Archives for February 2013


The wonderful Scottish writer and artist Alasdair Gray has a blog, and on that blog he is posting his “Very Free New Version” of Dante’s Divina Commedia. He says “My version is so prosaic that I call the cantos/ chapters and will add them to my blog/ with their date of completion”; I’m not sure what he means by “prosaic,” unless it’s just apotropaic self-deprecation (how, after all, can you call your own stuff “poetic” when it’s confronting Dante?), but it sure sounds like poetry to me, and it’s as immediately convincing as Christopher Logue’s Homer (see this LH post—almost a decade old now!). Here‘s the start of it, and here are the first few stanzas:

In middle age I wholly lost my way
and found myself within an evil wood
far from the right straight road we all should tread
and what a wood! So densely tangled, dark,
jaggily, thorned, so hard to press on through,
even the memory renews my dread.
My misery, my almost deadly fear
led on to such discovery of good,
I’ll tell you of it, if you care to hear.

Hat tip to wood s lot.


Gabriel Arana has an excellent short piece at The Atlantic on the cranky reaction of “stodgy old white dudes” like NPR’s Bob Garfield to linguistic innovations like “vocal fry,” or “creaky voice” (see the link for a description and video clip):

Women have long tended to be the linguistic innovators. The standard practice for linguists conducting research on a new language is to find a “NORM”—a non-mobile, older, rural male. NORMs are the most conservative linguistically, and typically serve as a model for where the language has been. If you want to see where the language is going, on the other hand, you find a young, urban woman. We have women to thank for “up-talk”—the rising intonation at the end of a sentence that has spread into mainstream speech—the discourse marker “like,” and now, vocal fry. It is not entirely understood why women tend to be ahead of the curve; it may be because they are less constrained by the limitations of “polite” speech, or because they form more of the social bonds that allow a linguistic trait to spread. Some have also suggested that because women tend to be the primary caretakers during infancy, they pass along linguistic traits to their children during the language-acquisition phase.
Whatever the reason, female linguistic innovation triggers a strange but reliable reaction. At the very hint of linguistic unorthodoxy, NORMs like Garfield go into an existential panic. Feeling the social hierarchy rumble beneath them, they express genteel disapproval, which quickly gives way to forceful denunciations—”vulgar,” “annoying,” “repulsive”—cries about the end of Western civilization, and finally, what’s-the-world-come-to resignation. As with my students, if you press them on what exactly sounds “wrong,” they come up with different ways of saying the same thing. Finally, they concede: “It just sounds wrong.” [….] All this is to say that normative judgments about linguistic prestige are relative, and merely reflect social attitudes.
So raise a glass to teenage girls for their linguistic innovation. It expands our expressive vocabulary, giving us new words and modes of expression. Speakers may nostalgically look to a previous golden era of English, but the truth is that Shakespeare’s English is an abomination of Chaucer’s English, which is an abomination of Beow[u]lf’s. Language is inherently unstable. It’s in a constant state of flux, made and remade—stretched, altered, broken down and rearranged—by its speakers every day. Rather than a sign of corruption and disorder, this is language in its full vitality—a living, evolving organism. NORMs may want to extract the mutation, preserve the mammoth in a block of ice. But they’re doomed. When it comes to language, the rules of natural selection apply: Evolve or perish.

Hear, hear! (Thanks for the link, Paul.)


Like everyone else, I’ve been mesmerized by the video clips of the recent meteorite that streaked over Chelyabinsk and exploded, and as a student of Russian I’ve taken particular note of the expressions that burst from the mouths of the people recording the event. In English one would expect “holy shit!” or “(what the) fuck!”; the three most common Russian exclamations used, in my totally unscientific estimation, have been ебать! [ye-BAT], ни хуя себе! [ni-khu-YAH-si-be], and пиздец! [piz-DETS], all of which could be rendered “Oh, fuck!” (the first one, ебать, is the infinitive of the verb ‘to fuck’; the morphology and etymological semantics of the other two would lead us too far astray). I was a bit surprised not to hear what I think of as perhaps the most common spontaneous outcry of indignant surprise, блядь [blyat] (literally ‘whore’), but this elegant explanation by fad_gel in Anatoly’s thread on precisely this topic (meteorite swearing) cleared it up for me:

Забавно, что реакции “бляТь!..” и “ебать!..”, видимо, противопоставлены как ближний и дальний локусы ) То есть “бляТь!..” используется как спонтанная реакция в ситуациях, которые затрагивают (или могут затронуть) “произносящего”, тогда как “ебать!..” — скорее, наблюдение за событием с безопасной (по мнению “произносящего”) дистанции.
[It’s amusing that the reactions “blyaT!” and “ebat!” are evidently opposed as proximal and distal locus; that is, “blyaT!” occurs as a spontaneous reaction in situations that affect (or could affect) the speaker, whereas “ebat!” is rather an observation on events from a safe distance (from the speaker’s point of view).]

For more on the linguistic aspects of the meteor event, see Elif Batuman’s A Meteor in the Russian Sky (on the New Yorker blog—I thank Ben Zimmer for the link); at the first video clip embedded there (the 49-second one), you can hear the driver using some of the cited expressions with admirable clarity and imperturbability.


Having been bowled over by Charles King‘s latest book, Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams—one of the best books about a city I’ve ever read—I’ve moved on to his 2008 The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus, and I’ve just come across a brief passage (on p. 83) about the famous rebel Shamil that serves as a nice summary of the difficulty of applying modern ideas of nationality to the Caucasus:

The imam was, if anything, an Avar insofar as he was born in the region of Dagestan controlled by the Avaristani khan. As in much of Dagestan, his language of official communication was Arabic, and it is likely that he used a variety of Turkish, the broad lingua franca of the highlands, in everyday speech. He may have spoken Avar, but there is no evidence that he thought of himself as an Avar in a modern ethnonational sense. He also spent a good deal of his career fighting the hereditary rulers of his native region.

As King keeps pointing out, the notion that there was some kind of unitary “Muslim rebellion” against Russian rule is actively misleading; for one thing, there were plenty of Muslims who had no problem with Russian rule (for example, Kabardians whose princes had been assimilated into the Russian aristocracy) and Christians who fought it. And while of course I would have assumed that Arabic was used in religious study, I was surprised to learn that it served as a language of official communication, and equally surprised that Turkish was “the broad lingua franca of the highlands.”


Amid all the hullabaloo about the body of Richard III being discovered underneath a parking lot, an important issue has been ignored: what did he sound like? Fortunately, Dr Philip Shaw of the University of Leicester provides a sort of answer in a university press release (passed on to me by the excellent AJP):

In a University of Leicester podcast interview, Dr Philip Shaw from the School of English discusses how Richard III may have sounded in his own lifetime. […]
Dr Shaw […] said: “I found that Richard III’s spellings are relatively consistent, and in many ways reflect the same educated spelling practices employed by his secretaries. However, he also differs from the practice of his secretaries occasionally, and such quirks may provide clues to how he spoke.
“Like today, there were various dialects (with different features of accent and grammar) around the country. Unlike today, individuals were more likely to spell words in ways that reflected their local dialect. Therefore, by looking at Richard’s writing, I was able to pinpoint spellings that may provide some clues to his accent.

It’s a fun listen.


I don’t have time to read the actual paper at the moment, but the abstract of “Oasis or Mirage: The Supreme Court’s Thirst for Dictionaries in the Rehnquist and Roberts Eras” by James J. Brudney and Lawrence Baum (Fordham Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2195644) looks interesting; it starts:

The Supreme Court’s use of dictionaries, virtually non-existent before 1987, has dramatically increased during the Rehnquist and Roberts Court eras to the point where as many as one-third of statutory decisions invoke dictionary definitions. The increase is linked to the rise of textualism and its intense focus on ordinary meaning. This Article explores the Court’s new dictionary culture in depth from empirical and doctrinal perspectives. Among our findings are (a) while textualist justices are the highest dictionary users, purposivist justices invoke dictionary definitions with comparable frequency; (b) dictionary use is especially heavy in the criminal law area, serving what we describe as a Notice function; (c) dictionary use overall is strikingly ad hoc and subjective. We demonstrate how the Court’s patterns of dictionary usage reflect a casual form of opportunistic conduct: the justices almost always invoke one or at most two dictionaries, they have varied individual brand preferences from which they often depart, they seem to use general and legal dictionaries interchangeably, and they lack a coherent position on citing to editions from the time of statutory enactment versus the time the instant case was filed.

I have the feeling they’ve talked about this issue at Language Log, but desultory googling has not turned up what I thought I remembered. At any rate, I’m not a bit surprised Supreme Court justices are as bad at using dictionaries as the general public. (Thanks, Paul!)


An Australian of my acquaintance mentioned liking cheese and kabana rolls, and when I discovered that a kabana is “a spicy smoked Australian salami, made from pork and beef,” my first reaction was “Hey, that sounds good!” My second, of course, was “Where is that word from?” Investigation turned up two similar-sounding sausages, cabanossi (Italian) and kabanos (Polish); the k- suggests the latter, but perhaps some aficionado of Australian sausages will know more. As for the ultimate etymology, the Polish form seems to have a straightforward derivation from kaban ‘(wild) pig,’ a Slavic term borrowed from Turkic, and my guess would be that the Italian is borrowed from Slavic, though German Wikipedia suggests a derivation from “Cabanos, jener Schutzhütte für Besatzung und ihre Vorräte am Schiffsdeck…, deren Bezeichnung von caban = Mantel, von arabisch und sizilianisch qabã = Schutzumhang stammt” (i.e., forms related to English cabin), which sounds much less plausible to me.


I used to live in Thailand, so I have a vaguely proprietorial fondness for things Thai, and I have certainly eaten and enjoyed the most famous Thai dish, which Wikipedia has under Pad Thai and the OED under “phad thai,” but if you had asked me about the name I would have said something like “Uh, I guess maybe the thai means ‘Thai’?” Well, so it does (OED etymology: “< Thai phàtthai < phàt stir-fried food + thai Thai”), and it was created around seventy years ago specifically as an authentically Thai food to replace the Chinese dishes Thais were gobbling so enthusiastically and (in the Great Leader’s opinion) unpatriotically. You can read all about it in Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s Morning News piece, and I recommend you do; even if you don’t care about the dish, you don’t want to miss sentences like “In between surviving multiple point-blank-range assassination attempts and a failed kidnapping in which he emerged alive from the burning wreckage of a battleship his own air force had just bombed, Pibulsongkram decided that Thailand needed noodles that would advance the country’s industry and economy” and “Thus was born the Volksnoodle for an emerging Thai nation-state.”


Mark Liberman at the Log posts a message from a correspondent who quotes a news story that says “The actor and comedian span off the road and crashed the high-powered vehicle into a tree” and asks “‘Span’? I’ve never seen or heard this before in my life. Is this a Britishism or just an error? It should be ‘spun,’ right?” That would have been my reaction as well (though I’m aware that “span” is the older form, as in “When Adam delved and Eve span”), but apparently a lot of people in the UK think it’s perfectly normal. Frequent LH commenter Zythophile said “As a Briton, I’d be happy with ‘the car span off the road’, but I’d have to say ‘the company spun off its oil assets into a separate operation’.” Commenter Martin wrote “I’m British, I’ve used spin, span, spun all my life (a lot more than 25 years!).[…] but a bit of Googling suggests there are other Brits who claim never to have heard it…” So I turn to the Varied Reader: do you use “span” as the past tense, and if so, do you use it always and everywhere or make a distinction like Zythophile’s?


The head of a Teesside school asked parents to correct children’s local accents and grammar; David Almond responds in a lovely Guardian essay:

Now Am a rita and A rite books that teechas reed to bairns in skools and the books is filld with words like spuggy and clarts and aye and nowt. Aav rit won book that’s aal misspelt and aal rit in the langwij of the Tyne. It’s telt by a lad that cannit spell but he trys to do the best he can and he trys to make the langwij make sum sens, as bairns do, and he trys to make it sing, as evry rita must.
Langwij has to ecko on the air and it has to dyve doon to the hart an sole. The rite langwij can be the rang langwij for sum books. Sum ov the grate books of the world is rit qwite rong. Books by them lyk Billy Forkna, Russil Hoban, Jimmy Joyce. And the rong words is wot the aynshent tales were telt in, and how aal the songs woz sung.
Aye, ye hav to knaa the words the world thinks is rite and ye have to knaa how to spel them rite an speek them rite. Othawize sum misgiyded folk mite think yor just a dope.
But ye neva hav to put the otha words away. Yev got to yoos them and speek them and rite them and keep them in the world. Aav gorra digree in English, Am a rita, and these daze Am even a professa so Aav lernd sumthin abowt how to diy things rite. But thers still nee thrill lyk the thrill of knowing wot the so-caaled rite word is and how to rite it rite, but still to yoos the word the world considas rong. Nee thrill at aal like ritin aye, bairn, clarts, spuggy, hadaway and nowt. Thas nae thrill lyk the thrill of speakin the words, feelin the vybrashon of the sownds they make, feelin them dancin on yor lips and tung and breth.

Thanks, Maureen!
Update. Stan Carey has an excellent discussion, with more links.