Archives for June 2011


OP Tipping made a post on about the Yola language, “an extinct West Germanic language formerly spoken in Ireland.” As I wrote in the thread there, I was going to say I’d never heard of it either until I saw the footnote citing T. F. O’Rahilly, “The Accent in the English of South-east Wexford,” Irish Dialects Past and Present (Dublin: Browne and Nolan, 1932), pp. 94–98:

As it happens, I bought that book in 1975 in Dublin, where I was studying Irish at the Institute for Advanced Studies, so I pulled my copy off the shelf and found the article, which I’d never read, presumably because it was about English rather than Irish. It’s very interesting indeed; he writes about the Wexford dialect because it shows the same generalized end-stress (e.g., dineare [di-NAIR] ‘dinner,’ shilleen ‘shilling’) that you get in the southern dialects of Irish (e.g., dinneur [di-NAIR] ‘dinner,’ sicín ‘chicken’):

In either case its starting point was a nucleus of end-stressed words of Norman French origin. In Southern Irish it was doubtless in the mouths of bilingual (or trilingual) speakers of Anglo-Norman descent that the stress was first advanced in Irish words of native, or quasi-native, origin. The similar phenomenon which occurred in the English of S. Wexford was later in date, and resulted from “ the daily intercourse of the English and Irish inhabitants ” (to borrow a phrase of Stanyhurst’s), when the progress of Irish as a spoken language brought it more and more into contact with a population group which spoke a somewhat archaic variety of English. Already familiar with end-stressed words from their own dialect, these Wexford English-speakers were so influenced by the Irish spoken in their neighbourhood, and to some extent acquired by themselves, that they greatly extended the use of long stressed endings, especially by imitating Irish –ér (-eur) and –ín.

He has a great quote from Stanyhurst (1577):

In our days they have so acquainted themselves with the Irish as they have made a mingle-mangle or gallamaulfrey of both the languages, and have in such medley or checkerwise so crabbedly jumbled both togyther as commonly the inhabitants of the meaner sort speak neyther good English nor good Irishe.

The Wikipedia article has some long passages in the dialect; “A Yola Song” begins “Fade teil thee zo lournagh, co Joane, zo knaggee?”


Formerly frequent commenter jamessal (don’t judge him, he’s got good excuses for his absence of late) was so excited by John Fowles’s prose in Daniel Martin that he sprang for a copy for me, which I have begun reading, and I too find the writing enthralling. The novel starts off in Dorset in 1942, and the protagonist, “the boy,” is helping the locals harvest the wheat; his job is to stook it:

Clutching a sheaf in the right hand, just above the binder twine, never by the twine itself, then moving on to the next sheaf, picking that up in the same way in the left hand, then walking with the two sheaves to the nearest unfinished stook, a stook being four pairs of sheaves and a single “to close the door” at the end; then standing before the other sheaves propped against each other, lifting the two in each hand, then setting them, shocking down the butts into the stubble and simultaneously clashing the eared heads together. …
The boy sets the first two sheaves, the founders, of a new stook. They stand, then start to topple. He catches them before they fall, lifts them to set them firm again. But old Mr. Luscombe shocks his pair down six feet away, safe as houses. His founders never fall. He smiles lopsidedly with his bad teeth, a wink, the cast in his eye, the sun in his glasses. Bronze-red hands and old brown boots. The boy makes a grimace, then brings his sheaves and sets them against the farmer’s pair.

At one they break for lunch:

They sit beneath the ash, or sprawl; out of the dish-cloth, white with blue ends, a pile of great cartwheels of bread, the crusts burnt black; deep yellow butter, ham cut thick as a plate, plate of pink meat and white fat, both sides of the bread nearly an inch thick; the yellow butter pearled and marbled with whey, a week’s ration a slice.
Thic for thee, thic for thee, says doling Mr. Luscombe, and where’s my plum vidies to?

I had no problem with “thic,” clearly a dialect form of “this,” but I was stopped in my tracks by “plum vidies”; I checked the OED and Google Books without result and was just about to post a query here in my desperation when I read a little further and realized that Mr. Luscombe’s phrase was just his version of the narrator’s “Pelham Widows” from a few lines later: “Beauty of Bath, crisp and amberfleshed, with their little edge of piquant acid. Still Primavera’s, thinks the boy; and much better poems than bruised and woolly Pelham Widow. But who cares, teeth deep in white cartwheel, bread and sweet ham, all life to follow.” But what are Primaveras and Pelham Widows? Anybody know? Also, jamessal is “curious to see how well known he is to your readership, and how well regarded,” and so am I; any Fowles fans out there?


An amusing series of short videos from The Open University; here‘s the first. (Whatever did happen to the Jutes, anyway?) Via Dave Wilton.
Addendum. All ten episodes conveniently linked here.


The other day my wife asked me how far back the expression “It is what it is” went. I dug around a little and found a William Safire column in which he investigates the phrase and turns up a 1949 use in a column by J.E. Lawrence in the Nebraska State Journal: “New land is harsh, and vigorous, and sturdy. It scorns evidence of weakness. There is nothing of sham or hypocrisy in it. It is what it is, without apology.” I thought that was pretty impressive, and I posted about it at, whereupon sobiest, after mentioning its popularity in the musical circles he was part of in the ’70s, revealed that he had found it in an 1805 review of Southey’s Madoc:

As sobiest says, apparently the phrase was applied to “ladies of ambiguous character” in the 1700s. Now, that’s what I call an antedate!
In case anyone’s wondering about the use of “Darwinian,” sobiest explains:

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Words of the World is a nice set of short films from the University of Nottingham; they take a series of words freighted with cultural history, from avant-garde and anti-Semitism to vindaloo and zeitgeist, and have one of their experts explain where they come from and what cultural role they play. The samovar one goes into some detail about how you set the thing up and make tea from it; the only disappointment is that the samovar used in the film is a modern electrical one, and Ms. Marsh has to keep saying “If this were a traditional samovar, it would…” This one, on Balkan and Balkanization, with David Norris, is extremely interesting; I hadn’t known some of the history involved. It’s a good way to spend a few minutes listening to scholars and trying to make out the books on their shelves. (Thanks, Sven!)


Back in 2006 I had a post about calling a baby’s pacifier a “goots”; there was much discussion, which eventually focused on German dialects (before the thread had to be closed due to spammers). Now Rachel Ramey writes to say she ran across the post while trying to find out about “goodgie,” the term her mother learned as a child growing up in southwestern Pennsylvania:

The family Mom learned this from spoke Granisch, which we have since learned is actually “Krainisch,” also known as Göttschee or Göttscheerisch. It’s a Germanic language heavily influenced by Slovene, spoken in a very small area of Slovenia, near Croatia. If “goots” was German (or some derivative thereof), then surely it’s related to my Granisch “gootsi” or “goodgie,” right?

Makes sense to me, and I wonder what the current batch of LH readers makes of it: do you know the term “goots(i)” or “goodgie,” and/or the German term that presumably lies behind it? (Here‘s the Wikipedia article on Gottschee, a formerly German-speaking area around Kočevje in southern Slovenia, which I had been unaware of.)


I’m nearing the end of Life and Fate (see here and here), and I wanted to share a couple of references to older literature that were not obvious to me and therefore might be of use to someone else trying to read it in Russian. In Part III, chapter 23, Lyudmila says in irritation to her sister, “Нечего двойственность разводить и растекаться киселем”: “There’s no need to be duplicitous and spread kissel.” Spread kissel? Made no sense to me, so I asked Sashura, and he explained with his usual thoroughness that it’s an idiom meaning “not being able to think or talk straight, not being able to make up one’s mind. And it also evokes the beautiful, yet mysterious metaphor from The Tale of Igor’s Campaign“: “Боянъ бо вѣщии, аще кому хотяше пѣснь творити, то растѣкашется мыслию по древу, сѣрымь вълкомь по земли, шизымъ орьломъ подъ облакы”: “For Boyan the wizard, if he wished to make a song for someone, would fly in thought through the tree, like a grey wolf over the earth, like a blue-grey eagle beneath the clouds.” (Stender-Petersen’s original text, Obolensky’s translation.) Sashura adds that “растекаться киселем” and “растекаться мыслью по древу” are used interchangeably. If other Russian-speakers have more to say about this, I’m all ears.
And not long after, in III.26, Shtrum says to Lyudmila (his wife), “Да, Людочка, ‘инда еще побредем'”: “Yes, Lyudochka, ‘we’ll wander some more.'” (My Eksmo edition has the typo ивда for инда.) This is a touching allusion to an anecdote in the wonderful autobiography of the Protopope Avvakum, which he fortunately had time to write before being burned at the stake in 1682:

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WORDS OF 1916.

Having posted on the first two installments of Dave Wilton’s “word of the year” series (words of 1911, words of 1912), I hadn’t been planning to continue, but his latest post, on words first attested in 1916, contains one so dear to my heart I can’t resist: proto-Indo-European, n. and adj. Another striking entry:

fuck-all, n. and adj. The so-called f-bomb may be the most versatile word in the language, appearing in countless forms and contexts. This particular variant, meaning “absolutely nothing,” appears in a British trial transcript from this year, indicating that despite the popular opinion that our use of the language is coarsening, fuck has been in wide and versatile use for a long time, only publishers wouldn’t admit it.

As I did in the related Wordorigins forum thread, I’ll quote the full sentence from the trial transcript to give the flavor of army English of the day: “He then said, ‘You are a fucking coward & you will go to the trenches—I give fuck all for my life & I give fuck all for yours & I’ll get you fucking well shot.'” (From Record of the Trial of H. Farr, quoted in Jesse Sheidlower’s invaluable The F-Word, which I reviewed here.) Some other interesting words first attested in that year: ambivalent, dealership, dysfunction, National Socialist, red giant, and tank.


A Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences paper by Steven T. Piantadosi, Harry Tily, and Edward Gibson called “Word lengths are optimized for efficient communication” (pdf) proposes that “average information content is a much better predictor of word length than frequency.” You can read a summary of their findings, along with some background, here; it’s interesting stuff (“The research results held across all but one of the languages studied: Czech, Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish, with German being the outlier”). What bothers me is the meaning of Zipf’s Law; the linked article describes it as saying “word length is primarily determined by frequency of use” (which the NSF piece summarizes as “short words are used more than long ones”), but the Wikipedia page on the law doesn’t mention length at all, saying “Zipf’s law states that given some corpus of natural language utterances, the frequency of any word is inversely proportional to its rank in the frequency table. Thus the most frequent word will occur approximately twice as often as the second most frequent word, three times as often as the third most frequent word, etc.” Can anyone unravel this for those of us who have forgotten most of what statistical theory we ever knew? (Thanks, Hans!)

Update (August 2017). See now Unzipping Zipf’s Law: Solution to a century-old linguistic problem; thanks, Kobi!


James Fallows has a very interesting piece in the Atlantic about Google’s announcement that they’re phasing out their Translate API:

Here is the part of the explanation that, for me, had the marvelous quality of being obvious — once it’s pointed out — and interesting too:
The intriguing problem is the way that over-use of automatic translation can make it harder for automatic translation ever to improve, and may even be making it worse. As people in the business understand, computerized translation relies heavily on sheer statistical correlation. You take a huge chunk of text in one language; you compare it with a counterpart text in a different language; and you see which words and phrases match up. … Crucially, this process depends on “big data” for its improvement. The more Rosetta stone-like side-by-side passages the system can compare, the more refined and reliable the correlations will become.

But the data is being corrupted by the rapidly increasing volume of machine-translated material:

The more of this auto-translated material floods onto the world’s websites, the smaller the proportion of good translations the computers can learn from. In engineering terms, the signal-to-noise ratio is getting worse. It’s getting worse faster in part because of the popularity of Google’s Translate API, which allows spam-bloggers and SEO operations to slap up the auto-translated material in large quantities. … [This story] reveals a problem I hadn’t thought of — and illustrates one more under-anticipated turn in the evolution of the info age. The very tools that were supposed to melt away language barriers may, because of the realities of human nature (ie, blog spam) and the intricacies of language, actually be re-erecting some of those barriers. For the foreseeable future, it’s still worth learning other languages.

For a detailed analysis of the situation, go here. I should add that this does not affect Google Translate, and a good thing too, because I use it constantly.