Archives for January 2012


Another of The Browser’s FiveBooks interviews, this time with Henry Hitchings; I like what he has to say about “water cooler myths” and “stupid myths about the English language” (e.g., that “this is a uniquely sad moment in the history of English” and that “the Americans are ruining English”), and of course I was interested in his choice of books—and pleased that the first one was Ostler’s Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World , which I wrote about here and elsewhere.


Another language-related blog has come to my attention (thanks, Paul!): Sir Courtly Nice, “Meditations upon the twisty highways and byways of the English language.” The blog title is peculiarly applicable to the latest post (from last August—it doesn’t seem to be updated very often), Dibbles, Strunts and Dick Emery, of which our courtly blogger says:

I recently chanced across this rather peculiar sketch (I believe from the 1970s), which formed part of the Dick Emery Show. The joke here is that a prudish vicar tries to avoid using words that might have double meanings by inventing meaningless words. His daughter’s boyfriend, however, happens to be an expert on 17th and 18th century slang and he realises that the vicar’s ‘meaningless’ words are, in fact, much ruder than the words they replace.

The link to the six-minute clip is followed by a discussion of the words in question, only two of which I had been familiar with.


Saqer Almarri has a post presenting a talk by the typographer Thomas Milo about “the difference between the Arabic script, and one created in Europe to imitate it (but failed to do so) which he calls Eurabic. He mentions that Eurabic does not include the script grammar that is required by the normal Arabic script in order to differentiate similar but distinct combinations of characters.” He says “I highly recommend you spend the next half-hour watching this very interesting and highly informative talk,” and I join him in the recommendation; it starts off slow but once Milo gets going, he pulls no punches, saying things like “Great scholar; couldn’t write Arabic” and “A century later, Dutch scholars are still writing fantasy Arabic.” He shows a Yale inscription that has “butter” instead of “your Lord” because of a basic misunderstanding of how written Arabic works. It’s fun and educational too!
As lagniappe, here’s something that’s pure fun, with no educational value, The Virtual Academic: a random sentence generator: “To see a random sentence, just click the “generate” button below, and Pootwattle, our Virtual Academic(TM), will write one for you.” I just got “The expropriation of system allegorizes the linguistic construction of romantic inwardness.” (To which Smedley, the Virtual Critic(TM), responds: “Pootwattle’s carefully researched summary of the relationship between the expropriation of system and the linguistic construction of romantic inwardness may seem impressive to the uninitiated.”)


A couple of links to the kind of projects I like to see:
1) Native American Audio Collections: “The APS is currently in the process of digitizing and extensively cataloging over 3000 hours of endangered Native American languages. These recordings include music, origin stories, historical accounts, linguistic material, and conversations with elders in both English and indigenous languages.” Thanks, Leslie!
2) Tobar an Dualchais: “This website contains over 26,000 oral recordings made in Scotland and further afield, from the 1930s onwards. The items you can listen to include stories, songs, music, poetry and factual information.”


The other night, unable to sleep, I was letting my mind wander when it stumbled over the phrase sub specie aeternitatis, which I use (mostly to myself) as a fancy way of saying “taking the long view” or “in the broader scheme of things.” I’ve known it as long as I can remember and always liked it, but it suddenly occurred to me that I had no idea what it literally meant, or whether I was using it correctly—it’s one of those things I picked up in my precocious reading and assimilated without investigating too closely. I looked it up in my Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases in Current English, where I found: “[Lat.] (considered) in relation to the one eternal Substance; without consideration of local or temporal conditions. 20c. Spinoza Ethics (1677) V xxxi: sub aeternitatis specie.” Well, the second part of the definition suggested I had been using it right, but I didn’t understand the “one eternal Substance” part; however, it seemed likely that that had something to do with Spinoza’s philosophy, and I figured the internet would help me out. Unfortunately, the Wikipedia article is pretty much useless (I left a querulous note about it on the Talk page), so I turn to you, the Varied Reader. Surely one of you can tell me about Spinoza’s use, and how that got picked up in the last century and popularized (to the extent that it’s popular)? Professor Google got me the actual passage in Spinoza:

…but that doesn’t do me much good, and I’m too lazy to immerse myself in a protracted study of Spinoza just to understand what he means by species.


From the What-A-Wonderful-World files: Yiddish-Japanese Dictionary/Yidish-Yapanish Verterbukh/Idisshu-go jiten, compiled and edited by Kazuo Ueda, with the aid of Holger Nath and Boris Kotlerman (Daigakusyorin, 1302 pages, ¥60,000), reviewed by Ross Perlin in (where else?) the Forward. Some excerpts:

Now a professor in the department of German at Fukuoka University (in the south of Japan), Ueda is the compiler and editor of an implausible opus: the world’s first Yiddish-Japanese dictionary. Its publication, in 2010, crowned decades of work, including a book about Yiddish grammar, a bilingual glossary, a cultural introduction to the language and a chrestomathy (a set of model texts). For those keeping score at home, the unidirectional Yidish-Yapanish Verterbukh clocks in at more than 28,000 entries, just beating out Max Weinreich’s classic “Modern English-Yiddish / Yiddish-English Dictionary” and falling only 9,000 entries short of Yitskhok Niborski’s gold-standard 2002 Dictionnaire Yiddish-Français.” But numbers miss the point — the Yidish-Yapanish Verterbukh is serious but accessible lexicography mit ale pitshevkes, or with all the trimmings: in Tokayer’s words, “a lifetime work.”
…Among the dictionary’s virtues are entries based on Weinreich and rendered in the standard orthography of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research; apposite example sentences, primarily from the legendary Moscow literary journal Sovietish Heymland (Yiddish for “Soviet homeland”); user-friendly transliteration, YIVO-style, for every entry, and special marking of all Germanisms, Slavisms and Hebraisms. Its cardinal vice is a price tag of 60,000 yen (nearly $770 at the current exchange rate) — not exactly a vilde metsie, or a great bargain, even in one of the world’s most expensive countries.

There’s interesting material on the history of Yiddish dictionaries (this is “the first time that the full wealth of the Yiddish lexicon has been made accessible in a non-European language [Hebrew aside]”) and on the history of Yiddish in Japan:

[Read more…]


Poemas del río Wang has a post that starts with an appreciation of a great Persian poet:

Hafez, through dead six hundred years now, is so alive to every Persian as perhaps no other classical poet of any other nation. On the spring solstice his volume is placed on the New Year’s table instead of the Quran, his poems are recited by heart and live on as folk songs, and as the great Hungarian Islam scholar Ármin Vámbéry noticed in the late 19th century, even the muleteers sang [them] crossing the passes of the Taurus.

He goes on to provide a transliteration and translation of one of Hafez’s poems, از خون دل Az khun-e del, “From the blood of my heart,” with the peculiarity “that it follows the medieval Persian poetic structure known as mulammaʻ, that is ‘mixed’, its odd lines being in Persian, and its even lines in Arabic,” and links to a musical setting by Mohsen Namjoo called نامه Nâme, “Letter.” I was surprised that â (long a) is pronounced /aw/ (like ow in English cow) by Namjoo; I thought it was pronounced /ɔ:/ (like aw in English caw), and I’m wondering if this is dialectal, a traditional feature of singing, or a new development in the pronunciation of the language.


A couple of nice links that have come my way recently:
1) Poly Mags: “The Polytechnic Magazine is the in-house magazine of the Regent Street Polytechnic, founded by Quintin Hogg. It was published sometimes weekly, sometimes fortnightly and sometimes monthly – and forms a wide-ranging record of a unique institution at the heart of London. The magazines have been scanned and made freely available at, where you can browse and search issues from 1879 to 1960.” At the moment, the second post down on the tumblr blog is a polite but exasperated complaint about noisy chess players in the Reading Room (“While anxious to appear tolerant and practice tolerance towards thoughtless people, it yet seems to me most unreasonable…”). (Thanks, Leslie!)
2) The Antiquary’s Shoebox: A Selection of Articles from Various Journals in the Fields of Classics and Archaeology (“This site collects a few articles that either captured my fancy, or, more often, were referred to elsewhere onsite — so that it finally seemed a bit unfair not to provide the text of them onsite as well. … All journal articles onsite are in the public domain, of course”). There are quite a few articles from American Journal of Philology, Classical Journal, Classical Philology, Classical Review, etc., each with a tart summary provided (“J. P. Postgate: Review of La Patria di Properzio by Giulio Urbini: A savage little review: first a sneer, then a guffaw, and ends in a sniff”). (Via Anatoly.)


Songdog sent me a link to this comic, knowing I would be struck by Granpa Joe’s archaic linguistic usages, especially “Italian rarebit.” Frankly, I assumed it was made up, but Professor Google found a cite (with recipe!) from 1915:

(It doesn’t seem to have originally been identical with pizza, which is how it’s defined here.) Are any of my readers familiar with this (presumably long-vanished) term?


Having read the first couple of chapters of The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success (see this post), I thought I’d share some bits that I found interesting, enlightening, or amusing. From Chapter 2, “Ottoman Turkish”:

The mixture of Turkish, Arabic, and Persian, which Turks call Osmanlıca and we call Ottoman, was an administrative and literary language, and ordinary people must have been at a loss when they came into contact with officials. But while they must often have been baffled by Ottoman phraseology, they were capable of seeing the funny side of it. In the shadow theatre, the running joke is that Karagöz speaks Turkish while his sparring partner Hacivat speaks Ottoman. In the play Salıncak, Karagöz keeps hitting Hacivat. Hacivat asks him why, but receives only nonsensical answers sounding vaguely like his — to Karagöz — unintelligible questions. Eventually he asks, ‘Vurmanızdan aksâ-yı murad?’ (What is your ultimate object in hitting me?). To which Karagöz replies, ‘Aksaray’da murtad babandır’ (The turncoat at Aksaray is your father) […]. A rough English parallel would be, ‘Explain your bellicose attitude.’ — ‘How do I know why he chewed my billy-goat’s hat?
* * *
Even before the rise of the Ottomans there had been expressions of dissatisfaction with the dominance of Arabic and Persian. In 1277 Şemsüddin Mehmed Karamanoğlu, the chief minister of the ruler of Konya, decreed that thenceforth no language other than Turkish would be spoken at court or in government offices or public places. Unfortunately he was killed in battle a few months later.

Chapter 3, “The New Alphabet,” explains that -h- was very nearly adopted to indicate palatalization, on the model of Portuguese (“so khatip for what is now written kâtip“), and palatalized k was almost written q (“The explanation is to be sought in the name of the letter q, which Turks follow the French in calling , pronounced /kyü/. This letter, whose name had the requisite palatalized initial sound, seemed the ideal device for indicating /ky/.”). And in a discussion of the nearly one-to-one match of letters to sounds, Lewis says “the only word one can think of that [a well-programmed speech synthesizer] might fail to enunciate correctly is ağabey (elder brother), pronounced /ābī/,” which I’ll have to try to remember. I like annoying irregularities.