Archives for November 2013


Rhabarberbarbara, a two-minute video. It’s in German, but I’m pretty sure you don’t need much, if any, German to enjoy it. Enjoy!
Addendum. On sober reflection, it occurs to me that it might be helpful to mention that Rhabarber (from Medieval Latin rha barbarum) is the German word for ‘rhubarb’ (from Medieval Latin reubarbarum). It’s odd that both words have kept the vestigial Greek rh-.


I’ve started reading Karamzin‘s «Письма русского путешественника» [Letters of a Russian Traveler] (1791–1801), a series of novelized diary entries masquerading as letters to friends from his European travels of 1789-90 when he was in his early twenties, and I’m enjoying it thoroughly—his light, Gallic style is tremendously refreshing compared to the Slavonic-laden prose of other writers of the time, and he has a good eye for the people and places he encounters. He’s heading south and west from Petersburg via Riga, Mitau, Memel, Tilsit, and Königsberg, and in the Tilsit section he briefly threw me for a loop with this passage of overheard dialogue (the lieutenant has just been complaining about an evening at the theater):

Лиза. И, ваше благородие! Разве вы не жалуете комедии?
Поручик. О! Я люблю все, что забавно, и переплатил в жизнь свою довольно полновесных талеров за доктора Фауста с Гансом Вурстом.
[Liza: “What, your honor! Do you really not like comedy?”
Lieutenant: “Oh, I like everything funny, and in my time I’ve paid quite a few good solid thalers for Doctor Faust and Hanswurst.”]

I had a vague idea that Hanswurst was some sort of low comic figure (and Wikipedia tells me that “he was a buffoon character in rural carnival theaters and touring companies… In the later 18th Century Hanswurst was out of fashion and was only used in the puppet theater”), and I couldn’t figure out what the majestic Faust was doing in such company. Then I realized this was twenty years before Goethe would turn him into a high-flown figure of world literature; at this point Faust, like Hanswurst, was a staple of the comic puppet theater. Just one of those cultural banana peels it’s so easy to slip on when visiting a foreign country.


A recent post at Sashura’s blog Тетрадки (in Russian) focused my attention on an oddity of English spelling: sceptic (as it is written outside the US) is pronounced with initial /sk-/. It’s true that there are not many English words beginning with sce- (the others one is likely to encounter are scene and its derivatives, scent, and scepter/sceptre), but I think I can say with confidence that an /sk-/ pronunciation is such an anomaly it’s liable to throw foreign learners for a loop (and in fact Sashura wonders whether Brits say /septik/). The contrast with scepter/sceptre is especially striking; both are ultimately from Greek words beginning σκ- that were borrowed into Latin with sc-, and both have corresponding French forms (sceptique, sceptre) pronounced with initial /s-/. How did sceptic wind up with that unexpected pronunciation? The fact that the first OED citations spell it skeptic (a1582 G. Buchanan Let. in Vernac. Writings “I can not tak you for ane Stoik philosopher..or ane cairless [margin, skeptik] hart that taks cuccaldris as thyng indifferent”; 1598 J. Marston Scourge of Villanie i. i. 174 “Fye Gallus, what, a Skeptick Pyrrhomist [sic]?”) suggests that it was originally borrowed directly from Greek; I’m guessing that people then began using a Latinized/Frenchified spelling as being less uncouth-looking or something, but kept the /sk-/ pronunciation. (Compare colonel, which wound up with a modern French spelling that doesn’t fit its pronunciation.) In any event, I’m glad Noah Webster saved Americans from having to memorize this exception; we write it like we say it, skeptic.
By the way, for those who might be following the ongoing saga of my nightly reading to my wife, having finished The London Train (P.S.) (thanks again, jamessal), we’ve started on Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. That should hold us for a while.

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I don’t pay much attention to Boston politics, but the recent election of Marty Walsh as mayor is of linguistic interest, as this Globe story by Billy Baker explains (if my link takes you to a signup page, do what I did and google “In Walsh, students of Bostonese have found their avatah”):

In linguistic circles, the election of Walsh is the source of some excitement, for he demonstrates what many believe to be the strongest Boston dialect in the city’s mayoral history.
[…]Walsh, the son of Irish immigrants, was raised in the heart of the R-less corridor that runs through the Irish-American neighborhoods of Dorchester and South Boston. And his accent is not just strong, according to the linguists, speech trainers, and dialect coaches asked to analyze his victory speech, but a very modern take on the Boston dialect.
John J. McCarthy, a professor of linguistics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and an expert on the Boston dialect, said Walsh’s speech represents the generational shift that occurred after World War II. He said Walsh, who was born in 1967, does not have the broad “a” sound of White or Flynn, who were born before the war.
[…]What makes Walsh’s dialect so authentic, and what separates him from the endless parade of actors who have tried — and failed — to capture the local inflection, is the variability in his speech, according to experts. He does not exclude all R’s, which is what actors tend to get wrong.
[…]Among his supporters on election night, though, there was no question. Several times during his victory speech, the crowd would cheer him on with what M.J. Connolly, a professor of linguistics at Boston College, called a “very Bostonese” interpretation of his first name.
“Mah-dee!” they chanted. “Mah-dee!”

Not a sophisticated discussion, but it’s a newspaper, not Language, and hey, Baker quotes two actual linguistics professors, which is nice. (Thanks, Sven!)


Time for another LH episode of I Did Not Know That, with accompanying quiz! I was editing a text that quoted John Stuart Mill’s essay on Utilitarianism, including the following bit: “…and hold, that the mind is not in a right state, not in a state conformable to Utility, not in the state most conducive to the general happiness, unless it does love virtue in this manner—as a thing desirable in itself, even although, in the individual instance, it should not produce those other desirable consequences which it tends to produce, and on account of which it is held to be virtue.” (Emphasis added.) I raised my eyebrows about as high as they would go at “even although,” assuming it was the result of some mishap in the process of copying the quotation, but no, a quick trip to Google Books convinced me that’s what Mill wrote. So I figured it must be some nineteenth-century usage I was unfamiliar with, and sure enough, searching on “even although” got me half a million hits, e.g. “And even although they may bear the stamp of the inspector. Mr. Poland” (1881), “Do it, even although there is no one to see” (1870), “even although Dom Miguel, for his own interest, should have wished to compromise” (1828). Just for kicks, I thought I’d confine my search to the twenty-first century and see if I got a hit or two; imagine my shock when I got pages and pages of them: “The freedom of the consumer is restricted, even although the consumer may have been in a position to know what he was agreeing to” (2007), “even although my study request had been refused” (2010), “Even although only 2 per cent of Russian’s know how to speak Sakha” (2002). So I turn to the readership with my usual questions: are you familiar with this turn of phrase, and do you use it yourself? (I did an OED search and couldn’t find a single example of it, for what that’s worth.)


Time for another roundup of review books:
1) In their proud boast, “Speculative Grammarian is the premier scholarly journal featuring research in the neglected field of satirical linguistics,” and The Speculative Grammarian Essential Guide to Linguistics is (again in their words) “a large collection of SpecGram articles, along with just enough new material to force obsessive collectors and fans to buy it, regardless of the cost…. This anthology, it is hoped, will allow our readers to gain a deeper, wider, fatter understanding of linguistics as it evolved in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, without the trouble of having to take a graduate seminar in ‘Modern Linguistics’ taught by a professor who’s so old that she thinks the Beach Boys are cute.” Don’t wait for Jon Stewart or Louis C.K. to do something with linguistics—it ain’t gonna happen. Just get this book and give a copy to everyone who needs a laugh.
2) Melissa Mohr’s Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing does just what it says on the cover. Colin Burrow in the LRB disputes “her principal historical claim: that Judaeo-Christian monotheism shifted the centre of obscenity from bodily and sexual taboos to oath-making and breaking,” but there’s plenty of good material here whether you accept her generalizations or not.
3) I can’t believe I still haven’t gotten around to Andrei Gelasimov’s The Lying Year, which came out back in January; I loved his earlier Thirst, and this is also translated by the peerless Marian Schwartz. But I’m looking forward to it.
4) Another AmazonCrossing translation, this time from Spanish, just recently arrived and is coming out next month: The Scribe, by Antonio Garrido, looks like a lot of fun: “The year is 799, and King Charlemagne awaits coronation as the Holy Roman emperor. But in the town of Würzburg, the young, willful Theresa dreams only of following in the footsteps of her scholarly father—a quiet man who taught her the forbidden pleasures of reading and writing.” A mystery featuring Alcuin of York? How can I resist?


For some time now I’ve noticed people using the construction “it’s concerning,” used where I would say “it concerns me.” I don’t know why that should sound wrong, since it’s perfectly normal to say “it’s worrying,” “it’s alarming,” and so on, but “it’s concerning” is for some reason a new development and ipso facto, well, off-putting. Now I read in today’s paper about a local high school senior who’s a top-notch swimmer and has been getting lots of offers from colleges; having made up her mind to attend the University of New Hampshire, she said “It was relieving.” That was off-putting in the same way, and again, there’s no good reason why one shouldn’t be able to turn “it relieved me” into “it was relieving.” (A little research informed me that this too has been around for a while; Google turned up song lyrics like “And it was relieving when he walked away” and “It’s so relieving/ To know that you’re leaving as soon as you get paid.”) So I turn to the Varied Reader and ask: do these constructions sound normal to you? And if you find them new and a bit odd, as I do, can you think of other similar ones?


The About page says:

In this third EF EPI report, we have used test data from the 750,000 adults who took our English tests in 2012 to create the global country rankings, while at the same time analyzing the English proficiency trends that have emerged over the past six years (2007 to 2012), using test data from nearly five million adults.

I have no idea how reliable the data is (and I confess the slickly commercial look of the site puts me off, perhaps unfairly), but for what it’s worth, here are the results. Who knew they spoke better English in Slovenia than in Slovakia? (If, of course, they do.)


Michael Erard is a longtime LH favorite (I wrote about his book Um. . . in 2007 and Babel No More in 2011), and he’s now trying to make a good idea happen, a general-interest magazine about language issues. I’m not quite sure why he decided to call it “Schwa Fire” (vague resemblance to “Safire”?), but what’s in a name? Anyway, here‘s the website, here‘s Ben Zimmer’s Log post on it (where Erard addresses various issues in the comment thread), and here‘s the Kickstarter page if you’d like to help make it a reality (there’s about a month to go in the campaign).


It suddenly occurred to me to wonder how, why, and when the mighty Biblical cherub was reduced to a synonym of the silly little putto. I still don’t know the answer to that, because when I checked the OED (1889 entry) I was distracted by the long and complicated history of the word and its confusion of forms:

Old English and Middle English cherubin, Middle English and modern cherub; derived (through French, Latin, Greek) from the Hebrew of the Old Testament, where k’rūb, plural k’rūbīm, are used as explained below. […] From Hebrew the word was adopted without translation by the LXX as χερούβ, χερουβίμ (-ίν, -είν), also in the N.T., Hebrews ix. 5, and by the Vulgate as cherūb, cherūbīn, cherūbīm (the latter in the Clementine text). As the plural was popularly much better known than the sing. (e.g. in the Te Deum), the Romanic forms were all fashioned on cherubin, viz. Italian cherubino, plural –i, Spanish querubin, -es, Portuguese querubin, cherubin, French cherubin, plural –s.
The earliest English instances are of cerubin, cherubin, taken over from ecclesiastical Latin apparently as a foreign word, and treated implicitly as a singular, sometimes as a proper name, at other times as a collective. From the Middle English period, the popular forms were, as in French, cherubin singular, cherubins plural. Cherubin survived in popular use to the 18th cent.; but in the Bible translations, cherub was introduced from the Vulgate by Wyclif, was kept up by the 16th cent. translators, and gradually drove cherubin into the position of an illiterate form. In the plural, cherubins is found from the 13th cent.; and although in MSS. of the earlier Wyclifite version, cherubyn is more frequent (after the Vulgate), the later version has always cherubins; this was retained in ordinary use till the 17th cent. But in the 16th cent., acquaintance with the Hebrew led Bible translators to substitute cherubims: this occurs only once in Coverdale, but always in the Bishops’ Bible and version of 1611. From the beginning of the 17th cent., cherubim began to be preferred by scholars (e.g. Milton) to cherubims, and has gradually taken its place; the Revised Version of 1881–5 has adopted it. A native plural cherubs arose early in the 16th cent.; in Tyndale, Coverdale and later versions (but not in that of 1611) it occurs beside cherubins, -ims; it is now the ordinary individual plural, the Biblical cherubim being more or less collective.

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