Archives for May 2009


Trying to find something about when non-rhotacism developed in Barbara M. H. Strang’s A History of English (a great book with an inadequate index), I stumbled on this passage, which I provide as a public service:

The sound /ŋ/ now appears medially and finally in stressed and unstressed syllables, as in singing; it has never been accepted in initial position. Its extension to unstressed syllables is quite recent, and has spread from middle class into general usage under the influence of spelling (or so the expression ‘dropping the g’, for the older pronunciation, indicates). As recently as 1936 Wyld retained his 1920 comment that the older pronunciation (/ɪn/, /ən/) was ‘still widespread among large classes of the best speakers, no less than among the worst’ (op. cit, 283). He describes these forms as ‘of considerable antiquity’ and ‘at one time apparently almost universal in every type of English speech’, he notes that Swift had objected to them in the early 18c, and in 1801 Walker ambiguously remarks that the best speakers use ‘g-less’ forms, but yet these forms savour of vulgarity (ib., 289). During the same period unease about the pronunciation was shown by hyper-correct ‘reverse forms’ in –ing where it had no place historically – as in lupin, chicken, children. The movement towards –ing gained momentum in the 19c:

Apparently in the twenties of the last century a strong reaction which set in in favour of the more ‘correct’ pronunciation, as it was considered, and was in reality an innovation, based upon the spelling, was so far successful that the [ŋ] pronunciation . . . has now a vogue among the educated at least as wide as the more conservative one with –n (Wyld, loc. cit.)

Let me just repeat the money quote: “the more ‘correct’ pronunciation, as it was considered, … was in reality an innovation, based upon the spelling.” Those people who say “I’m goin”? They’re historically correct. The people who laugh at them for “dropping the g”? They’re historically wrong, wrong, wrong, and should be pointing the finger at themselves for abetting the degeneration of our precious mother tongue.
This has been #3514 in the series “For Pete’s sake, stop worryin’ so much about what you think your neighbor is saying ‘wrong.'”


The NY Times has another language story, A Human Language Gene Changes the Sound of Mouse Squeaks, and if you’re an aficionado of these things you will have guessed that 1) the story is by the muddled but ever plucky Nicholas Wade, and 2) the gene is FOXP2, the “language gene.” Now, I am an ignoramus about genetics, but Geoff Pullum did a convincing demolition job on the excessive claims made about this gene several years ago, and I have had no reason to revise my opinion since. I note that this time Wade has outdone himself by not consulting a single linguist. So I will confine myself to the approach I took on an earlier occasion:
People have a deep desire to communicate with animals… dogs… myths… chimpanzees… delicate, if tiny, step… mouse… gene for language… FOXP2… subtle speech defect… grammar… gene… evolutionary biologists… gene… mice and chimpanzees… gene… natural selection… language… the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology… genetically engineered… mice… mouse… “We will speak to the mouse.”
Wolfgang Enard… humanized mice. FOXP2, a gene… genes… brain… mice… FOXP2 genes… FOXP2… brain… brain… involved in language… humanized mice… Baby mice… ultrasonic whistles… humanized baby mice… Dr. Enard says. Dr. Enard argues… human genes… chimps… DNA… genes… chimps… mouse… Joseph Buxbaum, an expert… Dr. Enard… FOXP2… mice… Dr. Gary Marcus… human FOXP2… FOXP2 plays a vital role in language… other genes… language gene… cascade of genes… “It would have been truly spectacular if they had wound up with a talking mouse.”


Conrad sent me this pleasing rant by M. LeBlanc in response to a piece by Mark Krikorian at the National Review complaining that people are pronouncing Sonia Sotomayor’s name correctly.

The idea that your name is somehow the property or the business of others, and that not only should they not be required to pronounce it correctly, they should purposely pronounce it incorrectly is one of the more brow-furrowing and staggering assertions I’ve heard come out of a conservative in months. It would be one thing if Krikorian was complaining about people getting lambasted for pronouncing it incorrectly, but he’s not. What he’s saying is that, despite knowing how to pronounce it correctly, people should nevertheless say it in a way that sounds wrong to the bearer of the name because to pronounce it correctly would be displaying too much “adapting to the newcomer.”

I do like to see stupidity flayed with gusto. Thanks, Conrad!


My 21-month-old grandson and I like to play a game we call “Ada” (because the first book he selects, by tradition, is a handsome if somewhat beat-up hardcover edition of that Nabokov novel): he points to, or pulls off the shelf, a book from my poetry and literature collection and I read a few lines. (He has his favorites—Jonathan Williams, Yeats, Flann O’Brien, Richard Powers—and sometimes pretends to read aloud from his very favorite, a garish paperback Bustan of Sadi.) Today he pulled out The English Patient, and I opened it to a fine bit of Ondaatje prose I thought I’d share:

Many books open with an author’s assurance of order. One slipped into their waters with a silent paddle.

I begin my work at the time when Servius Galba was Consul…. The histories of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero, while they were a power, were falsified through terror and after their death were written under a fresh hatred.

So Tacitus began his Annals.
But novels commenced with hesitation or chaos. Readers were never fully in balance. A door a lock a weir opened and they rushed through, one hand holding a gunnel, the other a hat.


My wife and I finished Robertson Davies’s What’s Bred in the Bone (starts off a little dull, but becomes quite absorbing) and decided to follow it up with another Canadian novel, this one translated from French: Nikolski, by Nicolas Dickner. We’re only 85 pages into it, but we’re already thoroughly intrigued: characters are introduced in slantwise fashion, there hasn’t been a predictable moment, and the prose (though translated) is actually livelier than Davies’s.
There are a lot of fish in this novel (one passage on page 79 begins “Starry ray, rainbow smelt, sturgeon, herring, sardine, sea trout, eel, cod, hake, threebearded rockling, John Dory, mullet, red goatfish, thicklip grey mullet, Atlantic bonito, swordfish, ocean perch, Norway redfish, American plaice, lumpsucker, dab, rock sole, Atlantic saury…”), and it taught me a nice piscine adjective a few pages before that: “A police car glides ahead of her with the quiet slowness of a shark. The driver turns his head in her direction, sunglasses covering his selachian gaze.” Merriam-Webster explains that the adjective refers to “any of a variously classified group (Selachii) of cartilaginous fishes that includes the existing sharks and typically most related elasmobranchs (as rays)” and is “ultimately from Greek selachos cartilaginous phosphorescent fish; akin to Greek selas brightness.” Don’t know when I’ll next get the chance to use it, but it’s now in my arsenal, ready for deployment.

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Nick Nicholas, an Australian who describes himself as a business analyst and linguist, commented on a recent post, and I made the mistake of clicking on the URL his name linked to, which turned out to be opɯdʒɯlɯklɑr (“opoudjis his blog / τὸ τοῦ ὁπουτζοῦ ἱστολόγιον”), and I’ve spent the entire morning investigating his writings rather than working. The latest post, on the computer used to compile the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, was interesting, but when I scrolled down to “Nick Nicholas”, I was really hooked. He starts out talking about surnames (“Crete switched to a new patronymic suffix en masse, –akis, in the mid-19th century…. But there’s not many –akis‘s before 1800. The Who’s Who of Cretan Renaissance Literature … reads: Sachlikis, Della Porta, Choumnos, Falier, Picatorio, Bregadin, Sklavos, Achelis, Cornaro, Chortatzis, Troglio, Foscolo, Bugnali“), then focuses in on Cyprus, where his family is from:

The dominant pattern in Cyprus is for surnames to be archaic genitives of proper names—making them straight patronymics. And people would switch their patronymics to surnames… my grandfather went by ο Νικολής του Πούτρου in the village. “Boutros’s Nick”… But Boutros’s Nick was not written down as Boutros’s Nick. He was written down as Nicholas of Mark-the-Pilgrim, Νικόλαος Χατζημάρκου (or Χ″μάρκου, because Χατζη- was a damnably frequent surname prefix, and people would save themselves the penstrokes when they could). And when he was Englished, he was Englished as Nicolaos Hadjimarcou.
As an Englishing, “Hadjimarcou” tells you stuff, which is why I took the <dj> across in opoudjis. It tells you that he was a Cypriot, so he pronounced the prefix as /xadʒi/, the way it came across from Arabic hajji via Turkish haci, and not as the alveolar Hatzi- of the mainland.

From there he moves on to the next generation’s switch to “Nicholas” on arrival in Australia (a translation of the patronymic Nikolaou), and the way Greeks in Greece have dealt with it. And the post before that was on the “reminiscences from 1964 of an Egyptian colleague of Cavafy at his desk job in the Irrigation Dept, Alexandria, who was his underling and succeeded him when Cavafy retired”: apparently the great poet would “sneak in late, pretend to be massively busy by strategic placement of papers, occasionally shut the door and gesticulate writing poetry” and “only knew enough Arabic to tell his servant to buy him chickens for dinner”: “The commenters to the blog post are floored, not that Cavafy barely spoke Arabic mid-colonialism, but that neither did the Greeks of Alexandria in 1964. (It was only the second time the interviewer had ever set foot in an Egyptian’s house.)” And his post Death of the Library as I knew it linked to Pape-Benseler, Wörterbuch der griechischen Eigennamen, 3rd ed. 1911 (warning: 96 MB download from the linked page, but if you’re into Greek proper names, how can you resist?).
And then I discovered his language blog! The most recent posts constitute a fascinating discussion of the validity of using monotonic type for Early Modern Greek texts (he acknowledges that the arguments against it are more emotional/traditional than rational, but he still doesn’t like it; from one of the posts, I learned about Ioannis Kakridis, who in 1941 “was denounced by the faculty of the University of Athens for republishing a lecture in the monotonic system, which led to the so-called ‘Trial of Accents’ and his suspension and later dismissal from the university”); before that there’s a post Placenames of Kievan Rus’ that caught my attention for obvious reasons. It starts off with this bravura paragraph:

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I have apparently never devoted a post to the wonderful Omniglot site before, although it’s been in my “Language resources” list pretty much since LH started. Just as well, because before I would have said it was a great place to go forwriting systems, and now I learn from a MetaFilter post that Simon Ager has added all sorts of things, including Useful foreign phrases, Language learning tips, and Assorted foreign phrases (“These phrases come mainly from phrasebooks and language courses. Some of them are intended to illustrate particular grammatical points, others I just found amusing”—I am particularly fond of Portuguese Entrou na casa e viu os chapéus no benguleiro ‘He entered the house and saw the hats in the hat stand’). Oh, and there’s a blog, a regular feature of which is a language quiz; the latest has “a recording of part of a story in a mystery language… Do you know or can you guess which language it’s in and where it’s spoken?” Needless to say, I love that kind of thing. (Don’t scroll down that page if you don’t want to see other people’s guesses.)


Suspicious of Lane Fox after the Bytyllion incident, I checked up on his mention of “the island of Oricos in the Bay of Valona”; at first I thought I’d caught him out, because Oricum (now Albanian Orikum) is not an island, but a little research convinced me that it had been at the time under discussion, though it soon became connected to the mainland. (This leaves the question of why he calls it “Oricos,” with a Latin c married to a Greek -os, and refers to the “Bay of Valona,” using its Italian name rather than the modern Albanian Vlorë or the ancient Aulon, but let that go.) At any rate, I was so annoyed by the minimal and ridiculously outdated Wikipedia article (in its entirety: “Oricum was an Ancient Greek city in Epirus, modern Albania. It gained great importance during Roman rule. It was founded by colonists from Colchis according to Pliny,” with footnotes referencing books from 1841 and 1779) that I spent far too much time completely revamping it, enjoying the ability the internet affords to splash around among recondite references like Mogens Herman Hansen and Thomas Heine Nielsen, An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis, and Keith G. Walker, Archaic Eretria: A Political and Social History from the Earliest Times to 490 BC. Anyone who wants to admire the results of my labors can investigate the article in its present state, and if they have anything to add, so much the better.
To provide a linguistic hook, I will note that we would not know the quantity of the middle vowel, since neither Greek nor Latin distinguishes long and short /i/ in writing, except that the word happens to occur in poetry; Horace, for instance, in Odes III.7, writes the Lesser Asclepiad line “Gygen? ille Notis actus ad Oricum,” from which we learn that the i is short.


I’m over a quarter of the way through Travelling Heroes: In the Epic Age of Homer and I’m enjoying the immersion in the details of the eastern Mediterranean in and around the eighth century B.C., but I’m starting to worry about his presentation and use of evidence. This is a tiny example, but it crystallized my worries, so I’m going to share it, and if you think it’s nitpicking, well, LH is nitpicking central.

In chapter 6, “Up to Unqi” (Unqi being an Aramaic name for the north Syrian plain around the Orontes), Lane Fox describes the sea route up the coast and the evidence for Greek contact with the locals, and on page 91, in a discussion of the ancient port at Ras Ibn Hani, he writes:

What, then, did the Greeks call the settlement which they found by this harbour? At [nearby] Ras Shamra, texts and statues show the honours accorded to El, father of the gods. Ras Shamra’s later small settlement and the nearby Ras Ibn Hani were surely the site which Greeks later knew as “Betyllion” (their version of the Semitic phrase “bait-El” or “House of El”). They noted Betyllion for its natural harbour, namely the “White Harbour” which we can still admire and which had been the port since Ugarit’s Bronze Age. We can therefore understand why Betyllion’s “natural” harbour is described as the first staging-post for the Roman emperor Trajan when he set out from Rome to join his troops in Syria for their fateful campaign into Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) in AD 114-17.24 He had landed at ancient Ugarit. The correct location of Betyllion is important for different reasons, not because it was a Greek settlement but because it has become involved in a major topographical puzzle about Greek contact further north and also because the name (“house of El”) confirms that Canaanite-Phoenician culture never entirely died at the site.

Now, the first warning bell was that word “surely,” which tends to mean “I can’t document this so I’ll wave my hand and hope you don’t look into it too closely.” I was also curious about that odd name Betyllion. So I went to his footnote 24 and found: “Jo. Malalas, Chron. 11.3 (ed. J. Thurn, 2000, 205); Frost (2001), 61-74.” Malalas! Another warning bell: the guy wrote in the sixth century A.D., which is certainly “later,” but 1,400 years is quite a lot later when you’re trying to retrieve a place name. Well, thanks to the wonders of the internet, you can actually see that passage of Book XI in the 1831 Dindorf edition, and what do we find? Not “Betyllion” but Bytyllion—or, to be more exact, Βυτυλλίου in the Greek text and Bytyllii in the Latin translation at the bottom of the page (both are in the genitive case). But perhaps this is corrected in Thurn’s modern edition? No, thanks to “Search inside the book” at the Amazon listing, we can see that Thurn too has Bytyllion. (I checked with other sources, too, like the Barrington Atlas, and they all had Bytyllion.) The only conclusion I can come to is that Lane Fox changed the form to fit his thesis and neglected to mention the fact.

This is not good. I presume he intends “Betyllion” to represent a Greek Βητύλλιον (with eta), and it’s true eta and iota were pronounced identically by Malalas’s day, but that doesn’t mean you can just substitute one for the other. So his sentence “Ras Shamra’s later small settlement and the nearby Ras Ibn Hani were surely the site which Greeks later knew as ‘Betyllion’ (their version of the Semitic phrase ‘bait-El’ or ‘House of El’)” can be deconstructed as “Ras Shamra’s later small settlement and the nearby Ras Ibn Hani might have been the site which Greeks fourteen hundred years later knew as Bytyllion, but which I prefer to think of as ‘Betyllion’ because then I can better make it fit the Semitic phrase ‘bait-El’ or ‘House of El’, which I need for my theory.” Sure, all this stuff is speculative anyway, but I prefer the speculation up front rather than swept under the rug.

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Dick & Garlick (“Notes on Indian English, Hinglish, slang & pop culture”) is always an interesting read, and R Devraj’s latest post discusses the north Indian use of convent as “a generic term for an English-medium school. Hence, convented, adj., someone who has studied at an English-medium school.” Checking the OED to see if this surprising sense was there (it wasn’t), I was reminded that the Middle English form was covent (from Anglo-French covent, cuvent, couvent), the Latinizing form convent (after Latin conventum ‘assembly’) being introduced in the mid-16th century, and Covent Garden was originally the kitchen garden of the Abbey or Convent of St. Peter, Westminster, something I doubtless once knew but had long forgotten.