Archives for November 2008


The latest post by the estimable Conrad, along with the ensuing comment thread, prompts me to share with you all the remarkable life of H. W. Bailey. The Wikipedia entry is a good start:

Bailey was born in Devizes, Wiltshire, and raised from age 10 onwards on a farm in western Australia without formal education. While growing up, he learned German, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and Greek from household books, and Russian from a neighbor. After he grew interested in the lettering on tea-chests from India, he acquired a book of Bible selections translated into languages with non-European scripts, including Tamil, Arabic, and Japanese. By the time he had left home, he was reading Avestan as well….
Bailey has been described as one of the greatest Orientalists of the twentieth century. He was said to read more than 50 languages, and was the world’s leading expert in Khotanese, the mediaeval Iranian language of the kingdom of Khotan in Chinese Turkestan. He was known for his immensely erudite lectures, and once confessed: “I have talked for ten and a half hours on the problem of one word without approaching the further problem of its meaning.” …

But there is much more detail in the Encyclopaedia Iranica biography and bibliography by John Sheldon:

His parents decided to emigrate to Western Australia and bought 805 acres of virgin bushland about two hundred kilometres east of Perth. Hence it was that Harold Bailey never again attended a school, but worked with the other members of his family to clear the land and turn it into a farm. His spare time was devoted to reading and he devoured everything that he could find starting with the eight volume Harmsworth Encyclopaedia in which he first read about “Teheran” and “Avestan” and four other books containing lessons in French, Latin, German, Greek, Italian and Spanish. In 1919 he seems to have gained access to books in Sanskrit, Pali and Avestan… Bailey’s extraordinary ability to remember any word he had seen in any language, which was described by many of the most erudite of his peers in later life as “phenomenal”, was without doubt in evidence in his youthful years. The extent of the knowledge he had somehow acquired can be gauged by the fact that he managed during his early time at the university to compose a long Sanskrit poem in the mandākrāntā metre….

[Read more…]


Reading David Runciman’s essay “Why Not Eat an Eclair?” in the 9 October 2008 LRB (it’s about why people vote despite the fact that their individual vote will not count), I hit this passage (which, among other things, explains the title):

Tuck’s threshold argument is compelling but it skirts around a significant fact about real-world elections that I highlighted earlier: although in theory it only requires one vote to take someone over the top, in practice, the closer you get to that threshold the harder it is to find it, as the mist of political enmity descends. One way to address this is provided by Tuck’s account of other cases where the threshold seems to disappear the closer you get to it. This happens when the borderline between two states of affairs is unavoidably vague, even though the process of change is cumulative. Baldness is a classic example. I go bald by losing my hair one strand at a time, but the loss of no one strand is enough in itself to move me from the category of non-bald to bald. So if I consider the loss of my hair on a strand by strand basis, I can’t go bald, not even if I lose it all. The same kind of reasoning can also apply the other way, say to fatness. No single éclair is ever going to make me fat, so I might as well eat this one. But if no single éclair will ever make me fat then, having eaten one yesterday, I might as well eat another one today, and so on, until I become the thing that one éclair at a time isn’t supposed to make me: fat. These are known as ‘sorites’ paradoxes (the ‘sorites’ being a ‘heap’ of the kind that ought never to arise if you add to it one grain of wheat at a time). It is not easy to say how they should be resolved. But Tuck shows that the best way to think about these puzzles is to consider them as not that different from the problem of voting.

All of this stuff is interesting, but what struck me from a linguistic point of view is the use of the word sorites. It is indeed from Greek σωρείτης ‘fallacy of the heap’ (from σωρός ‘heap’; in English it’s pronounced suh-RITE-eze, and despite appearances, it’s singular), but according to Merriam-Webster, it means “an argument consisting of propositions so arranged that the predicate of any one forms the subject of the next and the conclusion unites the subject of the first proposition with the predicate of the last”—a very different thing. The OED agrees, but has a sense 3 “A sophistical argument turning on the definition of a ‘heap’,” which has one citation, from 1768-74: Abraham Tucker, The light of nature pursued II. 140 “The like attack as was made of old by the Academics and Sceptics against the judgment of the senses, with their sophism of the sorites, or argument of the ‘heap’.”
So my question to those who actually know and use the word is: does that third OED sense, with its lonely centuries-old quotation for support, represent a current sense that will have more citations when they get around to revising the entry, or is Runciman misrepresenting current usage?


I can’t believe I’m scooping No-sword on this, but Top 60 popular Japanese words/phrases of 2008 (at Pink Tentacle, translated from a list from publishing company Jiyu Kokuminsha, from which “a panel of judges will select the trendiest Japanese word of 2008”) is a most interesting look into contemporary Japanese culture and language. There’s everything from baseball:

30. Make Legend (meiku rejendo – メーク・レジェンド): This is the slogan of the 2008 Yomiuri Giants baseball team under manager Tatsunori Hara, who beat the odds to win the 2008 Central League Championship. The slogan is reminiscent of the team’s 1996 slogan of “Make Drama” (which, in hybridized Japanese-English, means to achieve success after a dramatic turnaround). That season, the Giants under manager Nagashima captured the Central League pennant and “Make Drama” was recognized as the trendiest expression of 1996.

to politics, economics, and history; there is also, of course, pop culture, though not as much as one might have expected, and the occasional note about pure language use (“Choriiissu (チョリ~ッス): Shibuya slang for ‘hello'”). Via MetaFilter.


PennSound has put together a wonderful resource for fans of Louis Zukofsky:

Nearly six months in the making, this page brings together nearly twenty full-length recordings by the poet, including important readings, conversations and lectures, along with supplementary materials responding to Zukofsky’s work.
The earliest of the seventeen readings contained in our Zukofsky archives is a 1954 appearance on Berkeley’s KPFA Radio, which includes a number of excerpts from 1946’s Anew, as well as “A”-11 and the second half of “A”-9. Selections from Anew and 1941’s 55 Poems comprise much of the setlist from his 1958 reading at the Poetry Center at the San Francisco State University…

They continue up through “a 1975 recording by Hugh Kenner of a reading at Johns Hopkins University featuring selections from “A” and 80 Flowers, plus ‘A Foin Lass Bodders,’ Zukofsky’s Brooklynese rendering of Cavalcanti’s ‘Donna Me Prega'”; there’s also “a 1961 conversation between Zukofsky and Robert Creeley, a 1971 lecture on Wallace Stevens at the University of Connecticut,” and “a number of recordings of contemporary poets performing and interpreting Zukofsky’s work,” as well as some videos. What a treasure!
Mind you, we’re not talking about a Dylan Thomas reading. If you’re not already a Zukofsky fan, hearing him read his poems will probably not convert you. But if you’re already attuned to the subtle music of his wonderfully constructed verse, it’s endlessly fascinating to hear it realized with that Brooklyn voice overlaid with a strange suggestion of a British accent.


I’m almost finished reading Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War (discussed here), and in discussing the painfully slow process that eventually led to the Peace of Westphalia she says (on page 462 of my edition) “The congress had been sitting for nearly a year when the delegates found that they were still in doubt as to the subjecta belligerantia.” The phrase in italics clearly meant something like “the subjects of the war” or “the reasons everyone was fighting,” but it wasn’t in my reasonably comprehensive Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases, so I googled it… and, to my astonishment, got exactly one hit: to this very book. I tried Google Book Search and got a few more hits, all of them in German and all of them, so far as I can tell (from the gottverdammt Auszug [snippet] view), referring to this very peace congress. Is it not odd that this reasonably normal-looking Latin phrase should occur only in this one context?


Over a month ago, I got a review copy of Mikael Parkvall’s Limits of Language: Almost Everything You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Language and Languages and almost immediately fell in love with it. I kept meaning to write about it, but every time I looked into it I discovered more goodies and thought “I’ll live with it some more before I do the post.” Now, prodded by an e-mail from C. Max Magee of The Millions reminding me that it was time to submit an essay for his annual “A Year in Reading” series (here‘s my entry from last year), I realize that it’s high time I got around to it, so I’m just going to grab examples at random and assure you there’s much, much more where that came from.
Parkvall, a Swedish linguist, says in the foreword: “I hope that Limits of Language can show the uninitiated some of the incredible aspects that linguistics and human languages have to offer, teach beginners some of the basics of linguistics, but also to serve as a reference book for experienced linguists—here, the linguist can identify the extremes, and thereby judge to what extent his or her own language is ‘normal’.” (This last clause explains the title; I must admit I was disappointed that it was not from the Godard/Wittgenstein quote cited in this post, but you can’t have everything.) You can see the table of contents at the end of this LINGUIST List post; it includes things like “Language as a legal matter,” “Language in alternate history,” and “Classic example sentences” as well as basics like “Language change,” “Consonants,” and—close to my heart—”Language myths” (which starts with a subject dear to Geoff Pullum’s heart: “The legendary snow hoax”). But you can’t predict what’s going to be included in a section; under “Language change” we find “Bizarre sound change” (“Examples include */w/ → /q/, */j/ → /q/, */V/ → /ŋgV/, and even */s/ → /k/ before /e/ and /i/”), under “Place names” there’s a two-page discussion of American toponyms like Calnevari (California + Nevada + Arizona), and under “Written language” are “Frequent alphabet changes” and “Chromatographic writing” (a script used by the Edo of Nigeria in which “the color of the ovals is distinctive”). Wherever you open the book, you find some fascinating nugget like “An odd geolinguistic situation”:

The tiny Caribbean island of Saint-Barthélemy, or St. Barth, presents a remarkable linguistic fragmentation. Despite being a mere 10 kilometers across, and home to little more than 3 000 people, it has traditionally had at least four distinct languages. In the north-western part, a Norman patois has some 500-700 speakers, and in the east, a French-lexicon creole is used by 600-800 people. In the middle region, an archaic variety of French is now on the verge of extinction. In addition to this, in the administrative center of Gustavia, a black population, some 100 strong, speaks a local and slightly creolized variety of English. On top of this, standard French is the official language, and is increasingly used…. Understandably, this diversity requires isolation, and as late as in the 1940s, there were people in the northwestern village of Flamands who only visited Gustavia once a year. And yet, the distance between the two is about two kilometers.

(And there’s a map!) Under “Miscellaneous” on p. 375, after a brief explanation of Shaw’s “ghoti” = “fish,” we learn “Mark Okrand also included this as a deliberate pun in his creation Klingon (pp 157-158). The Klingon word for ‘fish’ is ghothI.” At the end there’s an extensive “Linguist’s Calendar” (on November 16 in 1974, “A puzzle for future Alien linguists to solve, a message containing information on mankind and the planet we inhabit is broadcast to the M13 star cluster, 50 000 light-years from us”) and a 15-page bibliography in small type. It’s fun to leaf through, and if you’re interested in pursuing a subject further, they point you in the right direction. What more could you ask?
Geoff Pullum wrote about the U.K. edition a couple of years ago, calling it “the ideal birthday present for the linguist in your life who you feel already has everything.” It would also, of course, be the ideal Christmas present for anyone who loves language and prefers facts to fancy.


Via a comment by vacapinta in this AskMetaFilter thread (well worth reading in its own right), I found Yuri’s blog Effective Swearing in D.F. (“Towards a Manual of Communication for English Speakers visiting Mexico City”), a continuing examination of how chilangos (inhabitants of Mexico City) have fun with their marvelously expressive variety of Spanish. Here, pretty much at random, is the post “Johny, Miguel, Tiburcio…”:

Chilangos like to avoid lame, merely descriptive sentences. Every time they can they throw some colorful term to surprise and amuse the listener. Instead of using boring pronouns as yo, tú, mi, ti, Chilangos use Johny, tunas, Miguel, Tiburcio. The substitutions are immaterial in terms of meaning. They are purely ornamental. Here are some examples:
yo (I) => Johny
tu (You) => tunas
mi (me) => Miguel
ti (you) => tinieblas, tiburcio, tiburón
acá (here) => Acámbaro, Michoacán
pa’llá (contraction of para allá, over there) => payaso

He gives examples like “¿Quién se chupó mi Viña Real?” [Who drank my wine cooler?] “Johny” [I did], and “¡Hazte payaso!” [Move over!, lit. ‘Become a clown!’]. And this post not only describes the difference between nacos and fresas, it provides a hilarious video showing the two stereotypes talking with exaggerated stereotypicality. May a thousand such blogs bloom!


If you’ve ever wondered how click consonants sound in practice, the wonderful and recently deceased Miriam Makeba provides a demonstration in her song “Qongqothwane,” usually known in English as “The Click Song”: YouTube (Dutch TV, September 1979). Thanks, Yoram!


Reading this New Yorker piece by John Seabrook, I hit the sentence “The word ‘psychopath’ (literally, ‘suffering soul’) was coined in Germany in the eighteen-eighties” and of course turned immediately to the OED, where I found that the entry had been revised as recently as September of last year. It says “after PSYCHOPATHIC adj., PSYCHOPATHY n. Compare Russian psixopat (1888 or earlier), French psychopathe (1894), German Psychopath (1898 or earlier).” I was naturally interested to see the earliest attested form was Russian, and a little googling got me this Russian webpage (“Диссоциальное расстройство личности”), which says “по данным О. В. Кербикова (1955) в России термин «психопат» был впервые употреблен И. М. Балинским в 1884 г. во время выступления в суде по делу некоей Семеновой” [according to O. V. Kerbikov (1955), in Russia the term psikhopat was first used by I. M. Balinsky in 1884 in his appearance in court in the case of one Semenova]. The first OED cite supports Balinsky’s priority: 1885 Pall Mall Gaz. 21 Jan. 3/2 “For the benefit of those who are as yet ignorant of the meaning of psychopathy.. we give M. Balinsky’s [sc. a Russian psychiatrist] explanation of the new malady. ‘The psychopath.. is a type which has only recently come under the notice of medical science… Beside his own person and his own interests, nothing is sacred to the psychopath.'” It would be nice to have an exact cite for Balinsky’s original use; at any rate, Seabrook seems to be incorrect in claiming it was coined in Germany. The terms it was based on, however—psychopathic and psychopathy—are in fact of German origin (psychopathisch dates back to 1845).
Update. In this thread, LH reader hilding very kindly provided the text of Balinsky’s statement: “Психопат тип, лишь недавно установленный в медицинской науке.” Now if only we could find an earlier cite!


My brother sent me a link to this NY Times story by C. J. Chivers about an American, Isaiah (Cy) Oggins, who became a spy for Stalin and was murdered in a Soviet prison camp. (The author mentioned in the story, Andrew Meier, wrote an excellent book on Russia, Black Earth, and I’d like to read his book on Oggins sometime.) My first question was “What kind of name is Oggins?”; since according to this NPR story he was born to Lithuanian immigrant parents, it’s presumably a Lithuanian name (Agins? Ogins? anybody know?).
But in one of those lexicographical detours I so often find myself on, I came across an odd nautical slang word for ‘the sea,’ oggin, that’s only attested from 1945; the OED says “Origin uncertain; perhaps variant of NOGGIN n. with metanalysis (see N n.). Compare DRINK n. 6.” Noggin was originally “A small drinking vessel” and came to mean “A small quantity or measure of alcoholic liquor” (first attested 1690; the modern slang sense “The head” dates back to 1769: Stratford Jubilee II. i. 28 “Giving him a stouter on the noggin, I laid him as flat as a flaunder”). The comparison to drink (as in “into the drink”) is reasonable. As for the metanalysis, here’s the relevant section of the N entry:

From the beginning of the Middle English period, the coexistence of two forms of the indefinite article (an before vowels and a before consonants) often led to metanalysis (the same phenomenon occurs in other languages where the indefinite article ends in –n, e.g. French, Italian, etc.). Variants arising by metanalysis sometimes alliterate with words with initial n– in alliterative verse, and in some cases have become established as the regular modern forms (so that e.g. Middle English a nadder became an adder; compare also apron, auger, etc.), while conversely some vowel-initial forms have gained n– (so that e.g. Middle English an ewt became a newt; compare also nickname).

Thanks, Eric!