comparable concept in English, with terms such as “bottleneck” describing narrowed areas. But somehow compounds involving 首 feel more fanciful or fun. Take, for instance, these imaginative words, in which 首 truly means “neck” in the anatomical sense:

首っ引き (kubippiki: tug of war using necks; constantly referring to a dictionary)   neck + pull
猪首 (ikubi: short, thick neck)   boar + neck

I don’t know about you, but that kind of comparison helps characters stick in my head.


Chicken chicken chicken chicken, chicken chicken (chicken chicken chicken); chicken chicken chicken chicken: chicken! (Chicken chicken.)


Siu-Leung Lee’s Hakka site has a section on the language: “This section is a collection of notes of my own experience and thoughts about the Hakka dialect and other language/dialects. Except where cited, many of my non-linguist viewpoints are unproven hypotheses. Discussions holding similar or contrary views, as well as supplementations are cordially welcome.” The modesty is welcome; for a more organized take on the subject one can check the Wikipedia article and its links, but this is one Hakka’s take on his own culture and language and interesting as such. Dr. Lee’s biography can be read here; on his own site he says “I was born in a Hakka family, but I knew little about Hakka. Brought up in Hong Kong, I had little use of the Hakka dialect except to understand the conversation of my father’s friends and employees. My parents spoke to me in Cantonese…. In the early 1990s, I spent 4 years back in Hong Kong. Browsing in a bookstore, I picked up a book about Hakka. Only then did I start to learn more about what Hakka meant to me…” Thanks for the link, Paul!


I’m still reading The Last Jews in Baghdad, and I just came across this paragraph on page 59, which combines an interesting fact about Iraqi dialects with a highly amusing anecdote, a sort of reductio ad absurdum of linguistic prescriptivism:

Of the Jewish teachers at Madrasat Ras el-Qarya I remember Salih Afandi, who taught arithmetic and used to insist on addressing us in the colloquial Arabic Muslims spoke, unlike his colleagues who managed to make do with a strange combination of classical Arabic and the Arabic spoken by Jews. Especially pompous was a young teacher by the name of Nyazi—an uncommon name among the Jews of Iraq—who taught us English in the fourth form. I remember him telling us that the correct pronunciation of the word bicycle was to rhyme with “behind” and “besides,” the accepted pronunciation being completely wrong. He insisted on our doing it correctly and it was only some years later that I found out how nonsensical the correction was.


I’ve been accumulating books I want to write about, and I might as well start with two that helped me with this curses-and-insults book I’ve been working on.
The first is In Other Words, by Christopher J. Moore. I was unfairly disparaging to the book in a post a couple of years ago making fun of the non-word “razbliuto” (which Moore had taken from another source and which, as he pointed out in the comment thread, had been removed in the next edition of his book); being now in the position of working on a similar book, I fully realize how impossible it is, given less than infinite time, to verify every entry, and having actually used Moore’s book I find it immensely enjoyable. One can quibble about particular definitions, and there’s too much emphasis on “untranslatability,” but it’s a nice selection of foreign terms; alongside the more obvious Arabic baksheesh and hajj, for example, is hilm il-utaat kullu firaan ‘the dream of cats is all about mice,’ meaning “to have a one-track mind.” And in the introduction to the Eastern European section Moore gave me great pleasure by quoting the final section of this essay about Budapest by the Serbian writer Dragan Velikić, with its riff on the name of Pillangó utca:

I translated that name to myself as Pillangó Street, in other words, I did not translate it at all, convinced that it was a name, a street bearing somebody’s name. I walked through Budapest as if I had just arrived in Babylon where, by the grace of a god who had yet to become angry or disappointed, everything had a personal name, untranslatable, and thus immediately understandable… Nothing about that feeling changed even when my friend explained to me smilingly that pillangó means — butterfly. You are talking about the Street of Butterflies, she said, about Butterfly Street. But the word pillangó was ever after engraved in my mind as the name of a butterfly. There was a “Pillangó butterfly” and it lived in Budapest.

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