Archives for June 2008


I’m following up my Caucasus books by reading Henri Troyat’s biography Tolstoy; normally I’m suspicious of biographies that “read like novels,” but this one works for me so far, and it’s now brought me to the Caucasus with the eager but hopelessly unfocused twentysomething Lev Nikolaevich, who’s escaping the social whirl and gambling debts of his Moscow life by hanging out with his beloved older brother Nicholas, serving with a regiment stationed in Chechnya. The future passionate antiwar activist (who helped inspire me to become a conscientious objector almost forty years ago) decided he wanted to be a soldier too and “set off with his brother for Tiflis, where he could take the induction examination.” But when he got to the capital of Georgia (now Tbilisi), he discovered he was missing a necessary certificate and would have to wait for it to arrive from far-off Tula. There follows a description of the town:

Disappointed, he decided to wait for the document there and, letting his brother return to Starogladkovskaya alone, he rented a room in a modest house in the suburbs—the favorite haunt of the German colony, among the vineyards and gardens on the left bank of the Kura.
South of the German settlement, on the same side of the river, the native quarter spread along the mountainside: steep narrow streets, houses with overhanging balconies, a languid sibilant throng in which veiled Moslem women brushed against Persians with scarlet-painted fingernails and high hairdresses, Tatar mollahs in loose gowns and green or white turbans, hillsmen from the conquered tribes wearing Cherkesska belted at the waist. The hieratic camels’ heads swayed above the crowd. It was hot, even in November. The air smelled of dirt, honey, incense and leather. On the right bank of the Kura lay the Russian town, clean, neat and administrative, exhaling the tedium of a provincial capital beneath the sun.

Your basic local color, but what struck me was that odd adjective “sibilant.” It’s not clear what language he’s trying to describe, if indeed he had a particular one in mind—Armenian, Georgian, Persian, Russian, and German, among others, were all heard, and it’s true that they all have sibilants, but how many languages don’t? I imagine if you’d asked Troyat (born Lev Aslanovich Tarasov in Moscow), he’d have given a languid Armeno-Russian-French shrug and waved the question off, but I’ll tell you what I think: I think writers who want to describe the people of some exotic locale and their language throw a dart at a board with labels like “guttural,” “sibilant,” “nasal,” and the like, and use whichever the dart finds its way to. (There’s an amusing discussion of guttural at Language Log, where Ben Zimmer says “it’s one of those words that gets thrown around whenever a speaker finds an alien speech pattern somehow displeasing. … A quick Web search turns up such examples as ‘a guttural English/Chinese mishmash,’ ‘a guttural Yorkshire accent,’ ‘a guttural Southern drawl,’ ‘guttural Ebonics, and countless others.”)
Update. I have decided, based on the comments, that “sibilant” isn’t actually an attempt to describe a language after all, which strictly speaking renders this post superfluous. Good thing I’m lax about staying on topic!

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LH: TOP 20.

Jon of eduFire just wrote to let me know that LH has been selected as one of their Top 20 Language Bloggers on the Web:

Language Hat is definitely one of the smartest language-related blogs you’ll find. There’s a great community of people reading and commenting on the blog as you can see evidence of here. Highly recommended if you’re looking for something a bit more academic.

I particularly like the citation because it rightly focuses on the “great community,” which is what makes LH what it is. So take a bow, folks!
(Jon says “we’re looking to give away some free language tutoring sessions in the coming weeks and if this is something you’d like to offer to your readers I’d be happy to set that up.” If you’re interested, their e-mail is contact at edurev dot com.)
Also, don’t tell anybody, but it looks like my book is going to be published in the U.S. next year. More details when the deal is final, but I wanted to give hope to those who have been clamoring!


The creator of Lexicon of Early Indo-European Loanwords Preserved in Finnish has done a splendid job. Mind you, I don’t know enough to judge the accuracy of the etymologies, but they’re very well presented, and the approach inspires confidence:

The data on the site is based on etymologies published in scientific sources for the scrutiny of the research community. This is not one of those sites where anything goes, whatever the author feels is plausible. Of course it is still part of this discipline that a certain percentage of the etymologies would be uncertain, and occasionally I use a question mark to show this. The way of presenting the etymologies is one of my own design and despite the strict selection of etymologies I would discourage you from using this site as a primary source for scientific works. … I also have no place to record the author of each etymology separately (special recognition is due to the Finnish scholar Jorma Koivulehto, due to whom the number of irreproachable loan etymologies has been greatly increased in the last decades). For a more precise presentation I encourage you to consult the literature below. Any possible etymology which has not been published in a scientific context will be marked accordingly.
The lexicon is far from complete. The number of possible etymologies is far greater, especially with respect to the last millennium BC, corresponding to Early Proto-Germanic as well as Proto-Baltic. For the purpose of economy a time-line has been drawn (see below on this page) to exclude more recent etymologies. This lexicon also, for the purpose of popular legibility, generally excludes words, which do not have any cognates in English and Finnish. Many words have become obsolete in Finnish despite their existence in Saami, Estonian, Mordvinic, Cheremis (=Mari), Votyak (=Udmurt) or Zyryan (=Komi). Others are not represented at all in English. For those with an interest in these words I refer to the literature below. Without this criterion the number of etymologies would be considerably larger.

Jouppe (which apparently is the creator’s name) says “One target group might be foreigners learning Finnish or Estonian that wonders where a lot of Finnish vocabulary comes from. Another target group is indeed Indo-Europeanists who lack access to the literature on Finnic etymology, largely published in German, Finnish and other less accessible languages.” I fall into the latter category (well, I do read German, but am too lazy to), and I much appreciate the effort lavished on the site. Thanks for the link, Kári!


A remarkable case of survival, from Lameen at Jabal al-Lughat:

Most languages probably have a few words used especially for addressing babies. However, Siwi seems to have a lot more than I know from English or Arabic (I’ve recorded something like 40). One of these (already noted in Laoust 1931) is mbuwwa “water” (the normal Siwi word is aman). mbuwwa, meaning “water” or “drink”, turns out to be rather widespread: they use it in baby talk in Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Malta, Sicily, and probably a few other places for which I haven’t found sources. The remarkable part is that Ferguson managed to track down a historical source for this word. Varro, a Roman grammarian of the first century BC, gives bua as the nursery word for “drink” (presumably to be related to bibere, the adult verb for “drink”.) (Unfortunately, I haven’t managed to find the relevant work online.) If the connection is correct, then this word (possibly along with some others, like pappa for “bread” or “food”) has persisted in Mediterranean baby talk for at least 2000 years, apparently without ever passing into adult speech.

As several commenters point out, 40 isn’t a lot of baby-talk words (SnowLeopard says the Hopi Dictionary Project’s Hopiikwa Lavaytutuveni “lists 80 words of baby-talk Hopi”); SillyBahrainiGirl got excited (“mbuwwa! I am from Bahrain and haven’t heard this word for years!”), giving Lameen his own moment of excitement (“Wow, I didn’t realise mbuwwa went all the way from Morocco to Bahrain. I wonder if it’s used even further east?”); and the estimable bulbul got even more excited: “You have got to be kidding. Papať is the Slovak BT word for ‘to eat’, papa (feminine) means food and now you’re telling me it’s found in the Mediterranean as well? Awesome.” Yet another area of language that deserves more attention than it’s gotten to date.


That is to say, French lexicographic materials. A correspondent writes:

The Dictionnaire Littré de la langue francaise in now available on-line, free, at It contains more than 80,000 definitions, 200,000 citations of authors and reference works, and synonyms, conjugations of verbs, etc.
The Robert is planning to go on line, but it will not be free.
On the encyclopedia front, has been revamped to allow contributions from readers, a la Wikipedia,but these are clearly identified by a different colour from the official contents of 150,000 articles and 10,000 illustrations or animations, which are verified and updated regularly
The venerable Quid will not come out in printed form this year, and its on-line site is being revamped to make the content relevant to different age groups, particularly school children.

A very useful roundup. Thanks, Paul!


Hey, remember that discussion of how to pronounce pace ‘with due deference to’ or ‘despite’? It was fun and educational, right? Well, I’ve got another poll for those who occasionally say Latin words and phrases out loud: how do you say re ‘in the matter of, referring to’? And do you say it the same way in the phrase in re (same meaning)? I do, but apparently quite a few people don’t. (Sparked by this AskMetaFilter thread, which is actually about whether one should use a colon after re. Answer: yes in headings, otherwise no, as in Verbatim Summer 1979 “G. Bocca’s observations re public signs.”)


Kári Tulinius writes me to say:

I just finished reading Vikram Chandra’s novel Sacred Games… It is mostly set in Mumbai and a large part of it takes place in the city’s underworld. Therefore it is filled with lots of slang. There’s a helpful glossary provided in the back of the book, but it also exists online, here.

You can also download it in pdf, rtf, or xls format here. The “a” section alone has material ranging from arthi “Funeral byre on which a person is carried to the burning grounds” to aaiyejhavnaya, aaiyejhavnayi “motherfucker,” with some fairly substantial entries like:

Arre chetti kar, dooty par jaana hai
This is a Punjabi phrase that would translate roughly into something like, “Hey, hurry up, I have to go to my duty.” The “duty” in question is the speaker’s police shift. In India, putting in a day of work is often referred to as “doing duty.”

It’s lots of fun, and definitely gets me interested in the novel!


Words Without Borders presents Thirteen Ways of Looking at Joseph Brodsky, an excerpt from a forthcoming book by Valentina Polukhina:

Between 2003 and 2004, Valentina Polukhina conducted a series of interviews about Nobel Prize in Literature recipient Joseph Brodsky. She spoke with former Brodsky student and executive director of The Academy of American Poets (from 1989 to 2001) William Wadsworth; respected American essayist Susan Sontag; and prolific poet, playwright, essayist and fellow Nobel laureate Derek Walcott.

Brodsky is a fascinating and contradictory figure even on the page; in life he was obviously both inspiring and infuriating, and these exchanges frequently make for gripping reading. Wadsworth says “Joseph was tremendously charismatic, but he also came across in many ways as an absolutist, and was frequently given to outrageous statements, even insults. If you couldn’t roll with the punches, if you disagreed with him and your skin was thin, Joseph’s manner could seem overbearing,” and there are several examples of this. Walcott says:

Joseph was somebody who lived poetry. He proclaimed it every time I met him. That’s why I admired him. He didn’t do the English or American thing, you know, of being shy and saying, “I am not really a poet” or, “I don’t like to be called a poet”—any of that nonsense. He was very proud of being called that. He was Brodsky. He was the best example I know of someone who proclaimed that he was a poet; that’s what he did. … He saw being a poet as being a sacred calling.

I continued to be mystified by people who admire his terrible self-translations, but in Russian he is one of the all-time greats, and I hope this book keeps his memory fresh in America.


I don’t know how many people are still familiar with the old expression of incredulity “All my eye and Betty Martin” (e.g., from Walter De la Mare’s 1930 On Edge: “You might be suggesting that both shape and scarecrow too were all my eye and Betty Martin”), but there’s a good discussion of it by Mark Liberman over at the Log. The eighteenth century (when it appears to have originated) was at least as fond of folk etymologies as we are today, and there are a couple involving implausible snippets of alleged Church Latin overheard by simple British sailors in foreign parts (or ports): “Ah! mihi, beate Martine” or “Mihi beata mater,” neither of which actually occurs in Catholic ritual (I might add that the mistaking of mihi for “my eye” could only occur with the traditional English pronunciation of Latin, unlikely to have been in use abroad). The truth is that nobody knows or is likely to know how it originated, but it’s an enjoyable phrase and one that I hope will somehow make its way back into the vernacular.


Today’s Dear Abby nicely complements yesterday’s snooty deplorer:

DEAR ABBY: I am happily married to the most wonderful woman in the world. I feel blessed to have her in my life and to be a part of hers.
I am not an elitist; I like to think I am a humble person. But I do believe in correct grammar, proper pronunciation and the eloquent employment of words in conversation. My wife did not have the benefit of an upbringing in which these were practiced. She comes from the “ain’t got no” school of speaking.
I can accept this at home, but in business as a corporate executive, I am embarrassed by her low verbal skills.
I would never hurt or shame my wife by correcting her in front of anyone. The obvious answer is to bring it up in private. I did that, but she is not inclined to improve her word skills. She has mentioned a friend who tried to help her in this endeavor, but it went nowhere. I wish I could do something. Any ideas on how I can help? — WORDSMITH IN ILLINOIS

Abby (Jeanne Phillips) is nicer than I would be about it, but she has the right idea:

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