Archives for April 2013


Victor Mair has a post at the Log that is not only an impassioned ode to the Allium genus—”My uncontested favorite of all the Allium species, however, is garlic (Allium sativum)…”—but a treasure-trove of linguistic tidbits in both Chinese (he discusses jiǔcài 韭菜, “a kind of chive”) and English. I had known about ramps, “a kind of wild garlic… only available for six weeks in the spring,” but had not known the etymology, which is excellent. Bob Shackleton said in the comment thread: “And most wonderfully, we have here the English descendant of the original Indo-European word for onion (*krem-) – one of the few surviving relatives of Greek ‘kromion’!” The OED elaborates, in its entry for rams (which it takes as the original English form and which it refers you to if you look up ramp; the entry was updated in June 2008):

Cognate with Middle Low German rāmese, rēmese, Old High German ramese (German (chiefly regional) Rams, Rambs, Ramisch, Ramsche, Ramus, etc.; > Danish rams, †ramse (now chiefly regional, except in the synonymous compound ramsløg)), Norwegian rams (now regional, except in the synonymous compound ramslauk), Swedish rams, ramsk (c1580; now regional, except in the synonymous compound ramslök) < the same Indo-European base as Early Irish crem (Irish creamh), Welsh craf, cra, Lithuanian kermušė, Russian čeremša, all in sense ‘wild garlic’, and ancient Greek κρόμμυον, κρόμυον onion. Compare post-classical Latin ramusia (10th cent. in a German source probably ultimately of British origin), ramusium (c1025 in a British source), ramuscium (a1125 in a British source), all probably < Old English.
The β. forms [ram, rame] result from analysis of the α. forms as plural. It is uncertain whether the (rare) late Middle English forms show singular or plural forms; compare also ramsey n. and ramsons n.

In the thread, Piotr Gąsiorowski points out: “Ramson comes from the weak-noun plural hram(e)san, and ramsons is etymologically a double plural like children.” As for rampion (a name for several different plants), it’s entirely unrelated, with a complicated etymology of its own about which the OED goes on for paragraphs; a cognate is German Rapunzel—which I had no idea was primarily the name of a plant; I knew only the gal with the hair—and another is French raiponce, about which marie-lucie writes:

[Read more…]


A Visual Thesaurus post by Ben Zimmer is an interesting exploration of the history of a great word, scalawag:

My latest column for the Boston Globe tells how Nathaniel Sharpe, a 22-year-old amateur genealogist from a small town in North Dakota near the border with Canada, discovered some keys to the origins of scalawag when he found that one of his ancestors was described with that label. Actually, he was called a skallewagg (one of many variant spellings floating around), in an 1836 newspaper from Batavia, New York that printed a list of people who had skipped town before settling their debts with local merchants.
Sharpe found the article on, a rather quirky website that archives digitized newspapers from New York State. He kept looking in the Batavia papers for other listings of debtors, and managed to take skallewagg back to the Sep. 16, 1834 issue of the Batavia Republican Advocate, following the name of Abial Hawkins, a butcher. Further digging on another database turned up scalliwag in a political context in 1832, referring to opponents of the region’s Anti-Masonic Party.

The whole thing is a lot of fun, and hurray for quirky websites like
Incidentally, if you like reading about books, occasional LH commenter Gou Tongzhi has a site Book Solo, well described by its subtitle: “One man tries to read everything.” He’s got reviews going back twenty years.


A nice story by David Sax in today’s NY Times about Harnarayan Singh and Bhola Chauhan, two Canadians who call NHL games in Punjabi:

The weekly Punjabi broadcast of “Hockey Night in Canada,” as venerated an institution for Canadians as “Monday Night Football” is for Americans, is thought to be the only N.H.L. game called in a language other than English or French.[…]
Singh, 28, has developed a signature style tailored for his audience. A puck can be described as an “aloo tikki,” a potato pancake his mother makes especially well. When a team comes back in the second period with renewed energy, Singh might say what translates to “someone must have made them a good cup of chai in the intermission.” A player who celebrates after a big goal will “dance bhangra moves.” […]
“This broadcast has really helped the Punjabi community to connect with the sport,” said Harbs Bains, president of the Surrey Minor Hockey Association in British Columbia. “It allows someone whose first language is not English to connect with the sport and between generations.”
Singh said many fans had told him that the broadcasts provided an instance for Indian-born grandparents, who may not speak English, to get together with their Canadian grandchildren, who often do not speak Punjabi.

Incidentally, for those who have been following my nighttime reading adventures, I have sad news to report: Friday night my wife and I finished Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, which we began in July 2011. As Chris said in this thread, “21, the final unfinished book, is worth checking out despite not having an ending”—it’s surprising how much is packed into those three chapters, and I’m very glad it was published. (I notice from that Amazon page that there are Kindle and audio editions; I wonder how they, and especially the latter, handle the final pages which exist only in sometimes indecipherable handwriting?)
We mourned the end of our long adventure, but we needed to move on, so last night we began the first of the Edinburgh mystery novels of Alexander McCall Smith, The Sunday Philosophy Club. The series was highly recommended by someone in an LH thread (Grumbly?), and so far we’re thoroughly enjoying it.


From the preface of a book about composition:

Some readers may wonder why I have decided to write about music when so many exceptional scholars have already done so—especially now, when music has become a free-for-all and composers refuse to follow any rules or principles.

The book is Gradus ad Parnassum, published by Johann Joseph Fux in 1725. The translation is mine (and a bit loose); the original reads:

Mirabuntur fortassis nonnulli, cùm tot præstantissimorum Virorum exstent monumenta, qui de Musica perquàm doctè, & abundanter scripserunt, cur ego ad hoc scribendi genus me contulerim, hoc maximè tempore, quo, Musicâ ferè arbitrariâ factâ, Compositores nullis præceptis, nulisque institutis obstringi volentes[….]

You can see the original edition at Google Books. (Via Anatoly.)
Incidentally, does anybody know for sure whether the Gradus in the title is intended to have a short u (singular ‘step’) or long (plural ‘steps’)?


I’ve written about fish names fairly often (e.g., whitefish, Fishbase, bream), and now I must do so again, even though I otherwise have no contact with our cold-blooded cousins. I was reading Ben McGrath’s “The White Wall” (about the Iditarod) in last week’s New Yorker when I came across this description of the dogs’ meal: “Next came a round of frozen sheefish steaks, followed by beef, and, for dessert, chicken skins—pure fat.” I thought “sheefish” might be a typo (the New Yorker not being what it used to be), but no, there it was in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary: “sheefish [shee (prob. native name in Alaska or northwest Canada) + fish]: inconnu.” The vague etymology was frustrating (it’s not in the AHD, which would have had a better one, and the OED won’t get around to redoing the S’s for years), but “inconnu” took me aback—that’s the name of a fish? Sure enough, the OED has “A game fish, Stenodus leucichthys, belonging to the family Salmonidæ and found in Alaska and north-west Canada,” with citations going back two centuries. And the etymology? “French, unknown.” Which is baffling at first glance, but of course what they mean is that inconnu is a French word meaning ‘unknown.’ And why is a fish called “unknown”? Apparently it’s unknown. (Alas, inconnu isn’t in M-W Collegiate or the AHD, and the Wikipedia article, Nelma, lists it as an alternate name but doesn’t attempt an explanation.)


I thought about saying something about this (“Homer’s great masterpieces, The Iliad and The Odyssey, have been dated to around 762 BCE by new research based on the statistical modelling of language evolution”) back when it was in the news, but frankly it made me tired. Fortunately, Memiyawanzi had a rant about it that expressed what was in my soul:

I really don’t know what to say. Bayesian phylogenetics applied to raw lexical data gives tenuous results at its good, bizarre BBC headlines like ‘English Language originated in Turkey‘ at its bad, and now, can be used as a terrible, terrible replacement for traditional textual criticism and philology at a bar-lowering new ugly for the mindless glottogonic speculation that is increasingly being made in this area by researchers in genetics with little to no actual historical linguistics training.

And as eoforholt says in the comment thread: “It’s worse than the press release makes out. In the article itself, they say that their method on its own actually yields a 95% confidence interval 61-1351 BC, a 1290 year range. It’s only when they weight their model earlier (to take into account Herodotos’ mention of Homer) that they get the range discussed in the press release.” I will, of course, be interested in responses from people who know more about this stuff than I do; my skepticism meter sometimes goes higher than is entirely warranted.


I’ve been interested in West Africa, and specifically the Mali Empire and the Mande culture it helped spread throughout the region, for thirty years now, ever since a dear friend (hi, Lisa!) asked me to study Bambara with her to help her prepare for a trip to Mali (which she didn’t end up making). I also had a friend who went regularly to that part of the world to import beads and who told wonderful stories about his adventures, so between the two of them they got me hooked. But one thing I found confusing was the nomenclature: there’s Mande (also spelled Mandé), Manden, Manding, Mandinka, Maninka, Mandingo, Malinke, and Mali itself, which (as it turns out) is a variant of the same term, as the OED explains:

the place name Mali, probably < French Mali < Arabic Mālī (also in form Māllī (14th cent.)), probably < Soninke *Malli < Manding *Mandeŋ, the name of the traditional Manding homeland (see Mande n. and adj.). Compare Fula Mali (Mɛli, Malel) the Mande people. The older form of the place name, Melli, is probably < Italian Melli (1550 in Leo Africanus) < Arabic Māllī (perhaps via Spanish or Maghribi Arabic *Mēllī).

If we follow their advice and “see Mande n. and adj.,” we find:

< Mande (also Manden), the name of the traditional Manding homeland on the Upper Niger (in Manding dialects Mandeŋ, Mandẽ, or Mandiŋ; the form Mande is of limited distribution). […] For other forms derived from the same Manding root see Mali adj. and n.2, Malinke n. and adj., Manding n. and adj., Mandingo n. and adj., Mandinka n. and adj., and Maninka n.

For some historical info to tie it all together, here’s a passage from George E. Brooks’s Landlords and Strangers: Ecology, Society, and Trade in Western Africa, 1000-1630:

[Read more…]


As a would-be historical linguist, I’ve always had an interest in the topic of the ultimate origin of language, and I’m very pleased to see that Piotr Gąsiorowski of Language Evolution (“How and why language varies and changes”) has started a series on it. He announces it here, and the first post is up today. The title is “Too Many to Communicate,” and that’s his basic point:

Whether the total number of humans was closer to 30,000 or to 300,000 is open to debate, but in any case they were far too many of them to constitute one speech community, especially if the Out-of-Africa migrants were already a separate sub-population somewhere in the Near East, the Arabian Peninsula, and possibly elsewhere in Eurasia and/or Australia (depending on the exact date of the bottleneck). It’s hard to imagine that the same language was spoken in Paleolithic Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, no matter how strongly the latter was affected by a demographic crash. No single language, then; at any rate not in anatomically modern humans. We have always been multilingual.

I’m very much looking forward to reading further posts on this fascinating subject.


I seem never to have mentioned the Voynich manuscript on LH, which is a little surprising but not very, because I’ve always assumed it to be a hoax, which puts it outside the category “language-related” for me (though I can see how others would disagree). But “Cracking the Voynich Code” by Batya Ungar-Sargon, from Tablet‘s Longform series, is so good I can’t resist passing it on (thanks for the link, Paul!). It describes the history of the manuscript and the many attempts to crack its (supposed) code, and builds so nicely to its conclusion (which I find completely satisfying) that I won’t spoil it for you by summarizing. But I had known nothing about Voynich himself, and his story is so intriguing I’ll quote that paragraph here:

Wilfrid Voynich, born Wilfridas Mykolas Vojničius, had a life filled with instances of the uncanny. A Lithuanian pharmacist, Voynich was imprisoned for his role in revolutionary attempts to free Poland from Russian rule. While serving a two-year prison sentence, Voynich looked out the window of his cell one day and caught sight of a blonde in a black dress. Two years later, after escaping from a Siberian prison and arriving penniless in London (he had to sell his waistcoat and glasses for a third-class ticket and a piece of herring, the story goes), he found that same woman in the home of his contact, another revolutionary. She was Ethel Lillian Boole, daughter of the famous mathematician George Boole, and a revolutionary in her own right. They were married, and Voynich managed to become, quite mysteriously, a recognized antiques dealer in just eight short years.

Adventure! Romance! Herring!
Addendum. See the first comment for a link to Jerry Norman’s Concise Manchu-English Lexicon, if Manchu is your thing.


An amusing Ozwords post features Australia’s national anthem (“Advance Australia Fair”), which includes the line “Our home is girt by sea.” This has attracted criticism “focused on the archaic and obscure word girt – a word that would otherwise be unknown to the majority of the population. The word has attracted much ridicule and calls to replace it, but there is also a recognition that its very peculiarity is part of a shared Australian experience. … Girt has become part of the Australian consciousness – learnt through repetition at school assemblies, reinforced at sporting and national events, and uniting Australians in what can be described as an in-joke.” There are some great quotes, like “Of all the nations on Earth, we alone raise our voices in a past participle that hasn’t been used in common speech since Chaucer was a rug rat.”
Unrelated, but it’s one of those deeply obscure questions that bug me and I have a faint hope that one of my readers might know: West Africa has a Little Scarcies River and a Great Scarcies River; does anybody have any idea what the correct pronunciation of “Scarcies” might be (and, for loads of extra credit, its origin)? I’m tentatively saying /skarsiz/ (SCAR-seez), but I have no confidence in it.