Archives for January 2011


The latest issue of qarrtsiluni has my translations of three famous poems by Mandelstam. Longtime LH readers will have seen them before, but now you get to hear me reading them in Russian and English (click on the audio thingie at the top of the page—they’re introduced by Dave Bonta, the editor); it took some daring to allow my rusty Russian to be heard in public, but I figure it’s more important to share my understanding of how the poems are to be read than to spare myself embarrassment. Needless to say, if native speakers have corrections more specific than “Ha, you sound so American!” I’d be glad to hear them. Anyway, my thanks to Dave; it’s an honor to be chosen for the qarrtsiluni translation issue, and I look forward to reading the other poems (a new bunch will be appearing each day).


In case any interested parties don’t already know about Richard Sears’s Chinese Etymology site, there it is; as Victor Mair says in the Log post where I learned about it, “his website is without equal for its convenience and comprehensiveness in providing early forms of the sinographs” (his database has over 96,000 ancient and archaic Chinese characters and provides Taiwanese, Cantonese, and Shanghainese transcriptions in addition to Mandarin). After praising the site, Mair adds:

The only major problem I myself have with the site is its title, “Chinese Etymology,” I don’t consider what Sears does to be “etymology” per se. Written symbols (characters, letters, graphs, etc.) do not have etymologies. Rather, they undergo evolution and development. Thus, Sears’ work has to do with Chinese character structure, analysis, and evolution, not etymology. True Chinese etymology has to take into account the development of sounds and meanings through time (roots, derivatives, cognates, etc.). For that, the most convenient, reliable, and authoritative source for the early period is Axel Schuessler’s ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese.
I should point out, however, that it is very common, both among specialists in the field of Chinese Studies and among the lay public, to refer to the analysis of character structure as “etymology,” so Sears is certainly not alone in doing so. Still, I consider this a serious issue in Sinology and in Chinese linguistics, just as serious an issue as calling Sinitic languages like Cantonese “dialects.” Chinese linguistics has long been bedeviled by deep confusion between the writing system and language, and it is this confusion that leads people to mistakenly speak of characters as having etymology.

He is, of course, quite correct, but I don’t think the situation is going to change any time soon.


I’m still reading Nicholas Ostler’s The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel (previously), and I thought I’d pass on his discussion of various names for Persian-speakers (pp. 134-35):

In Central Asia, from the eighth century, Persian-speaking “Tajiks” began to supplant Sogdians as the dominant merchant community, bringing their language too right across the continent. One or two references note merchants from the west turning up in the Far East in the eighth century, but the steps of their general commercial progress are not documented. The merchants would have been reinforced in the eighth century by a large number of émigré Persians looking for new homes and livelihoods beyond the reach of the Muslims. Still, the variety of names that they were called tells a story of its own.

First, the word Tajik itself, originally a Sogdian term for an incoming Muslim, began to add overtones. For example, in the Sanskrit classic Somadeva’s Ocean of the Streams of Story (written 1063–81) a party of innocent Indian travelers to “the north” is waylaid and then traded as chattels by Tājika merchants. The word spread by association to their characteristic stock-in-trade, coming also to designate an excellent breed of horse. With mercantile literacy came a patina of culture: Tājaka was also applied to astronomical treatises translated from Arabic or Persian. So much for the Indian reputation; for the Turks, Persian literacy in itself was endlessly impressive. Their first recorded use of the word is in Mahmud al-Kashgari‘s Compendium of the Language of the Turks in 1072.

Tejikler bitigde bitimiş munı | Bitigde yok erse kim okkay anı?

The Tajiks in a book set down this. In a book if it were not, who would have mentioned it?

The Chinese came to refer to the whole Arab empire—which naturally impinged on them from its eastern end—as ta dʑeĭək, writing it, perhaps in the light of experience, as 大食 ‘great food’, though a thousand years later the word is now pronounced more like dàshí. [See this LH discussion of the latter term from 2006.]

The Turks were responsible for two other words for Tajiks used widely across Asia: Sart and Tat. Each grew out of reference to a contingent fact about Persian speakers into a general quasi-racial term.

The ultimate origin of Sart is doubtful: it seems to be either a dialectal pronunciation of Soǧd or a shortening of the Sanskrit sārthavāha or Sogdian sārtpāw ‘caravaneer’. Either way, it could be a nice irony, the Persians being identified with the Sogdian caravan merchants that they were replacing, and quite comparable with the origin of Tajik itself—an Arab from the Tayy tribe, which was best known to the Persians. Sart‘s first recorded use is in the Turkic text the Qutadǧu Bilig (1070), where it already refers not to merchants but to settled populations (specifically, locally in Kashgar), whom the Turks of that age might have expected to be Persian speakers, in contrast with the free-ranging Turks. By the fifteenth century, when Mīr ‘Ali Shēr Nawā’ was robustly comparing the value of Persian and Turkish as literary languages, he happily used Sart as a strict synonym for ‘Persian’, so he could speak explicitly of Sart tili ‘the Sart language’.

As for Tat, it always seems to have been a convenient term for Turks to refer to many significant peoples that were not Turks (much in the same way as the Wall root has been used round Europe for non-Germans, Welsh, Walloon, and Wallachian). Tat was known to have been used at different times to designate Crimean Goths, Greeks, and sedentary peoples generally, but its primary reference came to be the Persians within the Turkish domains. Hence unlike Tajik and Sart it had nothing to do with any reputation of Persians as merchants. (Tat is nowadays specialized to refer to special groups with Iranian languages in the west of the Caspian Sea.)

A nice tidbit from a footnote on page 129: to illustrate “coiner’s conservatism” (“when the idea of coined money is introduced for the first time, it often continues to use quite slavishly the model of its foreign source”), Ostler points out that a mancus struck by King Offa of Mercia in the late eighth century “combines the central legend OFFA REX with the Islamic šahāda ‘There is no God but Allah…’, in Arabic, round the rim, and an Arabic inscription on the reverse. It is all copied off a 774 dinar of Manṣūr in the contemporary Abbasid Caliphate.” Here‘s an image of the mancus in question.

Addendum (Oct. 2015). I regret to report that, according to Philip Shishkin, sart is now apparently “a derogatory term the Kyrgyz use for Uzbeks, the local n-word.”


The new site Books from Russia “is the official English language resource on contemporary Russian literature and the Russian publishing industry. Its aim is to promote new Russian writing by providing the international publishing community with in-depth and up-to-date information about contemporary Russian books, their authors and publishers, and facilitating means of collaboration with Russian partners.” This page shows recent books translated from Russian, and this one has excerpts. You can apply for grants to do a translation yourself. Hat tip to Lizok’s Bookshelf.


That’s what I thought when I looked out my window this morning and saw it coming down (on top of the foot or so we’ve already had), so I thought I’d quote one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets, Hugh MacDiarmid (previously):

Lourd on my hert as winter lies
The state that Scotland’s in the day.
Spring to the North has aye come slow
But noo dour winter’s like to stay
      For guid,
      And no’ for guid!
O wae’s me on the weary days
When it is scarce grey licht at noon;
It maun be a’ the stupid folk
Diffusin’ their dullness roon and roon.
      Like soot,
      That keeps the sunlicht oot.
Nae wonder if I think I see
A lichter shadow than the neist
I’m fain to cry ‘The dawn, the dawn!
I see it brakin’ in the East.’
      But ah
      — It’s juist mair snaw!

From To Circumjack Cencrastus (1930); “lourd” = heavy, sluggish, “the day” = today, “aye” = always, “maun” = must, “neist” = next.


Bradshaw of the future is a language blog whose clever modus operandi is to take two words you’d never have guessed were related and show you how they are; the latest post, for example, derives arsenic from Middle Iranian *zarnīk– from Old Iranian *zarna– “golden” from Proto-Indo-European *ǵhel– “to shine,” whose suffixed o-grade form *ǵhol-to– became Polish złoto “gold” and złoty “golden” (cognate with Russian золотой), whence we see that arsenic is a cousin of zloty. I’ve just discovered a similarly unexpected pairing. In my reading of Bulgakov’s Мастер и Маргарита (The Master and Margarita) I hit the bizarrely un-Russian word баккуроты bakkuroty in chapter 26; Pilate reads from Levii Matvei’s alleged records of Yeshua’s words: «Смерти нет… Вчера мы ели сладкие весенние баккуроты» (‘There is no death… Yesterday we ate sweet spring bakkuroty‘). Google informed me that Bulgakov had gotten this word from F. W. Farrar‘s Life of Christ (1874); Farrar writes (on p. 400) of “the delicious bakkooroth, the first ripe on the fig-tree, of which Orientals are particularly fond.” Now this bakkuroth (to give a more modern transliteration) is the plural of בכורה bakkurah, which my Bantam-Megiddo dictionary translates ‘early ripening fruit’ (you can read a discussion of it in Hans Wildberger’s commentary to Isaiah 28-39, p. 11, [28:4b]); it is related to bekhor ‘first-born, eldest’ (unrelated to Modern Hebrew bakhur בחור ‘(young) fellow’—thanks, Tom!), and is from the Semitic root *bkr (*bukur-, *bak(u)r-) ‘first-born’ (see p. 94 of Wolf Leslau’s Comparative Dictionary of Geʻez s.v. bakwara for Semitic and Ethiopic cognates). An Arabic derivative of the root is al-bakura, the source of English albacore. Isn’t that fun? And now that I’ve done all that work, I see that Balashon scooped me over four years ago (though without the Bulgakov connection); you can read more commentary, and see a nice illustration of an albacore tuna, there.
Oh, I should add that the Burgin/O’Connor translation I’m reading to my wife at night renders баккуроты simply as “figs.” I recognize that this is easier on the reader, but I’m not sure I approve, since the vast majority of Bulgakov’s readers would have had no idea what he was talking about (and in fact there’s a Q&A page headed Что такое баккуроты? ‘What are bakkuroty?’).


This is terrific news—DS Bigham, a linguist who “specializes in phonetics/phonology, sociolinguistics, language change, emergence theory in linguistics, linguistic perception, and linguistic public outreach,” has taken an important step in the last-named area and started an online magazine called Popular Linguistics Magazine. Here’s his welcome message to readers:

Over the last few years, I’ve been thinking a lot about the public perception of linguistics and language research. I’ve often been frustrated at the abuse and misunderstanding of basic linguistic concepts in the popular media (for example, this summer’s debacle over President Obama’s speech-style reported on “The Global Language Monitor”, see CNN’s coverage here), or even at the lack of widespread response from linguists on public policy issues, such as the Arizona immigration law or, reaching back, the Ebonics school funding debates. Why isn’t the public better educated about linguistics? I fear that it’s because we, as linguists, haven’t done the best job of getting the word out. We haven’t yet provided the public with a single non-specialist standard for linguistics-based reporting.
Oh, there are exceptions, certainly. Blogs like Language Log and Language Hat, Ben Zimmer’s “On Language” column for the New York Times, and occasional pieces here and there in this magazine or that newspaper. But a single trusted source, a regular, dedicated place where people can go and read about all aspects of our research, with articles written by true experts of the field… that’s what linguistics has been lacking.
If physics could bring quantum entanglement to the masses in Scientific American, if psychology could bring cognitive dissonance to the world outside of academia in Psychology Today, if my 90 year old grandmother could read about nanotube technology in Popular Science, why couldn’t we bring linguistics out into the wider world? That was the kernel that popped in my head way back in the late summer of 2007. Linguistics didn’t just need our own PR machine; we needed a magazine.
With that in mind, I’d like to present the first issue of Popular Linguistics Magazine, a monthly online publication where we aim to bring linguistics and language research to anyone who’s interested, regardless of whether they’re a linguist or not. Our goal here at Popular Linguistics is to present to you, dear readers, all aspects of linguistics, from breaking news in language technologies to stories from intrepid documentary fieldworkers, from research detailing how language works in the brain to stories showing how language works in society. Linguistics for everyone, finally.

This is exactly what the world needs right now (aside from peace, love, and understanding, of course), and I will give it a high place in my heart and on my blogroll. Visit it frequently, folks!


Mark Liberman has a fascinating post, “Ben Ali speaks in Tunisian ‘for the first time,'” explaining the background to the quoted statement “Today’s speech shows definitely a major shift in Tunisia’s history. … Ben Ali talked in the Tunisian dialect instead of Arabic for the first time ever.” As Mark says:

By “Tunisian dialect” Youssef Gaigi means what the Ethnologue calls “Tunisian Spoken Arabic“, and by “Arabic” he means what the Ethnologue calls “Standard Arabic“, often referred to as “Modern Standard Arabic”.
For those who aren’t familiar with Arabic diglossia, a plausible analogy would be to equate “Classical Arabic” with Latin, to compare “Modern Standard Arabic” (MSA) to the variety of Latin used in the Vatican (with words and phrases added over the years to refer to more recent objects and concepts), and to link the various “spoken” Arabics (sometimes called “colloquials” or “dialects”) with modern Latin-derived “Romance” languages like French, Italian, Spanish, Romanian, etc.

(I find his use of “the Ethnologue” odd; to me it sounds like “the Google.” But maybe I’m the odd man out here.) Mark offers this telling anecdote:

A story may illustrate some of the ideologies involved. A few decades ago, a Tunisian linguist who had studied in the U.S. returned to a university position in Tunisia. Because some of his published work dealt with the phonetics and phonology of Tunisian Spoken Arabic, one of his colleagues formally accused him in the faculty senate of bringing the Tunisian nation into disrepute, by suggesting in print that Tunisians spoke such a degenerate and incorrect variety of Arabic.

An interesting point is that the first president of Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, whom Ben Ali replaced, did not limit himself to the classical language: “Bourguiba used a constellation of linguistic codes — Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, Tunisian Arabic, and French.” And don’t miss the excellent commentary in the thread by bulbul; I hope Lameen weighs in as well.
Update. Lameen weighs in.


Les Fleurs du Mal has always been one of my favorite poetry collections, and now Gallica (the digital section of the Bibliothèque nationale de France) has put Baudelaire’s proofs online, corrected to within an inch of their lives by their picky author (at one point he sort of apologizes for pointing out things no other reader will ever notice, but says he can’t help seeing them). On the other hand, as one commenter says in the MetaFilter thread where I learned about it, “On page 6 of this proof the title line is LES ELEURS DU MAL and on page 7 it says LES FEURS DO MAL,” so he needed to keep his eyes peeled.


But the Lithuanians won’t let them have it, according to this AP story:

Since independence in 1991, successive Lithuanian governments have promised to give the country’s 200,000 Polish-speakers — representing 6 percent of the population — more freedom to use their native language, but little has happened.
Lithuanian language laws still require passports and street signs to be written in the Lithuanian alphabet, which doesn’t have the letters q, w and x and uses diacritical marks on the bottom of letters a, e, i and u.
Resentment is growing in the Polish-speaking east, in rural villages like Maisiagala, whose 2,000 residents celebrate New Year’s one hour after the rest of Lithuania to conform with Poland’s time zone.
“They should have amended that stupid law a long time ago and let us live in peace. This has gone on for too long,” said 60-year-old Stanislawa Monkewicz, a retired teacher. Her name is Stanislava Monkevic in Lithuanian.

I have to agree that it is a stupid law. (Thanks, Bonnie!)