Archives for March 2014


My wife asked me “How come Costello is an Irish name? It doesn’t sound Irish.” I had to agree that it didn’t, so I checked my go-to book for surnames, Rybakin’s Словарь английских фамилий = A Dictionary of English Surnames (Moscow, 1986), where I found that it represented an Irish MacOisdealbhaigh, pronounced something vaguely like mc-ISH-dalwa, and you can sort of see how that could wind up as Costello, especially after a few pints. She raised an eyebrow when I reported this but didn’t object. Then I made the fatal decision to check Wikipedia, which said “Oistealb or Osdealv was the Gaelic rendering of Jocelyn,” referring me to this webpage:

The origin of the surname Costello provides a perfect illustration of the way the native Irish absorbed the invading Normans. Soon after the invasion, the de Angulo family, also known as “Nangle” settled in Connacht, where they rapidly became powerful. After only three generations, they had begun to give themselves a surname formed in the Irish manner, with the clan taking Jocelyn de Angulo as their eponymous forebear. Jocelyn was rendered Goisdealbh in Irish, and the surname adopted Mac Goisdealbhaigh, later given the phonetic English equivalent “Costello”.

This time my wife said “I’m sorry, that makes no sense,” and I find it hard to disagree. How on earth do you get Goisdealbh out of Jocelyn? But I’m not the explainer here, just the bearer of odd news. I report, you decide.

(Wikipedia also says: “Although it is not of Italian origin, the name Costello has a misleading Italian appearance. It occasionally has been adopted as a pseudonym or stage name by famous people of Italian descent […], which creates further confusion about the origin of this Norman-French surname.” It sure does!)

Cellar Door.

I’m pretty sure I intended to post on this Grant Barrett “On Language” column about “the claim that cellar door is beautiful to the ear” (which has always intrigued me) when it came out a few years ago, but it seems to have slipped through the cracks in my brain. At any rate, it’s been brought to my attention again by Geoff Nunberg’s recent Log post which starts off citing Barrett’s column and suggests that the popularity of the phrase “cellar door” may have come from the 1894 song “I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard,” by Philip Wingate and Henry W. Petrie, with the lines “You’ll be sorry when you see me/ Sliding down my cellar door.” (You can hear a very slow performance by Peggy Lee here, and a much livelier one by Catherine Laidler-Lau here; Nunberg also mentions a song “Playmates,” but that’s a red herring — it didn’t come out until 1940.) The song and its catchy chorus were ubiquitous in the late 1890s and stayed popular for a long time; Nunberg has a parade of citations going from 1895 (“I would not let an operator that did not have a card, carry my lunch basket or slide down my cellar door”) to 1949 (“the blunt fact remained that he wouldn’t play ball in my back lot or slide down my cellar door”), and my mother, born in 1915, sang it frequently, so seeing it referred to, and hearing it on YouTube clips, gives me a tremendous rush of nostalgic pleasure. At any rate, the suggestion that it is the source of the “cellar door” motif seems plausible to me.

Compass Award: Tarkovsky.

I’ve gotten into the habit of posting about the International Translation Center/Cardinal Points annual Compass Award contest (2012, 2013), and I’m particularly happy to do so this year because it’s dedicated to the poetry of Arseny Tarkovsky, one of my favorite modern Russian poets (and one far too little known outside of Russia; I’ve written about him a couple of times, for example here) — in fact, I may try a translation myself. Here‘s the webpage; the deadline is July 31, 2014, so you have plenty of time to polish your submission.

Incidentally, Irina Mashinski, herself a wonderful poet and editor of Storony Sveta/Cardinal Points, which runs the competition, will be visiting New England on a reading tour; I’m hoping to be at the reading at Mount Holyoke College on April 3 (scheduled for 6 p.m.), since it’s just a spit and a holler from where I live, but she’s also reading in Dublin, N.H., and Boston if anyone might be interested in those venues.

Down with the Nasty Asiatic Vowel!

This is a very silly story, but how can I resist a story that involves Russian vowels? According to this Atlantic story by Farangis Najbullah, the ever-controversial Vladimir Zhirinovsky “has now targeted a letter in the Russian alphabet”:

The letter in question is the vowel “ы”—a difficult-to-pronounce sound for non-native Russian speakers that is usually transliterated simply as “y” in English. Zhirinovsky says he wants the letter removed from the Russian alphabet, calling it a “nasty Asiatic” import. The vowel came to the Russian language from the Mongols, Zhirinovsky was quoted as telling the State Duma on March 12.

“Only animals make this sound, ‘ы-ы,'” he said, adding that the regular ‘и’ (‘i’) is enough for the Russian alphabet. ‘Ы’ doesn’t exist in any other European language, argued Zhirinovsky. “This primitive, Asiatic sound is the reason people don’t like us in Europe,” he told lawmakers.

The politician seemed to have a longstanding issue with the “guttural” letter, which he claimed his son wasn’t able to pronounce as a child. “He once told me, ‘Dad, dad, look, there’s a ‘мишка’,” the Russian word for ‘bear.’ “I thought ‘What ‘мишка’? A bear? But he meant ‘мышка’,” the word for “mouse.”

There’s not much to say other than “what an ignoranimus!,” but it’s amusing, so I thought I’d pass it on. (Thanks for the link, Adam!)


Even in my sixties, even as an inveterate logophile, I still on occasion discover I have been mispronouncing a word (or rather pronouncing it in a way that turns out to be unhistorical) and have to retrain myself. This just happened, for instance, with duodenum, which I have all my life pronounced /dyu-ˈä-də-nəm/ (dyoo-AH-dənəm) but which has the traditional pronunciation /ˌdü-ə-ˈdē-nəm/ (dyoo-ə-DEE-nəm), based on the Latin duodēnum digitōrum “of twelve digits, inches, or finger’s breadths” (to quote the OED; note that the Russian equivalent of duodenum is двенадцатиперстная кишка ‘twelve-finger gut’); the Latin long ē makes the syllable stressed in English, and since I like to preserve such bits of linguistic history, I choose to say it the traditional way despite the fact that my previous pronunciation is listed as an alternate in both Merriam-Webster and AHD.

But what am I to do about secretory (which I have been encountering in my editing work)? I’ve never actually said the word, as far as I know, and I had no strong intuitions about how to say it, so naturally I turned to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate which is always at my elbow and found “\ˈsē-krə-ˌtȯr-ē, especially British si-ˈkrē-t(ə-)rē\.” Fine, I thought, Americans say SEE-krətoree, I’m an American, I’ll say SEE-krətoree. But then I opened AHD and found only sĭ-krē′-tə-rē (si-KREE-təree)! Well, dammit, let me check the New Oxford American Dictionary (3rd ed.). Same story: only si-KREE-təree. So I turn to the Varied Reader and ask: if you are familiar with this word, how do you say it? And if you happen to know how American doctors and others who use the word professionally say it, that would be especially appreciated. I hate not knowing how to pronounce things.

Aramaic, Magical and Naughty.

Aramaist Edward Cook has fun with recent pop-culture uses of Aramaic in his post “You Won’t Believe These Unbelievable Aramaic Expressions!!” (Great title, as is the name of his blog, Ralph the Sacred River.) He gives a noogie to Lev Grossman’s The Magician King, which purports to quote an actual sentence:

I’m not sure if Quentin recited the text from right-to-left, in which case the sentence runs backward (although the words are not backwards), or left-to-right (in which case the words are backwards, but the sentence gives the correct word order). Maybe it’s a Unicode thing, or just a magic thing.

Then he gets into the series Spartacus on the Starz network:

I’ve not found out who did the Aramaic, but I infer from the scripts (which are available here) that the language consultant employed mainly Talmudic Aramaic…

Also interesting are the “four-letter words” (obscene language). We don’t have any obscene language from ancient Aramaic — as far as I know — and it therefore presents a vexing problem in back-translation. I’m not going to go through all of them, lest I arouse distaste in some of my readers. However, the four-letter word par excellence, the F-word, gets a thorough workout in the scripts, and the back-translation is interesting, if not historically valid.

The whole thing is well worth it just for the philological exegesis of “Hare mezayyne. [Fucking shits.]” (Thanks, Paul!)

Beringian in the News.

I started off this post: “I started off this post: ‘The NY Times has another language story […] and if you’re an aficionado of these things you will have guessed that 1) the story is by the muddled but ever plucky Nicholas Wade…'” And yes, the Times has another story by the muddled but ever plucky Nicholas Wade. This time it’s about “a recent proposal that the ancestors of Native Americans were marooned for some 15,000 years on a now sunken plain before they reached North America”:

This idea, known as the Beringian standstill hypothesis, has been developed by geneticists and archaeologists over the last seven years. It holds that the ancestors of Native Americans did not trek directly across the land bridge that joined Siberia to Alaska until the end of the last ice age, 10,000 years ago. Rather, geneticists say, these ancestors must have lived in isolation for some 15,000 years to accumulate the amount of DNA mutations now seen specifically in Native Americans. […]

Linguists have until now been unable to contribute to this synthesis of genetic and archaeological data. The first migrations to North America occurred between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago, but most linguists have long believed that language trees cannot be reconstructed back further than 8,500 years. Vocabulary changes so fast that the signal of relationship between two languages is soon swamped by the noise of borrowed words and fortuitous resemblances.

But in 2008, Edward Vajda, a linguist at Western Washington University, said he had documented a relationship between Yeniseian, a group of mostly extinct languages spoken along the Yenisei River in central Siberia, and Na-Dene. […]

Building on Dr. Vajda’s success, two linguists, Mark A. Sicoli of Georgetown University and Gary Holton of the University of Alaska, have assessed the relationship of the two language families based on shared grammatical features, rather than vocabulary.

In a paper published in the journal PLoS One on Wednesday, they report their surprising finding that Na-Dene is not a descendant of Yeniseian, as would be expected if the Yeniseian speakers in Siberia were the source population of the Na-Dene migration. Rather, they say, both language families are descendants of some lost mother tongue. Their explanation is that this lost language was spoken in Beringia, and that its speakers migrated both east and west. The eastward group reached North America and became the Na-Dene speakers, while the westward group returned to Siberia and settled along the Yenisei River.

Now, I’m suspicious of this on all sorts of grounds, but everything I know about Na-Dene and Yeniseian I’ve learned from commenters here, and I’m hoping some of them will weigh in on the proto-Beringian theory. (Thanks, Eric!)

Malapropisms and Mispronunciations Helped Make English What It Is.

A very nice Guardian article by David Shariatmadari, a rare journalist who writes with actual understanding of language (which suggests he may have taken a linguistics course or two at some point). He starts with an anecdote about “a very senior academic” who “has been pronouncing ‘awry’ wrong all through her long, glittering career,” and continues thus:

We’ve all been there. I still lapse into mis-CHEE-vous if I’m not concentrating. This week some PR whizzes working for a railway station with an unusual name unveiled the results of a survey into frequently garbled words. The station itself is routinely confused with an endocrine gland about the size of a carrot (you can see why they hired PRs). Researchers also found that 340 of the 1000 surveyed said ex-cetera instead of etcetera, while 260 ordered ex-pressos instead of espressos. Prescription came out as perscription or proscription 20% of the time.

The point is malapropisms and mispronunciations are fairly common. The 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary lists 171,476 words as being in common [actually “current”—LH] use. But the average person’s vocabulary is tens of thousands smaller, and the number of words they use every day smaller still. There are bound to be things we’ve read or are vaguely familiar with, but not able to pronounce as we are supposed to.

The term “supposed” opens up a whole different debate, of course. Error is the engine of language change, and today’s mistake could be tomorrow’s vigorously defended norm. There are lots of wonderful examples of alternative pronunciations or missteps that have become standard usage. Here are some of my favourites, complete with fancy technical names.

Music to my ears! And there are indeed lots of good examples, like adder from nadder and bird from brid; it’s a fun read. (Thanks, Eric!)

Languages of Ukraine.

Those of you who are following events in and around Ukraine may find this map as interesting as I do; it shows the distribution of languages by locality (if you click on it, you can see a much larger version). The legend is in Ukrainian; from top to bottom, the languages are Ukrainian, Russian, Romanian/Moldavian, Crimean Tatar, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Gagauz, Polish, and Albanian.

Update. Here‘s an English version of the map (thanks, Christopher!).

Xhosa Clicks.

A couple of videos for those who have always wondered how to make those wonderful click sounds and what they sound like in sentences:
Xhosa Lesson 2. How to say “click” sounds.
Xhosa Tongue Twister Lesson in South Africa.
Thanks, Songdog!