Archives for March 2011


David Prager Branner and Yuan-Yuan Meng have written a paper called “‘Syntactic Yoga’ in Chinese-English Lexicography” that Zackary Sholem Berger thought I would find interesting, and so I do. Here’s the abstract:

This paper argues that Chinese-English dictionaries should include more thorough part-of-speech notations. Chinese part of speech is recognized to be highly fluid and requires the learner to master what we call ‘syntactic yoga’: the contortion or exchange of one part of speech into another. It is suggested that this pedagogical technique can be applied to great effect in the construction of dictionary entries.

They say “the fact that it is hard to identify Chinese parts of speech does not mean that it is impossible, nor that it is therefore somehow unnecessary,” and conclude:

The need for marking parts of speech in a Chinese-English dictionary is two-fold: From the point of view of Chinese usage, since part of speech can certainly vary in Chinese, part of speech notations are necessary to ensure that the Chinese usage being described is correct. From the point of view of English renderings, since English translations and definitions inevitably vary as Chinese usage varies, part of speech notations for the Chinese are also necessary to distinguish among English translations for varying Chinese usages.

Makes sense to me.


I’m still steaming over Ben Zimmer’s language column getting the ax at the Times, but I’m happy to report he can be found at the American Dialect Society, as reported here:

At its annual meeting last January, the American Dialect Society named a new chair of its New Words Committee: Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and, and until recently the On Language columnist for The New York Times Magazine. As part of his duties, Zimmer will take the helm of “Among the New Words,” a long-running department in American Speech, the quarterly journal of the ADS published by Duke University Press. Zimmer will also oversee the selection of the ADS Word of the Year, an announcement that attracts extensive media attention.

There follows a column by Ben, the conclusion of which I’ll quote here:

In my first installment of “Among the New Words” (to appear in the June issue of American Speech) I will be surveying the various nominees for 2010 Word of the Year, including subcategories such as Most Euphemistic, Most Likely to Succeed, and Most Outrageous. In the main category, app beat out another three-letter word: nom, an onomatopoetic form suggesting pleasurable eating, used as an interjection, noun or verb. Nom traveled from Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster (whose voracious noises are often represented as “om nom nom nom”) to the online images known as “lolcats,” and on to wider usage thanks in part to Twitter.
I suspect Bolinger would have appreciated the earthy joys of nom. After all, in a 1940 article in American Speech, Bolinger observed how imitative expressions like humph, ahem, pish, and tsk often get turned into “real words” by “pronouncing them as spelled rather than articulating the sounds they were intended to represent.” And among the first batch of neologisms he provided for “Among the New Words” the following year was none other than burp — like nom, a kind of digestive onomatopoeia that can be pressed into service as a noun or verb. Plus ça change!

I think I was in my late teens before I realized that tsk was not intended to be pronounced “tisk.”


This article by Evan Rail describes a remarkable photographic project by “Jeffrey Martin and his robotic camera”:

The finished Strahov library panorama, released Tuesday on Martin’s website, is a zoomable, high-resolution peek inside one of Prague’s most beautiful halls, a repository of rare books that is usually off-limits to tourists (a few of whom can be seen standing behind the velvet rope at the room’s normal viewing station).
Martin’s panorama lets you examine the spines of the works in the Philosophical Hall’s 42,000 volumes, part of the monastery’s stunning collection of just about every important book available in central Europe at the end of the 18th century — more or less the sum total of human knowledge at the time.

You can read the details of how he did it (and view a video) at that link; you can see the actual panorama here, and boy, is it something. Zoom in (using the Shift key) and read the titles of all those books, or (if art is your thing) examine the fresco. (Thanks, Nick!)


Mark Liberman at the Log has a post about an interesting fact I was unaware of: the name of the H0/HO scale of model railway is from “half zero.” Accordingly, the Wikipedia talk page contains a vigorous prescriptivist (“The correct name is ‘H0’ or ‘half zero’; Google only shows that most people do it wrong“) versus descriptivist (“You seem to have forgotten that what was and what is are two separate situations. Your argument is the same as arguing that if a word is a Latin derivative, then it is still a Latin word and should be spelled the same”) debate. I’m sure you can guess which side I come down on.
Totally unrelated, but a comment by Christopher Squire on Pepys’ Diary explains an interesting premodern usage by quoting the OED:

pragmatical, adj. and n.
. . 3.a. Officious, meddlesome, interfering; intrusive. Obs.
. . b. Conceited, self-important, pompous; opinionated; dogmatic, unbending.
1660 H. More Explan. Myst. Godliness iv. xiii. 131 The leguleious Cavils of some Pragmatical Pettifoggers.
1668 J. Glanvill Blow at Mod. Sadducism Pref. sig. A2, With a pert and pragmatical Insolence, they censure all.
1712 J. Addison Spectator No. 481. ¶4 Lacqueys were never so saucy and pragmatical, as they are now-a-days.
1724 Swift Let. to Molesworth 2 Which‥ may perhaps give me the Title of Pragmatical and Overweening.
1779 F. Burney Let. 25 Oct.–3 Nov. in L. E. Troide & S. J. Cooke Early Jrnls. & Lett. Fanny Burney (1994) 407 His extreme pomposity,—the solemn stiffness of his Person‥& the quaint importance of his delivery,—are‥ like some Pragmatical‥ old Coxcomb represented on the stage.’

As Christopher says, “A useful word which has gone out of use for some reason tho’ the type it describes is still with us.”


This is a fun game; a couple of sentences from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are read aloud in thirty languages and you enter your guesses in the boxes provided. I got nineteen; I probably would have gotten a couple more except that I panicked the first time I couldn’t figure one out and didn’t know what to do, so missed the next couple of samples. (Pro tip: Just move the cursor down to the box for the current sample and skip the unknown one.) If you get one right, it stays in the box and the cursor automatically drops to the next one; if you don’t, it doesn’t. As the game progresses, the languages get harder to identify; when you’ve finished, you can, if you choose, see the correct answers. Enjoy!


A Log post by Mark Liberman takes a look at the history of German immigrants and their language in the United States, focusing on an 1861 uprising against the Missouri authorities by a bunch of Achtundvierziger (“Forty-Eighters,” after the European uprising of 1848 many of them had fled); the comment thread gets into a discussion of Karl May and his vast readership in Central Europe. (And here‘s an old LH post about Texas German.)


The letter R, that is; read all about it at the latest update. I particularly call to your attention the section on “New initialisms in the OED”; they’ve added “a number of noteworthy initialisms—abbreviations consisting of the initial letters of a name or expression. Some of these—such as OMG […] and LOL […] are strongly associated with the language of electronic communications….” Remarkably, they’ve found a citation of “OMG” from 1917; you can read about it and its context here. And you can see “some videos that shed light into the revision process” at this post on the OED blog.


I’m still reading Kate Brown (see here and here); I’ve been fascinated and appalled by her account of how masses of people were expelled from the kresy and dumped onto the harsh steppes of Kazakhstan (mostly unsuitable for agriculture, though it would take decades before that was realized), but it didn’t seem like LH material until I got to this bit:

In 1938, the NKVD decreed that individuals could not change their nationality. In the postwar period, however, it was possible, especially for women, to change their nationality through marriage. More than fifty percent of ethnic Poles in Kazakhstan married non-Poles. In fact, rates of assimilation among Poles and Germans were some of the highest in the country. Poles, Germans, Tatars, Chechens, among others in exile in Kazakhstan, started to identify themselves in the census as “Russian.” Their identities began gradually to fuse into Soviet identities as they assimilated into Russian-Soviet culture. [Footnote: Deported groups generally did not assimilate into Kazakh culture. In 1990, only sixteen out of 60,000 Poles of Kazakhstan claimed to know the Kazakh language.] They began to speak Soviet-Russian in the same intonations broadcast over the radios, which began appearing in the settlements in the fifties, repeating the same phrases about the “friendship of nations” enunciated by teachers in the classrooms which started to multiply across the steppe after the lean years of war. Perhaps deported persons from the borderlands were drawn to new simplified Soviet identities (in one language and monoculture rather than numerous local cultures and dialects) because their lives no longer contained the social and economic breadth of their former lives in the kresy. […] The streamlined nature of the new Soviet identity fit the standardized, economic simplicity of life in Kazakhstan.

This is really an excellent, thought-provoking book, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the kind of cultural/historical analysis evident in the excerpts I’ve provided. (Also, her footnotes are full of references to just the kind of books I’m interested in reading.)


Even after all these decades of wide reading and fanatical dictionary-consulting, I still run across words heretofore unknown to me, and a correspondent just sent me a fine one: facinorous ‘extremely wicked’ [which, it turns out, I learned last year but had already forgotten!]. It’s from Latin facinus ‘bad deed,’ and you can remember both its meaning and its pronunciation by reflecting that it has “sinner” in the middle. My correspondent writes: “I learned this word in grade school, from a Pogo book. Bun Rab and Beauregard, in their fireman roles, ran over a picnic and pushed Pogo’s face into a plate of moosh. He got up and yelled at them, ‘Facinorous runagates!’ I think it was years later that I actually looked up the word.” Any word that has the imprimatur of Pogo is ipso facto an excellent word.
The same correspondent passed along a bit of doggerel by H. C. Bunner called “Shake, Mulleary and Go-ethe” that features a striking pronunciation of the great German poet’s name:

[Read more…]


Continuing the excerpts from Kate Brown (see this post):

At the Commission for National Minority Affairs they wrote memos back and forth, smiling over the simplicity of villagers who could not identify their nationality and were ignorant of their own language. But who was ignorant of what? The peasants too thought the “bureaucrats” were ridiculous, ineffectual, and ignorant of “our village ways.” One peasant complained, “They send out an inspector who speaks in a boss’s tone of voice. He drives up, pulls out his notebook. […] We still don’t know what he wanted, he didn’t give us any advice.” It was not inborn ignorance on the peasant side or callousness on the side of the bureaucrats that drove this conflict, but rather a colliding discourse over identity. When asked who they were, villagers answered in a way that incorporated the complexities of the hybrid culture in which they lived. For them, identities were local, rooted in the soil of a particular river bed, forest, or valley. Identity represented a dynamic relationship that depended on whom one was identifying oneself against, whether it was landowners, workers, Jews, Russians, Germans, or educated urbanites. [Rest of paragraph, beginning “When asked who they were…,” quoted in previous post.]
In other words, to call the villagers in the borderlands Ukrainian or Polish is beside the point. They were, as they often described themselves, simply “local.” They made up a continuum of cultures that stood literally and figuratively on the border between Poland, Ukraine, and Russia, in a place where mass media had not yet standardized vernaculars or made boilerplates of ritual and tradition. The communists who came to rule the large tracts of land sought to systematize vernacular identities and languages, fix them in space, translate that space onto a map, and with that map gaze out from their underheated offices in Kharkov or Moscow and see all of the kingdom laid out before them, a modern crystal ball.

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