Archives for October 2009


For years now I’ve been noticing the increasing prevalence of the grammatically unmotivated doubling of is, as in “The thing is is that…” This is not a matter of insufficient education or literacy; President Obama does it so regularly it could be considered part of his idiolect. Mark Liberman at Language Log wrote about it back in 2004; at that time he thought that this was “the result of a non-standard conception of English grammar, rather than just a faulty implementation of standard English grammar,” which is interesting but would require a lot of research to substantiate. At any rate, I was recently watching a Nova program about the mission to repair the Hubble when I heard astronaut Mike Massimino say “My point was is…” (Or, as the transcript punctuates it, “So my point was, is, out of all the stuff we’re doing, the thing I really need is a light.”) This absolutely astonished me, and I record it here as a data point for the further grammaticalization of this phenomenon. It’s now developed a past tense.
Update (November 2012): Mark Liberman has posted a couple more clear examples of “was is” at the Log; if you listen to them, you’ll be disabused of any notion you might have had that it’s a tense correction. (There’s also a convenient list of previous posts on the subject.)


In checking the bibliography of a book I’m copyediting, I hit an article titled “La typologie des catalogues d’Éhées: un réseau généalogique thématisé.” I was stopped in my tracks by the bizarre (to me) word Éhées; I could make no sense of it and could barely pronounce it (/ee/ sounds very strange all by itself, though of course it’s common in words like créé). Was it a typo? But Google and Wikipedia came to the rescue (what did we do before them?)—Éhées redirects to Catalogue des femmes, which links to the English Catalogue of Women, where the alternate name of this ancient poem is explained thus:

In antiquity the poem known as the Megalai Ehoiai (Greek: Ἠοῖαι or Ἤοιαι; Latin Eoeae, Ehoeae, Eoiae, etc.), from the formula ἢ οἵη (ē hoiē), “or such a woman (as)”, which introduces new sections within the poem, is also possibly the same, unless there are two poems in the same style – we know both only from quotations.

The French article is more certain of their identity: “Il est également connu sous le nom d’Éhées ou Éées…” The form Éées looks even stranger. At any rate, a unique name with a unique etymology. (And how to pronounce it in English—ee-HEE-ee? Yikes!)


Back in 2004 I announced a new blog on the Romance languages called Romanika; sadly, it fell by the wayside, but I am pleased to announce that its author, Eddie V. Mataochoa, has restarted it as Filius Lunae, a phrase (Latin for ‘son of the moon’) which has become his online pseudonym over the years. In his Relaunch post, he writes of the hiatus:

During this time, I can say I have become more seasoned and more acquainted with the different languages, especially the minority Romance languages, such as Catalan, Occitan, Galician, Asturian and Romansh. I also have a very good grasp of Romanian, which I didn’t have back I started this blog under the name of Romanika. My Latin has improved vastly as well, up to the point of considering it a Living Language, and using it for composition and communicating with others who have attained this level of proficiency in the Roman tongue. Thus, my posts will definitely seem more mature (as I, myself, have matured, of course), and I will be able to relate the Romance languages I write about back to their roots in Latin more often and more deeply than before.

Welcome back!


The following letter, from Andrew Charig, appeared in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine:

I was very sad to hear of the death of William Safire, who most likely was the foremost expert on the American language.
In “Error-Proof,” Ammon Shea suggests invoking Chaucer and Shakespeare as a defense against criticisms of bad grammar because they used so many obsolete forms that almost any error can be found among their works. But Shakespeare wrote before English was standardized; Chaucer before it was English at all. Both are loved for what they said, not for their use of grammar. Their eloquence in usage should not make their grammar a standard for ours.
With computer communication threatening to corrupt our language beyond intelligibility, it is more important than ever to uphold usage that has precedent and to limit change to what is sensible and useful. Our criteria should be Fowler, Strunk and White, the O.E.D., Webster — not Chaucer.

I too was sad to hear of Safire’s death, but this letter gave me a wry laugh and reminded me that the worst aspects of his punditry are exactly what were appreciated by many of his fans. This letter is so full of nonsense it’s hard to know where to start; since Language Log has covered the “expert” claim, I’ll point out that the idea that Chaucer wrote “before it was English at all” is ridiculous and the desire to “limit change to what is sensible and useful,” however attractive to a certain regimentation-loving cast of mind, is (fortunately) a hopeless one. Also, “the O.E.D.”? Is Mr. Charig under the impression that that magnificent work of lexicography supports his prescriptivist views? He should try actually using it someday, instead of invoking it as an idol.
This seems a logical place to insert a silly quote from David Runciman’s LRB review of Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens, by Josiah Ober: “He also describes Athenian democracy, in the hideous modern jargon, as ‘scalable’, meaning that lessons learned on the local level could be generalized across the government system.” The word scalable is “hideous,” apparently, because Runciman did not grow up with it and it is not part of his professional vocabulary, and we all know that professional vocabulary that is not ours is by definition hideous. Seriously, what’s wrong with it? It’s short, reasonably euphonious, and (most importantly) provides a handy way of referring to a complicated idea. Does Runciman want writers to say “capable of being easily expanded or upgraded on demand” (M-W) every time they need to refer to it? What fools these language moralists be!


Ben Slade, a grad student in linguistics, has started a blog, Stæfcræft & Vyākaraṇa (linking Old English and Sanskrit words for ‘linguistics,’ or as close as those languages get to the concept), and it’s a gem. His last two posts are about the “likkle law” of Jamaican Creole English and the etymology of khukuri (a traditional Nepalese knife). I look forward to his future investigations.


The Commenter Known As Bathrobe recently sent me a collection of translation-related links, and I thought I’d share them here:
The TLS Translation Prizes 2007 (Anybody know anything about Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, “a writer from the 1920s who has only recently been rediscovered in Russia”?)
British Council page on literary translation
Book Trust – Translated Fiction
And, as Bathrobe says, for the possible interest of Mr A.J.P. Crown: German literature translated into Norwegian
Coincidentally, the NY Times today published American Literature: Words Without Borders by Liesl Schillinger, on the international aspects of America’s National Book Awards, which reminds me that this would be a good place to link again to Words Without Borders, “The online magazine for international literature” (which I originally wrote about here).


My brother is on his way back to California after a week spent letting us show him the delights of autumn in New England, and one of our field trips was to Historic Deerfield, which was an enlightening experience (although it would have been more enjoyable if we hadn’t been getting increasingly hungry for lunch and the last docent hadn’t been quite so long-winded and repetitive). Eager to read Francis Parkman‘s classic account (Chapter 4 of his 1892 A Half Century of Conflict) of the Deerfield Raid of 1704, I pulled my Parkman Reader off the shelf and plunged in. After raising my eyebrows at the description of the native allies of the French as “these savages” in the first paragraph, I was soon immersed in a lively description of the winter attack and its aftermath. About halfway into it, however, I ran into a word usage of such euphemistic dissonance that it not only jolted me out of the narrative but made me laugh and run to my wife’s study to read it to her.
Here’s a selection of snippets from the chapter, for context (warning—snippets contain much violence): “Nevertheless, in the first fury of their attack they dragged to the door and murdered two of the children and a negro woman called Parthena, who was probably their nurse…. Meanwhile the Indians and their allies burst into most of the houses, killed such of the men as resisted, butchered some of the women and children, and seized and bound the rest…. After a time, however, they hacked a hole in it, through which they fired and killed Mrs. Sheldon as she sat on the edge of a bed in a lower room…. She had fallen from weakness in fording the stream, but gained her feet again, and, drenched in the icy current, struggled to the farther bank, when the savage who owned her, finding that she could not climb the hill, killed her with one stroke of his hatchet…. on the day following, Friday, they tomahawked a woman, and on Saturday four others…. More women fainted by the way and died under the hatchet….” Now comes the dissonance:
“During the entire march, no woman seems to have been subjected to violence; and this holds true, with rare exceptions, in all the Indian wars of New England.”
For those not familiar with Victorian squeamishness as reflected in language, Parkman is here referring to rape, a subject so beyond the pale, so unspeakable, that he cloaks it with a word so general as to be incomprehensible if you don’t know the code. What’s amazing to me is that neither he nor, I presume, his readers of the day were bothered by, or even (I suppose) noticed, the blatant inappropriateness of the literal meaning of the word to the terrible events he has been describing.
Addendum. I forgot to mention that at the visitors’ center I picked up a brochure in Russian, titled Исторический Диирфилд [Istoricheski Diirfild], with an absurd transliteration of the town’s name (which should be Дирфилд [Dirfild]). Why don’t people get their foreign-language material checked by people who know the language?

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I believe I mentioned that after finishing War and Peace I decided to read the much shorter Fathers and Sons, which I’m greatly enjoying, and I was delighted to run into this linguistically interesting passage (Russian below the cut):

“We’ve heard that song many times,” said Bazarov, “but what do you want to prove by it [etim, literally ‘by this’]?”
Eftim [‘by this’] I want to prove, sir” (Pavel Petrovich, when he got angry, intentionally said eftim and efto [rather than the standard etim and eto ‘this’], when he knew very well that such words are not allowed by grammar. In this caprice was expressed a remnant of the traditions of Alexander I’s time. The bigwigs of that day, on the rare occasions when they spoke their native tongue, used [nonstandard forms]: one would say efto, another ekhto, as if to say “We are native Russians [using the colloquial form Rusaki], and at the same time we are grandees, allowed to scorn the school’s rules”), “by this I want to prove that without a feeling of one’s own worth, without respect for oneself — feelings that are developed among aristocrats — there is no firm foundation for public… bien public, public order.”

The only parallel that occurs to me in English (where of course the element of not speaking your native language does not exist) is the nineteenth-century use of ain’t by British aristocrats, well after it had been deemed unacceptable by grammarians.
While I have your attention, I’m puzzled by the idiom “до положения риз,” which I encountered in chapter 21: “— Ах, Аркадий! сделай одолжение, поссоримся раз хорошенько — до положения риз, до истребления” [“Ah, Arkady, do me a favor, let’s have a real fight — do polozheniya riz, to destruction”]. It means ‘to the limit, to the finish’ (commonly in the context of drinking: напиться до положения риз ‘to get dead drunk’), but its literal meaning is ‘to the polozheniya of cassocks chasubles [d’oh!].’ Polozheniya means ‘position, condition, state,’ and a number of other things, but “to the condition of cassocks chasubles” doesn’t seem to make much sense. Can any Russian speakers explain it to me?

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Alexander Anichkin at Tetradki (“A Russian Review of Books: Non-Russians writing about Russia and Russians writing about themselves and the world around them”) has a post about Bunin’s 1924 mini-story Книга (Kniga, ‘Book’), which I am very fond of myself, and says “I searched for an English translation of this short story on the internet, but could not find one. Please let me know if there is one.” I thought I might as well give it a try, though Bunin’s late, pared-down style shows a mastery of Russian prose that is impossible to adequately render, and I’m pleased enough with the result to reproduce it below. It makes a nice contrast to my recent post about bibliophilia. (My thanks to jamessal for his help whipping it into shape.)

A note on a phrase: the Russian does not say “with a beginning and an end” but с завязкой и развязкой ‘with a beginning [literally ‘tying-up’] and a denouement [literally ‘untying,’ which of course is also the literal meaning of denouement],’ and a denouement is not necessarily an ending. But I thought it was more important to preserve the natural pairing than the literal sense, since the distinction between an ending and a denouement is not significant in this context.

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One specialized topic that’s always fascinated me within the large topic of language is food-related language; MMcM’s Polyglot Vegetarian has been a favorite for a long time (I keep checking on it even though it hasn’t been updated in months), and now it has a companion in Dan Jurafsky’s The Language of Food, which started auspiciously with a detailed post on the history of the word entrée and how it changed from meaning ‘a hot meat course eaten after the soup and before the roast’ to ‘main course’ in America and ‘first course’ in France. Since then he’s investigated ketchup and dessert. Keep up the good work, Dan! (Via the Log.)