Archives for March 2008


National Grammar Day, that is; this is a month late, but I thought I’d share with you Z. D. Smith’s response to the idiotic celebration of prescriptivism I barked at here:

…people have better things to do with their language than simply convey facts. In the imaginations of the dryest of grammarians, perhaps, language—not speech, though; written language—is simply or reductively the tool that we use to transmit and record factual information. Everybody else, though, and I mean everybody, is answering to a series of more pressing concerns. Even when speaking prose, we are participating in aesthetic creation. Every utterance obeys rules of meter and rhythm as fundamental to language as its grammatical structure….
Sometimes it makes a body really want to rap these critics on the head; don’t you see that people are speaking here? Do you really imagine that people who say ‘between you and I’ don’t have anything better to do with their words than see that they conform to some superficial notion of grammar? Can you allow in your worldview the possibility that the greengrocer or urban youth has his own sense of language, and is actively wielding it, rather than simply trying and failing to follow all the rules?



Jack Lynch, an Associate Professor of English at Rutgers, gave a talk in 2005 on “How Johnson’s Dictionary Became the First Dictionary,” going into the amusing and instructive history of the mistaken notion, doggedly repeated for centuries now, that Johnson’s was the “first English dictionary.” He says “If we adjust our criteria and allow ‘the first dictionary’ to mean ‘the first standard dictionary’ — the first one widely perceived as an authoritative standard — then Johnson’s does seem to become number one. In fact there are hints that Johnson’s was the first authoritative dictionary in writings published even before Johnson was born…” and decides “in this sense it may be true, for Johnson’s was the first dictionary about which such grand pronouncements were made.”
All this is very interesting, but apparently he kept mulling over the issues, and last year produced an even richer article, “Disgraced by Miscarriage: Four and a Half Centuries of Lexicographical Belligerence” (abstract, pdf, HTML cache). He starts with the same observation about Johnson’s elusive primacy, but quickly goes in a different direction:

I suspect the very category of “a good dictionary” means nothing to many people.
But it has meant an awful lot to the people who write those dictionaries. One might think lexicographers are a meek and retiring lot, but history shows that they can be surprisingly truculent. Today I would like to describe some of the quarrels that have made the history of English dictionaries so fascinating for almost half a millennium. During that time lexicographers have engaged in countless altercations, and they’ve been known to get nasty—their debates are sometimes little more dignified than knife fights. Johnson himself noted, “Every other authour may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach,” and few even manage that; the usual lot of the dictionary writer is “to be disgraced by miscarriage, or punished for neglect.” …
It may seem funny today, but seventeenth-century tempers often flared. One of the more bloodthirsty lexicographical rivalries began in 1656, when Thomas Blount published the biggest English dictionary to date, Glossographia. Two years later there appeared A New World of English Words, compiled by Edward Phillips, nephew of the poet John Milton. Phillips’s title picks up on some of the excitement of the discovery of the real New World, which was still a comparatively novel subject in 1658—this is before there was a permanent European settlement in New Jersey, when New Brunswick was still an unsettled region known by the unappealing name of Prigmore’s Swamp. Phillips, however, soon found himself in an ethical swamp of his own making, because his New World of English Words was not as new as he made it out to be—many of the entries were lifted straight out of Blount’s Glossographia. Blount, unamused, responded with a peevish pamphlet, A World of Errors Discovered in the New World of Words. …
Dictionaries, in other words, have been stealing from one another for a long time, and it continues even now. Today it is considered bad form to lift whole entries out of a rival’s dictionary, but everyone looks to the competition for guidance. This approach does have some risks, though—for one, it tends to perpetuate errors. Sometimes they are intentional, part of a long tradition of clever frauds in reference books.

And he goes on to discuss the kind of copyright traps (sometimes known as “Mountweazels”) I discussed here.

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A fascinating thread at postumia (Russian LJ, found via Avva) investigates the origin of the Russian fake-Italian phrase Финита ля комедия! [finita la com(m)edia!]; the blogger describes her shock on discovering, upon hearing a classmate corrected in an Italian class, that the actual Italian phrase is “La commedia è finita” (well known from the end of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci). She first suspects it’s a misremembering of the line from the opera that somehow got established in Russian culture, but a commenter traces it back to Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (written in 1839, over a half-century before the opera): “-Finita la comedia! – сказал я доктору” [‘”Finita la comedia!” I said to the doctor’; note the misspelled “comedia”]. It’s not clear whether Lermontov simply mangled the phrase or misunderstood the context it can be used in (as a dependent clause, e.g. “finita la commedia, gli spetattori sono andati dal teatro”). And another commenter makes reference to the supposed dying words of Augustus Caesar, “Plaudite, amici, comedia finita est.”
It’s all most interesting, but the best thing that came out of it for me was the discovery of the Corpus of the Russian Language. The internet gets better and better.


Still reading Ostler, I’ve come to a nice quote from Plutarch about Cleopatra:

There was pleasure in the very sound of her voice. Like a many-stringed instrument, she turned her tongue easily to whatever dialect she would, and few indeed were the foreigners with whom she conversed through an interpreter, since she answered most of them in her own words, whether Ethiopian, Trogodyte, Hebrew, Arab, Syriac, Median or Parthian. The kings before her had not even had the patience to acquire Egyptian, and some had even been lacking in their Macedonian.*

The footnote reads:

Plutarch, Antony, xxvii.4-5. All these languages must have been heard on the streets of Alexandria in Cleopatra’s day. Ethiopian would be the language of Kush, and Syriac is a form of Aramaic. Trogodyte would have been spoken along the Red Sea coast, and is perhaps the ancestor of modern Beja. The Medjay, supposed to be the same, had been an eastern desert people employed in Egypt as police in the fifteenth to thirteenth centuries (Gardiner 1957 [Egyptian Grammar]: 183, n. 2). There is no mention here of Libyan—or of Latin, although Plutarch adds that Cleopatra is said to have spoken many other languages besides the ones he does mention. Most likely her amours with Caesar, and later Antony, were conducted in Greek.

“Trogodyte” should, of course according to Plutarch, be Troglodyte; if it had just occurred once, I’d have corrected it as an isolated typo, but twice deserves a slap on the wrist. Proofreading! Do it! [“Troglodyte” apparently is a folk etymology, but one already established by Plutarch’s time—see comments.]

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Geoff Pullum, Language Log‘s resident curmudgeon (no offense meant, I’m one myself), believes there are lots more prepositions in English than most people realize; he recently discovered outwith, which I was familiar with, and today he’s happened on furth, which is new to me as well. He found it at a University of Glasgow Faculty of Arts page concerning transfer of credit whose headline reads “Grades received furth of Glasgow.” As he says, furth of Glasgow means ‘away from or outside of Glasgow’; this Scots usage is paralleled by English forth of (furth and forth are historically the same word), but the latter had its heyday half a millennium ago (Whan your mayster is forth of towne ‘when your master is out of town’). Here‘s the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue entry and here‘s the Scottish National Dictionary one (first supplement, second supplement). From the fifteenth century (Gilbert of the Haye’s Prose Manuscript): “The Romaynes put thame furth of the toune”; from February 2000: “At least 90% of all Presbyterians in Scotland still adhere to the national Kirk, which despite its woes and stumblings has still a bigger part in the nation’s life than the Church of England can claim furth of Hadrian’s Wall.”

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I have long been a fan of Luc Sante (see PATAPOUFS! ANTHROPOPHAGES! from 2004), and I should long since have alerted you to his blog Pinakothek (“A blog about pictures. All kinds of pictures.”):

I won’t pretend to specialize or present myself as an expert in anything. Subjectivity is my middle name, a trick memory is my pack mule, and self-contradiction is my trusty old jackknife. Generally I favor humble over great, marginal over central, old over new—but not always, because like a four-sided porch I’m open to all winds.

I want to call to your attention his post Unpacking My Library, with its poignant evocation of the lot of us hopeless book accumulators:

But after living in smallish apartments for decades I just spent seven years in a house with a full-size attic, and everything went to hell. Books entered my house under cover of night, from the four winds, smuggled in by woodland creatures, and then they never left. Now that I have moved again—into a house that’s not necessarily smaller but that I am determined to keep from being choked with books like kudzu—I have just weeded out no fewer than twenty-five (25) boxes worth: books I won’t read and don’t need, duplicates, pointless souvenirs. I discovered that I owned no fewer than five copies of André Breton’s Nadja, not even all in different editions. I owned two copies of St. Clair McKelway’s True Tales from the Annals of Crime & Rascality, identical down to the mylar around the dust jacket. I had books in three languages I don’t actually read. Etcetera. It was time to end the madness….
I do have a few hundred books that I reread or refer to fairly regularly, and I have a lot of books pertaining to whatever current or future projects I have on the fire. I have a lot of books that I need for reference, especially now that I live forty minutes away from the nearest really solid library. Primarily, though, books function as a kind of external hard drive for my mind—my brain isn’t big enough to do all the things it wants or needs to do without help…

I’ve moved too often and discarded too many books; I hope I never have to triage my burdensome but beloved library again. (Thanks for the link, Kári!)


If your reaction to that question is like mine, you will be muttering “There’s no such thing as ‘Indo-Europeans’—Proto-Indo-European is a reconstructed language with a few clear features and lots of hypotheses, and barring the development of a time machine we’ll never know who spoke it.” But many people are unhappy with that degree of skepticism, so there will probably always be attempts to pose and answer the question. The latest is The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony; the NY Times review is by Christine Kenneally (author of The First Word, a book that attempts to answer another unanswerable question, how language began), and you can read the first chapter here. As Kenneally says:

The impact of horses on the reach of language is particularly important to Anthony, and he conveys his excitement at working out whether ancient horses wore bits (and were therefore ridden by Proto-Indo-Europeans) by comparing their teeth to those of modern domesticated and wild horses. He muses on the “deep-rooted, intransigent traditions of opposition” that existed along the Ural River frontier, slowing the spread of herding and the cultural innovations that went with it.

If the idea of using primeval horses to illuminate protolanguages excites you, you will probably want to read the book. If you find it (and similar speculation about “a world in which spoken poetry was the only medium”) too hypothetical to take seriously, at least it allows the mind to roam freely over the ancient steppes, snorting and whinnying and heading wherever its fancy takes it, trampling underfoot the captious questions of carping quidnuncs.


An interesting NY Times story by Simon Romero describes the complicated linguistic situation in Suriname:

Walk into a government office here and you will be greeted in Dutch, the official language. But in a reflection of the astonishing diversity of this South American nation, Surinamese speak more than 10 other languages, including variants of Chinese, Hindi, Javanese and half a dozen original Creoles.
Making matters more complex, English is also beamed into homes on television and Portuguese is the fastest-growing language since an influx of immigrants from Brazil in recent years. And one language stands above all others as the lingua franca: Sranan Tongo (literally Suriname tongue), a resilient Creole developed by African slaves in the 17th century.
So which language should Suriname’s 470,000 people speak? Therein lies a quandary for this country, which is still fiercely debating its national identity after just three decades of independence from the Netherlands….
The use of Sranan became associated with nationalist politics after Desi Bouterse, a former dictator, began using Sranan in his speeches in the 1980s. The slogan of his National Democratic Party, the biggest in Suriname, remains “Let a faya baka!” Sranan for “Turn the lights back on!” or, figuratively, get things working again.
But even though relations with the Netherlands are tepid, Dutch is taught in schools rather than Sranan. In 2004, Suriname became an associate member of Taalunie, a Dutch language association including the Netherlands and Belgian Flanders.

Other languages spoken in the country include Surinamese Hindi, Javanese, the Maroon languages (Saramaka, Paramakan, Ndyuka, Aukan, Kwinti, Matawai), Amerindian languages (Carib, Arawak), Chinese (Hakka, Cantonese, and Mandarin), and the geographically inevitable English, Spanish and Portuguese (according to Wikipedia; Ethnologue has a somewhat outdated list).
Incidentally, my problem with the recent switch from the traditional English spelling Surinam to the Dutch Suriname is that it introduces an unnecessary split between spelling and pronunciation (of which English already has more than a sufficiency): to be consistent, the pronunciation should be changed to soo-ri-NAH-muh, but I’m pretty sure nobody says that. What was wrong with Surinam, anyway? I know, I know, I’m a hopeless reactionary when it comes to place names. If it was good enough for granddad, it’s good enough for me.


I recently had occasion to discuss the Persian names for Transoxiana, the region of Bukhara and Samarkand; now, thanks to this MetaFilter post, I’ve found the mother lode of papers about the place itself, which has always fascinated me: Transoxiana, “Journal Libre de Estudios Orientales.” Just the papers by Shamsiddin Kamoliddin alone are enough to keep me mesmerized for hours; check out To the Question of the Origin of the Samanids and On the Origin of the place-Name Buxārā (i.e., Bukhara). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I love the internet.


The Journal of Language Contact has as its subhead “Evolution of languages, contact and discourse” and as its motto the excellent quote (from Hugo Schuchardt, specialist in mixed languages, pidgins, creoles, and lingua franca) “Es gibt keine völlig ungemischte Sprache” (‘There is no completely unmixed language’):

We wish JLC to focus on the study of language use and language change in accordance with a view of language contact whereby both, empirical data (the precise description of languages and how they are used) and the resulting theoretical elaborations (hence the statement and analysis of new problems) become the primary engines for advancing our understanding of the nature of language. This will also involve associating linguistic, anthropological, historical, and cognitive factors. We believe that such an approach would make a major new contribution to understanding language change at a time when there is a notable increase of interest and activity in this field.

Hey, maybe they can solve the problem of the newest language!