Archives for August 2009


I’ve written about Sapir-Whorf (e.g., here and here) and about the Pirahã (e.g., here and here, and good lord, has it really been five years?), and there’s nothing particularly new in Joshua Hartshorne’s “Does Language Shape What We Think?” in Scientific American, but it’s a nice short roundup of recent developments, and this is a thought-provoking paragraph:

This suggests a different way of thinking about the influence of language on thought: words are very handy mnemonics. We may not be able to remember what seventeen spools looks like, but we can remember the word seventeen. In his landmark The Language of Thought, philosopher Jerry Fodor argued that many words work like acronyms. French students use the acronym ban[g]s to remember which adjectives go before nouns (“Beauty, Age, Number, Goodneess [sic], and Size”). Similarly, sometimes its [sic] easier to remember a word (calculus, Estonia) than what the word stands for. We use the word, knowing that should it becomes [sic] necessary, we can search through our minds — or an encyclopedia — and pull up the relevant information (how to calculate an integral; Estonia’s population, capital and location on a map). Numbers, it seems, work the same way.

As a side note, Scientific American could use some proofreading. (Thanks, Sarah!)


Welsh Text Message Abbreviations is a brief “English-Welsh ‘txt spk’ guide of the top 10 most popular text message abbreviations”; LOL (Laugh Out Loud), for instance, is CYU (Chwerthin yn uchel), and BrB (Be Right Back) is YOYYM (Yn ôl yn y man). A fun bit of trivia—thanks, Joe!


If you like detailed explanations of odd linguistic usages (and if you don’t, what are you doing around these parts?), Victor Mair has a fine post at Language Log in which he goes into the history of the Chinese expression tian1hua1 天花 (“heaven flower[s]”), meaning ‘smallpox’ (he also explains tian1hua1ban3 天花板, “heaven flower board,” for ‘ceiling,’ “a reasonable enough term since proper ceilings were decorated and ‘heaven’ signifies ‘above,’ hence, ‘a decorated board above'”). A snippet to whet your appetite:

Smallpox became endemic in China around the 10th century, well after the Buddhist terminology in the Lotus sutra had become established and people were thoroughly familiar with the notion of TIAN1HUA1 天花 (“heaven flower[s]”). Once smallpox was endemic, it became a disease of children, almost a rite of passage. If they survived smallpox, they were safe and had a good chance of growing up to adulthood. People began to assume that some component of smallpox was inborn, a “fetal poison” (TAI1DU2 胎毒) that everybody carried around — the toxic residue of conception, some said — and that under the influence of seasonal energy (SHI2QI4 時氣), it would erupt into a case of smallpox. In this sense, smallpox was “innate” (“inborn,” “natural” — in Chinese, TIAN1 天 can imply all of these things as well as “heaven”). This theory of the “fetal (i.e., innate) poison” that could potentially cause smallpox was already prevalent from the Tang period (618-907).

This is all in the service of explaining why the left-hand switch in this photo is labeled “smallpox.”


Nick Nicholas over at Ἡλληνιστεύκοντος (it’s in English, honest!) has a post on a great piece of detective work he did to track down the meaning of λαγόγηρως, a Greek word used in Suda and in a gloss to Lucian; it literally means ‘old man hare’ and apparently refers to some kind of rodent, but Nick, using the mighty powers of the internet, finds not only the word, still in use, but a photo of the creature itself, taken near Edessa in Greek Macedonia. Furthermore, it turns out that the Bulgarian word for it is лалугер (laluɡer), which looks like it’s borrowed from Greek but (as gbaloglou points out in the comment thread) could be the source of the Greek word, which would then be a hypercorrection based on folk etymology. Fascinating stuff!


Caroline Marcus has an entertaining report on Aussie cussing in the Sydney Morning Herald:

The University of Queensland’s Roly Sussex, a professor of applied language studies, said that in terms of attitudes to swearing, the US and Australia were on opposite ends of the spectrum, with Britain in the middle.
He pointed to the Prime Minister’s dropping of the word “shitstorm” on national television in March as a reflection of Australian mores. “The sort of words that Mr Rudd has been using in the media are completely unacceptable for President Barack Obama to be using,” Professor Sussex said. “Some people even thought the Prime Minister’s use of the S-word in the media made him sound more like an everyday person.”
So, too, Tourism Australia’s 2006 campaign, “Where the Bloody Hell Are You?” “That had trouble in England because of the word ‘bloody’ and it had trouble in Canada because of the word ‘hell’,” Professor Sussex said. “Neither caused the slightest trouble in Australia.”

Now, that’s what I call a healthy attitude.


Michael Erard, the Official Language Journalist of Languagehat (see, for instance, here), has written an excellent piece for the (now defunct) magazine Search called “Holy Grammar, Inc.,” about the increasingly controversial mix of religion and linguistics practiced by SIL International, a partner of Wycliffe Bible Translators. Erard describes the origin of the institute in this passage:

SIL was founded in 1934 by Cameron Townshend, an Oklahoma missionary who wanted to offer linguistics training to Bible translators during summer-long sessions (SIL stands for “Summer Institute of Linguistics”). On trips to Mexico, Townshend had realized the ludicrousness of giving Spanish Bibles to Indians who didn’t speak or read Spanish. Early on, he was joined by some serious linguistic scholars, Kenneth Pike and Eugene Nida, who had credentials and ties to a world of academic respectability.
“Early on, this fledgling program was greeted with a lot of respect from the linguistics world,” says William Svelmoe, a historian at St. Mary’s College in Indiana and Cameron Townshend’s biographer. “Pike was getting connected with all these big names in linguistics, who were fascinated by the project and just interested in the fact that here we had a bunch of people who were actually going to get out and do the grunt work.”

And for a long time linguists were happy to let these guys “do the grunt work” so they could have material to analyze. But “a younger generation of linguists are beginning to feel uncomfortable…. They’re noting how much SIL’s faith-based science has gotten woven into the DNA of their discipline.” Among them is Lise Dobrin, who “began to consider how much the presence of SIL saturated her years in Papua New Guinea”:

[Read more…]


Having finished War and Peace, I wanted to follow up Tolstoy with Dostoevsky, but on the other hand, after a 1,200-page novel I really wasn’t up for The Brothers Karamazov just yet. Fortunately, Lisa at Lizok’s Bookshelf gave me a great idea in her post “Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: Dostoevsky (+Dovlatov and Dal’)“: why not read Записки из мёртвого дома (Notes from the House of the Dead or Notes from the Dead House), his 1862 novel based on his time in a Siberian prison? It’s a compact 300 pages, and Lisa says it’s one of her favorites, so I pulled it off the shelf.

From the start you’re plunged into a completely different world. Tolstoy, like Nabokov, was born into a rich and aristocratic family, and whatever trouble he got into, by gambling away all his money for instance, he could get out of by selling one of his estates, and when he decided it was sinful to profit off literature, he simply gave up his copyrights without a qualm. Despite all his spiritual torments and compassion for humanity, he viewed life from above, and it shows. Dostoevsky grew up in a lousy neighborhood, the son of a drunken and violent military surgeon, and always had to worry about money; when he lost at gambling, he was in the same kind of trouble any ordinary person would be, and had to write desperately to get out of it. He writes from ground level, and thrusts you into the midst of the mess to be found there. Tolstoy is by turns a genial storyteller and tedious professor; Dostoevsky is the Ancient Mariner, grasping you by the lapels and refusing to let you go while he tells you about things that are more likely to upset than edify you. His sentences have the kind of urgency that compels you to keep reading.

I’m still on the first chapter, but I’ve already hit one good language-related passage and one lexical mystery. Here’s the passage, on cursing (I wish I’d read it when I was putting the book together; the Russian is below the cut):

I doubt even one of [the narrator’s fellow prisoners] confessed his lawbreaking to himself. Let somebody who wasn’t a prisoner try to reproach a convict with his crime, to abuse him for it (although it is not to the Russian taste to reproach convicts) — there will be no end to the cursing. And what masters they all were at cursing! They cursed elaborately, artistically. Cursing, with them, was raised to the level of a science; they were not trying to select an offensive word so much as an offensive thought, spirit, idea — and that is more elaborate and more venomous. Their endless quarrels developed this science even further among them.

The mystery is this: a couple of pages earlier, talking about the various kinds of criminals incarcerated there, he mentions “мазурики и бродяги-промышленники по находным деньгам или по столевской части”: “pickpockets and wandering promyshlenniks trying to come by nakhodny money or in the stolevskii part/section/field.” I was puzzled by three words here, that came at me in increasing order of difficulty. Promyshlennik now means ‘industrialist’ but etymologically simply means someone who promyshlyaet, who uses his wits to acquire something—in earlier times it was used of Siberian hunter/trappers and Black Sea fishermen, and here it would seem to mean those who try to get nakhodny money. Nakhodny is a rare (obsolete?) adjective based on nakhodit’ ‘to come upon; to find,’ and Dahl says it means ‘having come to someone by happenstance’ or ‘coming up to,’ so the combination could mean “wandering thieves who take whatever money they come upon’… except that we then get или по столевской части “or in the stolevskii part/section/field,” and stolevskii is not in the dictionary. Well, it’s in Dahl, the closest thing Russian has had to the OED, but all he does is enter it with a question mark, quote this line, and refer to a guess by one Paul Boyer that it might be from Yiddish and related to German stehlen ‘steal,’ which sounds like a desperate stab in the dark. Now, it occurs one other time in the novel, in Part 2, Chapter 3: “И указали тут они нам одно дело, по столевской, то есть по нашей, части”: “And here they showed us one business/affair, in the stolevskii, that is to say in our, part/section/field.” The phrase that I have bolded is obviously important… but it’s still not at all clear what the adjective might mean. Any suggestions, or references to recent scholarship, will be gratefully received.

The Russian of the cursing passage:

Вряд ли хоть один из них сознавался внутренно в своей беззаконности. Попробуй кто не из каторжных упрекнуть арестанта его преступлением, выбранить его (хотя, впрочем, не в русском духе попрекать преступника) — ругательствам не будет конца. А какие были они все мастера ругаться! Ругались они утонченно, художественно. Ругательство возведено было у них в науку; старались взять не столько обидным словом, сколько обидным смыслом, духом, идеей — а это утонченнее, ядовитее. Беспрерывные ссоры еще более развивали между ними эту науку.


Anybody here know what the post title means? You’re wondering how you can iron a shirt with a cold iron, right? Boy, are you barking up the wrong tree. Here’s a representative quote: “The Brooklyn Paper has an article on a setback in a Red Hook blogger’s quest to reduce port emissions through cold ironing.” Here’s another: “The Juneau cold ironing system provides both electric power and steam.” (I know, steam from a cold iron?? How does that work?) I’ll let you think about it for a minute and try guessing.
…OK, time’s up. The Wikipedia article, which is where I cured my own ignorance after running into the phrase and experiencing utter befuddlement, explains it well: it is “the process of providing shore-side electrical power to a ship at berth while its main and auxiliary engines are turned off. Cold ironing permits emergency equipment, refrigeration, cooling, heating, lighting, etc. to receive continuous electrical power while the ship loads or unloads its cargo.” And why is it called that? That’s the beauty part: “Cold ironing is a shipping industry term that first came into use when all ships had coal fired iron clad engines. When a ship would tie up at port there was no need to continue to feed the fire and the iron engines would literally cool down eventually going completely cold, hence the term ‘cold ironing’.” Most enjoyable etymology I’ve seen in a while.


In November, Open Letter Books will publish an interesting anthology called The Wall in My Head (publisher’s book site):

On the night of November 9, 1989, after months of unrest in Europe and East Germany, the checkpoints between East and West Berlin were suddenly, almost accidentally, opened, starting a process that would bring together a Europe that had been divided for thirty years. THE WALL IN MY HEAD, an anthology that features fiction, essays, images, and historical documents, marks the twentieth anniversary of this momentous collapse and sheds light on how it came to pass. Combining work from the generation of writers and artists who witnessed the fall of the Iron Curtain first-hand with the impressions and reflections of those who grew up in its wake, THE WALL IN MY HEAD provides a unique view into the change, optimism, and confusion that came with 1989 and examines how each of these has weathered the twenty years since that fateful year. Highlights within include seminal excerpts from the work of Milan Kundera, Peter Schneider, Ryszard Kapuściński, Vladimir Sorokin, and Victor Pelevin, and new work from Péter Esterházy, Andrzej Stasiuk, Muharem Bazdulj, Maxim Trudolubov, Dorota Masłowska, Uwe Tellkamp, Dan Sociu, David Zábranský, Christhard Läpple, and a host of others.

The reason I’m telling you about it is that in an admirable combination of PR and generosity, Open Letter is making the pre-publication galleys available online for a limited time. Go here and click on “View Item” on the left, and you can read as much of the book as you like. (Via Lizok’s Bookshelf.)


As promised, Ben Zimmer has posted the introduction to my book—enjoy! (Ben had to bleep a couple of words, but I’m sure you sophisticated decoders can figure them out. They’re spelled out in the actual intro, of course. Fortunately, he didn’t feel the need to expurgate ebyona mat’.)