Archives for January 2009


Michael Erard, one of LH’s favorite journalists because he writes knowledgeably and sensibly about language (not coincidentally, he has an MA in linguistics), is working on Babel No More, “a book about language superlearners and the upper limits of the human ability to learn and speak languages.” He’s started a website [now replaced by this website] to aid him in his research; it links to a survey for people who “can speak six or more languages.” If you fall into that category (I’m afraid I don’t), help the man out—it’s confidential, but you can give him your e-mail address if you want to see the results, and you can enter a drawing to get a copy of the book.
Oh, and check out his home page: the latest post has an awe-inspiring image of the demon warrior Ravana, whom Erard has designated the god of hyperpolyglots.


I rewarded myself for finishing some work by watching the 1931 Phil Jutzi version of Berlin Alexanderplatz (with dialogue by Alfred Döblin, the author of the novel). Years ago, when I read the novel, I was frustrated trying to track down images of Alexanderplatz and Berlin from those days; it’s amazingly satisfying to see a whole movie filmed on location at the time, with the actual streets, squares, and bars of the day. The Jutzi movie is just one item on the supplementary disc 7 of the Criterion set (see my Christmas post), but I’m glad I watched it first, because it’s been long enough since I saw the Fassbinder that I wasn’t mentally comparing it, and I thoroughly enjoyed this in its own right (so much so that I created a Wikipedia page for Jutzi, who started out a leftie and wound up working with the Nazis). The acting is good, especially Heinrich George as the protagonist, Franz Biberkopf—he’s exactly right physically, with his bull torso and squinty eyes, and he does the role proud, conveying poor doomed Franz’s good-hearted idiocy and baffled affection for the women who love him.
And yesterday I followed up by watching the first segment of the Fassbinder version, which is on another artistic level entirely (and of course much longer—the first segment is only a few minutes shorter than the Jutzi, and not a single thing in it after Biberkopf’s initial release from prison made it into the earlier version). I could go on about Fassbinder, but this being a language rather than a movie site, I will instead mention the dialect used in the film. Berliners speak a variety of East Low German, with the Low German absence of consonant shift (ik and wat for ich and was), long vowels in place of standard diphthongs (Augen und Beine comes out as oohe un beene), and most strikingly, initial g- becomes y-, so that geh, gut, ganz become yeh, yut, yanz. I have no idea how it sounds to German speakers (though I’m sure my German-speaking readers will be glad to tell me), but I find it quite piquant.


I had always taken gazebo to be, in the OED’s words, “a humorous formation on GAZE v., imitating Lat. futures like videbo ‘I shall see’ (cf. LAVABO),” but the OED goes on to say “but the early quots. suggest that it may possibly be a corruption of some oriental word,” and William Sayers, in “Eastern Prospects: Belvederes, Kiosks, Gazebos,” Neophilologus 87 (2003): 299-305, tries to pin down that “oriental” origin. As the abstract says:

An etymology for gazebo is sought in Hispano-Arabic and a likely candidate meaning ‘mirador, viewing platform’ is found in the work of the medieval Cordoban poet Ibn Guzman. The eighteenth-century British occupation of Tangiers may have provided an avenue for the importation of this lexical isolate, although the architecture of the octagonal garden pavilion now designated gazebo would have had multiple paths to Britain.

You can only read the first page at that link, but Dr. Techie at quotes a good chunk of the remainder of the article, which discusses two possible sources, North African and Hispanic Arabic qasbah ‘citadel’ and Ibn Quzman’s qushaybah. The discussion is interesting from both philological and cultural points of view.


Miscelánea: A Journal of English and American Studies is published by the Department of English and German Philology at the University of Zaragoza; they have two series, “Language and Linguístics” and “Literature, Film and Cultural Studies,” and a bunch of issues of each are available online, the current issues here and back issues here. If you click on a particular issue, say Vol. 33 (2006), you get titles and abstracts of all the articles on the web page, and if you’re interested in one, e.g. “Sexually explicit euphemism in Martin Amis’s Yellow Dog: Mitigation or offence?” by Eliecer Crespo Fernández, you can click on the Full Text / Texto completo link to get a pdf of the whole article. A well-done site with some interesting material. (Via wood s lot.)


Dave Bonta was kind enough to send me a link to the memorial site for John DeFrancis, who died January 2. I, like uncountable others, used his Beginning Chinese when I was trying to learn the language (my lack of success was due to my own laziness, not the excellent textbook), but I had no idea what an interesting life he had had, and I was moved by the biography. Some excerpts:

He had been born nearly a century earlier and a continent away, on August 31, in 1911—the year of China’s republican revolution—in Bridgeport, CT. His childhood was impoverished: his father was a laborer and his mother illiterate, but, against all odds, John learned to love books. The first in his family to attend college, he graduated from Yale University in the spring of 1933 with a bachelor’s degree in Economics. In the depths of the Great Depression, he looked for a job but found none. A dorm-mate from a missionary family in China persuaded him to travel to Beijing to learn Chinese and make himself more marketable. So in September that year, John boarded a ship for the month-long journey to China…

[Read more…]


Don Ringe has a new post at the Log (a followup to the one I posted about here) in which, in answer to a question by David Marjanović, he discusses in detail the histories of the IE words for ‘wheel’ (PIE *kwékwlo-s, collective *kwekwlé-h2) and ‘horse’ (PIE *éḱwos). He starts off with a general discussion of the issues involved that should be accessible to anyone; here’s a sample:

Nonspecialists sometimes think of languages, including reconstructed languages, as sets of words; but that’s somewhat less than half true. Yes, every language does have a distinctive lexicon, but the structure of the language is even more distinctive; you can replace a large propor­tion of the lexicon with words borrowed from other languages without any significant effect on the language’s structure. (Modern English is an obvious example.) Historical linguists recon­struct a protolanguage’s system of sounds and system of inflectional morphology as well as its lexicon. In some cases the sound system and inflectional system turn out to be complex and intricate, and PIE happens to be one of those cases. Moreover, because we reconstruct protolanguages by exploiting the regularity of sound change, competent re­con­structions are mathematically precise. Under those circumstances, when we reconstruct a word which fits perfectly into the sound system and inflectional system, with no hint that there is anything out of line, the default hypothesis has to be that it’s an inherited word, simply because the odds that a word borrowed from some other lan­guage would fit in well are significantly lower.

He goes on to a detailed analysis of the two words in question, which may be tough sledding for someone with no background in the subject but which gripped me like a good detective story. But this paragraph from his conclusion shouldn’t present problems and is of great theoretical interest:

[Read more…]


Tomasz Kamusella, besides being an LH reader and commenter (see his very interesting contributions to this LH thread), is a scholar of language and nationalism, and his book The Politics of Language and Nationalism in Central Europe has now been published by Palgrave Macmillan (official pub date in the U.S. is January 20), and it looks like a valuable read for anyone interested in the subject (though at 1,168 pages and £125.00/$204.95 it’s quite an investment in time and money). From the publisher’s page you can download a pdf file containing the table of contents, 60-page introduction, and 86-page index. I’ll provide a few excerpts from the introduction, so you can get an idea of the kinds of things he discusses:

Although the Western European pedigree of politics of language is at present conveniently forgotten, the phenomenon of language politicization is said to be now most visible in Central Europe. It is so because after World War I, the formerly multilingual Western European powers of France and the United Kingdom with the support of the United States chose to delegitimize the existence of Austria-Hungary on the account of its multilingualism and multiethnicity. By the same token, the victorious powers legitimized various ethnonational (formerly, often marginal) movements, which defined their postulated nations in terms of language. The national principle steeped in the ideal of ethnolinguistic homogeneity allowed these movements to carve up Central Europe into a multitude of ethnolinguistic nation-states. What followed with vengeance was forced ethnolinguistic homogenization pursued to assimilate ‘non-national elements’ within a nation-state. The intensity and human costs of this project were much higher than in Western Europe, because there the process of ethnolinguistic homogenization was spread out over two or more centuries, and conducted mostly prior to the rise of the bureaucratic state and industry, which provided the means of making millions conform with the central government’s will. …
In the second half of the 19th century, European scholars and statisticians, confronted with the non-national character of Central and Eastern Europe, believed that the nations, which ‘had to exist there,’ could be brought out from the ‘ambiguity of multiethnic populaces’ using statistics. In the subsequent censuses, one had to declare one’s language, variously interpreted as mother tongue, family language, or language of everyday communication. The declaration of more than one language per person was not permitted, which by default excluded the phenomenon of bi- and multilingualism from official scrutiny. The logic of this exclusion stemmed from the conviction that a person can belong to one nation only. By the same token, declarations of variously named dialects, already construed as ‘belonging to’ a national language, were noted as declarations of this national language. …

[Read more…]


I was reading Michael Massing’s “Obama: In the Divided Heartland” in a recent NYRB when I was struck by the following sentence (in the first paragraph of section 2): “With a population of 17,000, Perrysburg has a storybook feel to it, with a charming main street lined with restaurants, pubs, a bake shop, a knitting shop, and a coffee shop named My Daily Grind.” Pubs? My first thought was that Massing might be British, but although (according to his Wikipedia entry) he’s studied at the London School of Economics, he’s definitely American, as you can hear from this YouTube interview. So I did a Google search on Perrysburg+pubs and got over 55,000 hits: “Bars Grills And Pubs in Perrysburg OH,” “Perrysburg, OH Bars, Pubs, & Clubs,” “Perrysburg Coupons: Pubs,” “Perrysburg Beer Taverns & Pubs”…. it’s clearly not Massing’s invention. They have pubs in Perrysburg, Ohio, and by extension (since the very reason Massing is reporting from there is that it’s an example of the “real America”) all across the country.
But when did this happen? I think of pubs as an exclusively British and Irish institution, and when I think of a pub on American soil my image is of a place that serves warm beer and has a name like the Kings Head or the Spotted Pig, catering to people from across the Atlantic, and presumably those are found primarily in cities like New York and Boston. Is “pub” now what “tavern” used to be, a vaguely upscale equivalent of “bar”? My barhopping days are fifteen or so years behind me, so I appeal to those with more recent experience in this field.


Don Ringe’s The Linguistic Diversity of Aboriginal Europe is probably the most interesting thing I’ve read on the Log (no knock on the other stuff they write about over there, it’s just that they tend to be into phonology and comic strips and political use of language, and I’m into historical linguistics). Ringe and I were grad students in Indo-European together, and reading him gives me a pang of regret that I left academia; the reality-based reconstruction of earlier linguistic situations is exactly the kind of thing that got me excited about linguistics in the first place. Here are a few excerpts to whet your appetite:

The basic fact of pre-state language distribution is that no single language can occupy, for more than a few centuries, an area too large for all its native speakers to communicate with each other regularly….
Thus in pre-state communities every language spread automatically results in language fragmentation. Of course not all the fragments survive; pre-state language communities sometimes gradually abandon their native language and adopt the language of another community with which they are in intimate contact, as linguists working in the highlands of New Guinea have observed (Foley 1986:24-5). But the fragments that do survive continue to diverge, century after century, until the original connections between them can no longer be discovered with any certainty….
But not all pre-state areas are equally diverse linguistically; that was one of the many interesting findings of Nichols 1990… As Nichols herself notes (p. 488), it all boils down to scale of economy: in areas where a small group can support itself in a small area, small groups do exactly that, and over time their languages steadily diverge; in areas in which populations must range over a large area in order to survive, we find lineages occupying correspondingly larger areas—though the languages in question are not necessarily spoken by larger populations….
In prehistoric Europe, then, we should expect to find the following pattern of languages and families, roughly speaking:
* numerous languages, belonging to many families not provably related to each other, in the Mediterranean coastal zone, including virtually all of Greece and Italy;
* somewhat less, but still notable, diversity along the cooler Atlantic coast, including the British isles;
* still less diversity in the interior of the continent (though not markedly less, given the adequate rainfall that Europe enjoys)—except probably for the Alps and the mountainous parts of the Balkan peninsula, which are likely to have been refugia for small and linguistically diverse populations, much like the modern Caucasus;
* fairly little diversity in Scandinavia—though probably not less than exists today, with two different language families belonging to different stocks (!).

He goes on to show how “what we actually know about the distribution of languages in Europe at the dawn of history” fits with this picture, and concludes:

[Read more…]


Jan Freeman, the excellent Boston Globe language columnist, spent a couple of recent columns relentlessly mocking the absurdity of invented diktats about what shouldn’t be said. “Rule by whim,” from December 21, gives examples of some of the things crazed rulemongers have pulled out of thin air: not should not conclude a sentence, we should “reserve wholesome for food, healthful for living conditions, and healthy for living beings,” you can’t use over for more than, and my personal favorite:

It reminded me of a recent e-mail from Kevin, whose high school English teacher had a similarly inventive usage theory. She rejected the sentence “The pitcher threw no strikes,” he recalled: “She asked me to show her how to throw ‘no strike.’ She said the correct way to say it would be, ‘The pitcher didn’t throw any strikes.’ ”
This doctrine, of course, was just plain nutty. No in this construction means “not any,” as it has since Old English. No grammarian or usagist has banned it. Yet Kevin was successfully browbeaten: “For years I avoided writing things such as “The store had no bananas,” “I have no opinion,” “I ate no onions,” he wrote.

Mind-boggling! And in her December 28 column, “The language dustbin,” she goes back a century to look at some of the things the pedants of yesteryear tried to get us to eschew, like “presidential campaign” and “blame on”: “Indefensible slang. We blame a person for a fault, or lay the blame upon him. Not, as in a New York newspaper, after the last Presidential election, ‘I do not blame the defeat on the President,’ but ‘I do not blame the President for the defeat.'” Again, my favorite bit:

Sleuth “denotes the track of a living creature, in particular the track of a wild animal. . . . In a semi-humorous way the newspapers commonly mention a detective as a sleuth; their readers, not thinking of the humor, take sleuth to be a regular synonym of detective. The only meaning the word has in sober English is track or footprint.” (Joseph Fitzgerald, “Word and Phrase: True and False Usage in English,”1901)

Keep it up, Jan!