Archives for May 2013


The story of Bedřich Hrozný realizing that Hittite was Indo-European when he saw that wa-a-tar must mean ‘water’ is well loved among historical linguists and is familiar to anyone who’s read anything about the decipherment of Hittite. But it’s easy to misunderstand, and Piotr Gąsiorowski devotes his latest Language Evolution post to explaining exactly how the correlation works and why it is so important. Much has been learned since I left the field several decades ago, and I confess I find it both exciting and moving to see the correlations laid out so clearly and convincingly; it’s one of those things that makes me intensely nostalgic for the days when I had my nose in dusty volumes of Kuhns Zeitschrift. Here’s his conclusion:

To sum up, the fact that Hittite wātar is similar to English water is interesting but not particularly impressive as an isolated observation. Similarities can be found between any languages chosen at random. It’s far more significant that the inflectional pattern visible in Hittite helps us to understand the origin of the diversity displayed by cognate ‘water’ words elsewhere in the IE family and is part of the evidence used in the reconstruction of the PIE morphological system. It’s those pervasive shared patterns that demonstrate the membership of Hittite in the IE family.

But I urge you to read the whole thing; it’s a mini-course in Indo-European, and if you can get it under your belt you’ll never again be fooled by flashy claims based on surface similarity.


An interesting language-oriented letter in the May 10 TLS:

Sir, – Although as a senior citizen I cheer Hugo Williams on in his research into newfangled words (Freelance, May 3), I must defend “I was stood/sat”, which is standard Northern speech (along with “he trett her so badly that she sellt the house”, which hasn’t made it South). The different past participles are not a recent import into England, only into southern England.
Having just had the rare pleasure of a reading by Tony Harrison, I’m reminded that “the great BBC class slippage” also has a regional element.
JENNY KING 84 Knowle Lane, Sheffield.

Defend and keep your fine old participles, ye of the North!


There are a number of Russian authors known by a hyphenated combination of their real surnames and their pseudonyms (I wrote a brief post about one such name here), and I always assumed everybody knew the names were connected, but I learn from Contemporaries thought Bestuzhev and Marlinskii were two different people, at XIX век, that, well, contemporaries thought Bestuzhev and his pseudonym Marlinsky were two different people.
And while I’m sending you over to XIX век, perhaps somebody can help out with the previous post, Question for Russian grammar experts? The question is what the “confusing extra что” is doing in sentences like “Первая мысль его при этом была, что ответствен ли он перед этой женщиной” and “Ему всего приятнее было подумать, что в каких дураках останется теперь г-н доктор.” It’s a curious construction, and now I’m curious too.


Ben Zimmer reports that the Scripps National Spelling Bee this year will test contestants’ knowledge of definitions along with spelling; he quotes Paige Kimble as follows:

By making definitions more central, Scripps is pushing back against perceptions that getting to the nationals involves nothing more than prodigious feats of word memorization. Truth be told, top spellers do need to appreciate meaning, to break down a word into classical roots or tease apart the spelling of similar-sounding words. But their mastery of spelling still comes off as little more than a stunt, like memorizing a deck of cards. That plays into the popular view of the bee as a nail-biting spectacle.

It’s offstage for now, but Ben says “If all goes well, we could see vocabulary questions in the televised portion of the nationals in coming years.” I hope so; much as I love spelling bees, the “stunt” aspect has always bothered me a bit, and this seems like a good addition.


My wife asked me where the verb dine was from; I didn’t know off the top of my head, so I looked it up (delaying lunch by a couple of minutes), and discovered what I had doubtless once known but long forgotten: to quote Merriam-Webster, it’s “Middle English, from Anglo-French disner, diner to eat, have a meal, from Vulgar Latin *disjejunare to break one’s fast, from Latin dis– + Late Latin jejunare to fast, from Latin jejunus fasting.” Which means it’s a semantic doublet of breakfast and an etymological doublet of French déjeuner ‘lunch.’ And the ultimate origin, Latin jejunus, of course gives us the adjective jejune, which is so multivalent and misunderstood that it’s no longer of much use. (Plus it sounds silly—I can still hear my younger brother going “Juhjoon! Juh-JOOOOON!!)


Over a year ago I got David Abulafia’s The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (see this post), and after setting it aside for many months I’ve picked it up again (by which I mean “I’ve started clicking on that link on my Kindle”) and have gotten to his discussion of the Punic Wars. Checking his footnotes led me to Unplanned Wars: The Origins of the First and Second Punic Wars, 247-183 B.C. by Dexter Hoyos, which this review of his follow-up, Hannibal’s Dynasty: Power and Politics in the Western Mediterranean, 247-183 B.C., calls “crucial.” I’m not about to spring for it ($184.48, 12 new from $152.42, 10 used from $94.39!), but I was glad to be able to read this bit via “Look inside,” because it explains a striking fact about Punic names:

Surnames did not exist, and the Punic elite, for its own good reasons, used a remarkably narrow range of available personal names. Hanno, Hasdrubal, Hannibal, Himilco and Hamilcar are frustratingly common. Adherbal, Bomilcar, Carthalo, Gisgo, and Mago account for nearly everybody else. The Punic commander who sailed to Ostia in 279 to offer the Romans help against Pyrrhus was a Mago; so too one of the great Hannibal’s brothers. In 264 alone, the known Punic commanders were a Hannibal, a Hanno, and a Hanno son of Hannibal. During the Roman siege of Agrigentum in 262-261, this second Hanno is later found cooperating as general with a Hannibal who may (or may not) be the same Hannibal as in 264. Three or four further Hannos, two more Hannibals and two Hamilcars appear between 261 and the war’s end. These officers account for well over half the senior Carthaginians that we know of. Yet it would be rash to suppose that we are looking at a group of blood relations.

Addendum. And I just ran across this in Abulafia:

[Read more…]


Another amazing site, putting scholarship online in exemplary fashion, is History of the French Language in Russia, hosted by the University of Bristol:

A cultural and social history of language cannot be written without a broad range of primary sources. For a history of French in Russia, some documents are already available in published form, but a great number of relevant documents from Russian and some other archives are still to be published. Even documents which have been published have rarely been analysed in terms of the cultural and social history of French understood as a lingua franca, a prestige language, a medium for new cultural values and notions, a tool of cultural propaganda and so forth.
Our purpose in this documents section of our project website is therefore to provide the beginnings of a corpus on which such a history can be based. The section contains pairs of documents. In each pair there is (i) a text, or excerpts from a text, or a set of texts or excerpts (with our editorial notes) and (ii) an essay (also with notes) which introduces the text(s) in question.

That’s the documents section; the Project home has English, French, and Russian versions, and says:

The research team will explore the impact that French had not only on the use of Russian, but also on Russians’ thinking about their own language and, more broadly, on Russian social and political attitudes and on the formation of a sense of national identity. Their findings will have resonance in the fields of social, political, cultural, and intellectual history as well as sociolinguistics. The project will also contribute to a field of historical scholarship which is still in its infancy: by treating language as not merely a useful tool for historians but also a subject worthy of historians’ attention in its own right, the team will demonstrate that language is itself an aspect of culture, a social institution, a key factor in the conceptions that peoples or groups have of themselves, a political instrument, and a potent force in national life.

It’s really very nicely done, and anyone who’s wondered about all that French in War and Peace should check it out. (Hat tip to Greg Afinogenov for the link.)


I’m fond of strange and amusing place names (see, for instance, this post), and there’s a magnificent crop of them at Dull Flag and Tongue of Gangsta: The Laugh-out-loud Place-names of Shetland and Orkney, a Strange Maps post by Frank Jacobs (see here):

These two maps, both produced by Steve Goldman, show the place names in both groups of islands that he considers strange. “I’ve loved place names on Orkney and Shetland since I was a kid. They are by turns surreal, beautiful, nonsensical, rude, and bizarre… There seems to be no consistency to them at all”, says Goldman. “I’ve done some online research to try to find their derivation, but there seems to be little out there”.
Indeed, apart from Mr. Goldman’s suggestion to recycle some toponyms as band names (Whirly would be a good indie band, Brethren could be a bearded folk quartet, and Twisting Nevi a dance act, etc), there seems to be little sense to be made from Orkney/Shetland place names, except to enjoy them as mellifluous bizarrery per se.

Go thither and enjoy the mellifluous bizarrery!


Andrew Girardin’s Asterix: Latin Jokes Explained provides a genuine public service:

In the English versions of Asterix, the Latin jokes are not translated or explained. Very few Asterix fans know Latin. Some may know Veni Vidi Vici, or even Alea Iacta Est, but that’s about it. These links will take you to my blog, where I not only translate the Latin, but also try to tell you why it’s funny.

To get you started, here‘s the first book, Asterix the Gaul; I like his style: “Personally, I’d have volunteered. As a kid in Glasgae it was normal for complete strangers to give you a friendly uppercut. Just for laughs.”


Time to gripe about Things that Annoy Me in Periodicals!
1) Claire Messud’s enthusiastic NY Times review of a Leskov collection says of the author: “he emerges as a literary missing link, a writer who brings the metafictional playfulness of Sterne into the Russian tradition…” Leskov is a wonderful writer, but he started publishing in the 1860s, seventy years after Karamzin, the “Russian Sterne,” brought that playfulness into the Russian tradition starting in the 1790s (see this post). Karamzin was followed by a whole passel of writers influenced by him and Sterne, including Veltman (see this post), Narezhny, and Senkovsky, and doubtless others I haven’t read. It’s not fair to blame Messud for this, since she probably took it from Pevear’s introduction (and of course I’m always happy to blame Pevear and ­Volokhonsky for things), and the real blame goes to the distorting lens through which we all view pre-Tolstoy Russian literature.
2) This is a simpler case, but more unexpected and therefore more aggravating. In Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker piece on dementia care, “The Sense of an Ending,” we find the sentence “Residents may choose when, and if, to bathe, provided that they maintain basic hygiene, and there is no compunction among staff members to get uncoöperative residents spiffed up for visitors.” She obviously means something like “staff members feel no compulsion to…”; I don’t know how the inappropriate “compunction” got in there, but even after years of watching the magazine’s standards slip, it still somehow shocks me that their once-famed editing staff didn’t root it out.