Archives for August 2008


I’ve found a nut too tough for me to crack, and naturally I’m tossing it in the direction of the Varied Reader. Frequent commenter (and slayer of prescriptivist dragons) jamessal sent me a quote from Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era (which changed my life when I read it thirty years ago, and helped make me the Languagehat you see before you); I’ll provide the full context from page 116. Kenner has been explaining the conundrum of the hapax noigandres in an Arnaut Daniel poem (“Levy” is Emil L. Lévy, 1855-1918, the German philologist):

And some years before the young American’s visit, Levy had solved the problem, divining (after six months, the Canto bids us realize) that the second part of noigandres must be a form of gandir (protect, ward off); then enoi is cognate with modern French ennui; and the word comes apart neatly into d’enoi gandres, ward off ennui, and the line reads,

e jois lo grans, e l’olors d’enoi gandres

—“And joy is its seed, and its smell banishes sadness.” He entered this triumphant emendation, complete with Arnaut’s reconstructed line, under gandir in his great Provenzalisches Supplement-Wörterbuch, page 25, Vol. IV (G-L), 1904, where it would have eluded Pennsylvania inquirers await for the volume that should treat of N. But one member of Prof. Rennet’s seminar was rewarded with the solution he went to Freiburg for (we are not to suppose that Levy spoke that day only of his six months’ bafflement); and Pound’s text and final translation, first published in Instigations, concur with Lavaud’s 1910 edition (which he cites) in following Levy’s reading:

… Bestir my heart to put my song in sheen
T’equal that flower which hath such properties,
It seeds in joy, bears love, and pain ameises.

So all is clear (although apparently modern editions of Daniel reconstruct the line slightly differently—James J. Wilhelm’s The Poetry of Arnaut Daniel has “e l’olors d’enuo[c] ga[i]ndres”), but Kenner has left us with a conundrum of his own: what the hell is “ameises”? There’s no “ameise” in the OED or in any other dictionary I have access to, I can’t find an Old English word Pound might have extrapolated it from, and no Greek or Latin roots come to mind that might explain it. Kenner must have tried looking it up himself; I can’t decide whether he left it as an exercise for the reader or whether he simply couldn’t be bothered to investigate that particular detour, but it’s driving me nuts (as the pirate with the steering wheel sticking out of his pants told the bartender); if anyone has any plausible theories, let’s hear ’em.

[Read more…]


I know, I know, we’re all sick of top-ten lists, and on the face of it a list of the Top Ten Endangered Languages seems… well, odd, but Peter K. Austin is an actual linguist who “has published 11 books on minority and endangered languages, including 12 Australian Aboriginal languages, and holds the Märit Rausing Chair in field linguistics at the School of Oriental and African Studies where he is also director of the Endangered Languages Academic Programme,” so his piece at the Guardian is knowledgeable and interesting, even if the descriptions of the languages are so short and superficial (“extremely complicated word structure and grammar”) that they’re not very useful. After all, in this wonderful internet age, we can always google for more. This link comes from Crown, AJP, a frequent LH commenter aka Sir Arthur Crown, V.C.; Arthur, Graf von Hubris; et alia varia, to whom my thanks.


I apologize in advance for the fact that this post will be totally uninteresting to the vast majority of my readers, but those few who are interested in reading Tolstoy in Russian or enjoy obscure historical Russian idioms will like it, and the rest can continue discussing names for Ireland or little words. So: in reading War and Peace (see here and here), several times I’ve come across a tiny phrase that looks simple but is hard to explain, с поля [s polya]. This looks like it means ‘from the field,’ and in fact is nowadays so used (“the enemy was driven from the field”), but in these contexts it describes a hat; for instance, as the Battle of Austerlitz is beginning, General Miloradovich is described as “без шинели, в мундире и орденах и со шляпой с огромным султаном, надетой набекрень и с поля”: ‘without a greatcoat, in uniform and [wearing his] orders and with a hat with a huge plume, worn on one side and s polya.’ Now, polyá (with end-stress), literally ‘fields,’ can also mean ‘brim of a hat’ (as well as ‘margin of a book’), but this has to be singular and stem-stressed (pólya), and even if you assume that once upon a time the singular could refer to the brim of a hat (though even Dahl only has it as plural), what would ‘from the brim’ mean?
So I wrote to one of my informants (I try to rotate my queries, so none of them get sick of my pestering), who comments here as mab, and she did a little research and came up with this Russian page, which says “The three-cornered hat of [Pestel]’s uniform was worn not straight, as was required by [army] regulations, but s polya — with a corner forward: wearing a uniform hat in that manner was permitted only to officials in the Emperor’s retinue and adjutants. At the time of the Patriotic War of 1812 and foreign expeditions, the fashion arose among the dandies of the officer corps to wear their hats s polya, which was an undoubted breach of regulations.” So there you have it; I’m still not sure how the phrase works grammatically, but at least we know what it means both denotationally (with a corner in front) and connotationally (dandyism).


The Schøyen Collection is “a means to preserve and protect for posterity a wide range of written expressions of belief, knowledge and understanding from many different cultures throughout the ages”; from the Introduction:

The Schøyen Collection comprises most types of manuscripts from the whole world spanning over 5000 years. It is the largest private manuscript collection formed in the 20th century.
The whole collection, MSS 1-5381, comprises 13,642 manuscript items, including 2,242 volumes. 6,850 manuscript items are from the ancient period, 3300 BC – 500 AD; 3,851 are from the medieval period, 500 – 1500; and 2,941 are post-medieval. There are manuscripts from 134 different countries and territories in 120 languages and 184 scripts.

The Contents page divides the collection into The Bible (The Hebrew and Aramaic Bible, The Greek New Testament and the Septuagint, The Coptic Bible translation, etc.), History, Literature, and Palaeography (The beginning of writing and the first alphabets, Greek book scripts, etc.); here, for example, is what they call “the earliest alphabetical writing known” (Canaanite West Semitic on bronze, Israel/Palestine, 18th – 17th c. BC). I don’t know how seriously to take their descriptions (they seem overenthusiastic about the possible age of the Australian objects), but the items themselves are remarkable and a pleasure to investigate. Thanks, David!


The eudæmonist is studying Armenian, and has a typically irresistible entry about the “little words, of clear and unclear meaning, these adverbs, these prepositions, these postpositions, these nebulous, numinous specks upon the (in)certitude of syntax” that “trip you up in supposed subtleties.” This is exemplified by the word “էլի (eli), which one dictionary helpfully glosses as ‘adv. 1) again. 2) more.’”

A more helpful dictionary observed that eli also means ‘again, anew, more, some more, still, now, well’. This is not the half of it. For instance, when someone asks you what you’re eating, you can say: կաբտռֆիլ էլի (kartofil eli) which doesn’t mean just ‘more potatoes’ or ‘potatoes again’, but seems to mean something more like, ‘potatoes of course, as you can see by looking at my plate, numbskull’. գնում ես էլի (gnûm es eli) which isn’t ‘you’re going again’ but is rather ‘you’re going aren’t you’ or ‘so you’re going, huh’. One speaker seemed to use eli in every sentence, much as an English speaker might say ‘like’, ‘well’ or ‘y’know’.

It reminds me of Russian уж [uzh], which a dictionary will tell you = уже [uzhé] ‘already,’ but which is actually stuck in all over the place for all kinds of emphatic and ironic purposes. (Ancient Greek is full of such things, and the eudæmonist apparently takes the same pleasure in browsing Denniston as I do.) Neither of my (admittedly small) Armenian dictionaries even has an entry for էլի/eli, and I’m guessing the Armenian/English bilingual dictionary situation is pretty dire in general. Checking my Guide to World Language Dictionaries, I find that “The major Armenian dictionary, though it is hard for non-Armenians to use, is the etymological dictionary by Adjarian,” of which Dalby says “In citing forms in other languages, Adjarian used Greek, Latin, Arabic, Georgian, Hebrew, Syriac and even cuneiform script, but, mercifully, he added a transliteration of the cuneiform!” There’s an Armyansko-russkii slovar’ (Yerevan: Izdatel’stvo Akademii Nauk Armyanskoi SSR, 1987; 724 pp.) that’s probably pretty good if one could find a copy of it (assuming, of course, one knows Russian). At any rate, I wish the eudæmonist the best of luck in navigating the tricky waters of a foreign language with such shaky lexicographical support!


Ellen Barry has a surprisingly good article in Sunday’s NY Times that starts by talking about the difficulties of Georgian—”its ridiculous consonant clusters (‘gvprtskvni’ [‘you peel us’–LH]); its diabolical irregular verbs” (having studied Georgian, I was able to assure my appalled wife that the description was, if anything, understated)—and goes on to describe the rest of the region:

Some 40 indigenous tongues are spoken in the region — more than any other spot in the world aside from Papua New Guinea and parts of the Amazon, where the jungles are so thick that small tribes rarely encounter one another. In the Caucasus, mountains serve the same purpose, offering small ethnicities a natural refuge against more powerful or aggressive ones.
As a result, there is a dense collection of ethnic groups, the kind of arrangement that was common before the Greek and Roman empires swept through the plains of Europe and Asia, shaping ethnic patchworks into states and nations, said Johanna Nichols, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley.

Aside from Nichols, an expert on the area, she quotes Bill Poser of the Log, and you can read his take on it here (he has a nice linguistic map of the Caucasus). The one thing that bothered me in Barry’s piece was the reference to Georgian as “a language whose closest relative, some linguists say, is Basque”: Larry, thou should’st be living at this hour!
The story ends with this horrifying anecdote:

Dr. Dybo has yet to hear from a library in Tskhinvali, which held a magisterial lexicon of the Ossetian language that was compiled over the course of many years. It’s a single manuscript, never transferred to a computer.
She is not sure, she said, but she thinks it burned up on Aug. 8.

War: What is it good for?


Some kind and anonymous reader has sent me a copy of The Early Slavs : Culture and Society in Early Medieval Eastern Europe, by P.M. Barford, via the Amazon wish-list link. I can’t even remember where I found out about it (Renee’s long-gone and much-lamented blog?), but it looks great (lots of maps!) and I’m really looking forward to plunging in. So thanks, kind anonymous person!


A comment by marie-lucie in this thread (which has now reached the hundred-comment mark thanks to the usual digressions, in this case involving edibles) is so interesting I thought I’d give it its own post:

At a time when I was required to read 19th-century French novels, I was struck by a number of occasions in which a young man from the provincial bourgeoisie, sent to Paris as a student but preferring to write verse, got involved with a working-class girl who embarrassed him by pronouncing poète as pouâte, that is, just as poêle is pronounced as if it were written pouâle. I suspect that the girls in question were coming from the (then) rural belt around Paris which preserved the older pronunciation of written oi (as in moi or mois) as [we] while Parisians and most educated people had long switched to [wa], and they made the equation rural [ouè] = Parisian [ouâ], and therefore interpreted the vowel sequence in poète as a forgotten instance of rurality to be avoided in more sophisticated company. Similarly my father’s grandmother, coming from a village South of Paris, pronounced the word fouet ‘whip’ as [fwa] (I never heard her talk about poets).

This must be a common phenomenon; I’m reminded of the confusion between final [i] and [ǝ] in some American dialects (e.g., Missouri vs. “Missoura”), not to mention the recent post about New Zealand [r]. Anybody know of examples in other languages of people trying to avoid a shibboleth and getting it wrong?


The delightfully named Fuchsia Dunlop, an an East Asian specialist at the BBC World Service who writes about Chinese food (she has a book Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper), has a column in the Financial Times about one of the many efforts China has made in preparing for the Olympics:

As the 2008 Olympic Games approached, the Beijing government embarked on a gargantuan task: to provide approved translations of all the names of dishes English-speaking visitors were likely to encounter on restaurant menus. They were keen, the official Chinese news agency said, to avoid “bizarre English translations” such as “chicken without sexual life” (used to describe a young chicken) and “husband and wife’s lung slice” (a Sichuanese street snack). The agency added, with an unusual burst of humour, that “the images they conjured up were not, one could say, appetising”….

Drawing up accurate translations for even a fraction of Chinese dishes would be a daunting endeavour (Sichuan province alone lays claim to 5,000 different dishes). And the language of Chinese cuisine presents particular challenges. Chinese chefs use a vast vocabulary of terms to describe their cooking methods, many of which are untranslatable. Take, for example, liu, which means to pre-cook pieces of food in oil or water and then marry them with a sauce that has been prepared separately: how to describe this succinctly in English? Even a method like stir-frying has many variations, such as basic stir-frying (chao), fast stir-frying over a high flame (bao), and stir-frying in a dry wok (gan bian). When I trained as a chef in Sichuan province, I had to learn a canon of 56 different cooking methods, and that was just the beginning of my apprenticeship in Chinese cuisine. Translating such a richness of culinary technique into menu shorthand is no easy matter.

Moreover, many types of food have no English-language equivalent. Think of “dumpling”, a blanket term used for all kinds of Chinese snacks, from jiao zi (boiled semi-circular dumplings), to shao mai (steamed dumplings shaped like money bags) and bao (steamed dumplings with twirly tops). And how to translate fen, which can mean powder, meal, noodles, or strips of starch jelly? When taking notes in Chinese kitchens, I find myself jotting in Chinese characters simply because there is no other way of recording precisely what I see, smell and taste….

The final result of the Beijing government’s endeavours is a 170-page book entitled Chinese Menu in English Version. Its suggested translations for more than 2,000 dishes represent a solid achievement, and a great leap forward for linguistically challenged Chinese restaurateurs. The two dozen translators have stuck to their guns in holding on to several useful Chinese terms, like jiaozi for boiled dumplings, tangyuan for glutinous riceballs, and shaomai for those money-bag steamed dumplings. They have avoided some notorious foodstuffs (such as dog), but no one could accuse them of sanitising their menu, because they have included challenging dishes such as steamed pig’s brains and sautéed chicken gizzards.

Along the way she mentions dishes I love well, like mapo doufu and dan dan mian (both Sichuanese). And what I wouldn’t give for two dozen steamed dumplings from the Dongmen Jiaozi Wang in Taipei, on which I used to pig out thirty years ago! But that brings me to a quibble: she defines jiaozi as “boiled dumplings,” but they can be prepared several ways; the boiled ones are shui jiao (水餃, “water dumplings”), but the steamed ones I love are zheng jiao (蒸餃). (Thanks, Paul!)


An article by linguist Laurie Bauer discusses the strange fate of the phoneme /r/ in New Zealand:

When North America was settled, many of the early settlers came from the west or still pronounced “r”, with the result that standard North American varieties still have an “r” sound in words like “far” and “farm” (such accents are called “r”-ful or, more technically, “rhotic”). By the time Australia and New Zealand were settled, it was a lot clearer that users of the standard form in England did not pronounce an “r” in “far” and “farm”, and so, except in Southland, where there was a huge Scottish influence, a non-rhotic variety became the norm here, too….
There are just two words where most of us who do not come from Southland get it wrong. The letter of the alphabet that comes between Q and S is usually called “arrrr” with a burr, and the name of the country “Ireland” is usually said with a burr in the middle. There may be good reasons for these exceptions, but they are nevertheless rather strange exceptions.
For a while it was not considered cool to sound like a Southlander, and many Southlanders lost their burr, then it became cool once more to be associated with the region, and burrs started to reappear as far north as Dunedin and Queenstown. The interesting thing about these new burred “r”s is that they appear almost exclusively after the vowel [ɜː], that is in words such as word, work, fern, nurse, curse, learn, first, bird. They do not appear in words like finger, farm, scarce, beard and ford, where the “r” in the spelling shows that there once was an “r” in the pronunciation (and where there still is one for standard speakers from the US, Canada, Scotland and Ireland)…
Researchers from Victoria University, as well as those in other centres, are finding traces of this new rhoticity in the speech of school children from Kaitaia in the north, through Auckland, to the volcanic plateau. And it seems to be travelling fast, and to be strongest in the speech of young people who are members of Maori or Pacific Island communities.
The development of the pronunciation of “r” provides a fascinating study, and the way in which different sources seem to be converging to provide a unique New Zealand variant as a conservative south meets an innovative north is one of the most fascinating parts of the study.

Thanks, Stuart!