Archives for June 2014


Over a decade ago, I posted about the UK slang term oik (“Etym. obscure”), “Depreciatory schoolboy word for a member of another school; an unpopular or disliked fellow-pupil. Also gen., an obnoxious or unpleasant person; in weakened senses, a ‘nit-wit’, a ‘clot’.” Last night, as I was reading Anthony Powell to my wife (we’ve just started Books Do Furnish a Room, for which phrase see this post from last year; the setting is immediately after World War II), I hit this sentence (in the middle of a passage of heavily italicized babbling by Mona — sample: “We’re weaving about fairly close here, and I’ve got to scamper home this minute, because Jeff’s quite insane about punctuality”): “That erk will have to drive like stink if I’m not to be late.” My first thought was of oik, which would seem to fit equally well in this context, but there didn’t seem to be any way to connect the two in UK English (as opposed to the New Orleans or Brooklyn varieties), so I set it aside for investigation when I was up and about and rummaging in reference works. Now that that is the case, I can provide the OED entry (from 1972):

erk, n.
Etymology: Of obscure origin.
a. A naval rating.

b. An aircraftman, esp. an A.C.2.

c. transf. Used as a term of contempt.
1925 E. Fraser & J. Gibbons Soldier & Sailor Words 89 Erk, a rating. (Navy). Lower deck colloquialism for any ‘rank’ not that of an officer.
1928 T. E. Lawrence Let. 20 Jan. (1938) 570 Cranwell, which was a home from home, for the irks.
1940 Reader’s Digest May 31/2 The their mechanics erks, apparently a corruption of A.C., the abbreviation for aircraftsman.
1943 P. Brennan et al. Spitfires over Malta iii. 65 The erks came running up to tell us that..the 109 had been diving down.
1944 E. Partridge in 19th Cent. Apr. 182 An erk, now used for an A.C.2..meant an air mechanic. This odd word is, the writer believes, a shortened pronunciation of the italicised letters in air mechanic (perhaps in the form of ‘air mech’)… Some airmen less convincingly maintain that it comes from ‘lower-deck hand’.
1959 I. Opie & P. Opie Lore & Lang. Schoolchildren x. 175 Somebody they dislike..may be called..erk, gawp, kid.

Interesting that these very similar words of equally obscure origin are both first attested in 1925 (though I imagine a little rooting about in Google Books and databases could antedate that); I also call attention to Eric Partridge’s typically clueless approach to etymology.

The Seemly Intensity of the Curse.

Stan of Sentence first has an enjoyable post on the linguistic aspects of Luis Buñuel’s autobiography; the first quote, on finding a title for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, is well worth reading, but I want to pass along the second one. The scene is the Spanish Civil War; Buñuel has left Madrid for Geneva on official business, but he is stopped at the border by “three somber-faced anarchists” who refuse to accept his identification:

Now the Spanish language is capable of more scathing blasphemies than any other language I know. Curses elsewhere are typically brief and punctuated by other comments, but the Spanish curse tends to take the form of a long speech in which extraordinary vulgarities – referring chiefly to the Virgin Mary, the Apostles, God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, not to mention the Pope – are strung end to end in a series of impressive scatological exclamations. In fact, blasphemy in Spain is truly an art; in Mexico, for instance, I never heard a proper curse, whereas in my native land, a good one lasts for at least three good-sized sentences. (When circumstances require, it can become a veritable hymn.)

It was with a curse of this kind, uttered in all its seemly intensity, that I regaled the three anarchists from Port Bou. When I’d finished, they stamped my papers and I crossed the border. (What I’ve said about the importance of the Spanish curse is no exaggeration; in certain old Spanish cities, you can still see signs like “No Begging or Blaspheming – Subject to Fine or Imprisonment” on the main gates. Sadly, when I returned to Spain in 1960, the curse seemed much rarer; or perhaps it was only my hearing.)

I’d like to see a contest between a traditional Spaniard and a Russian master of the triple-decker curse.

Balmont’s Ozymandias.

Via Anatoly’s parody, I discovered Konstantin Balmont‘s 1890s translation of what is probably Shelley‘s most famous poem, “Ozymandias“:

Я встретил путника; он шёл из стран далёких
И мне сказал: вдали, где вечность сторожит
Пустыни тишину, среди песков глубоких
Обломок статуи распавшейся лежит.

Из полустёртых черт сквозит надменный пламень,
Желанье заставлять весь мир себе служить;
Ваятель опытный вложил в бездушный камень
Те страсти, что могли столетья пережить.

И сохранил слова обломок изваянья: —
«Я — Озимандия, я — мощный царь царей!
Взгляните на мои великие деянья,
Владыки всех времён, всех стран и всех морей!»

Кругом нет ничего… Глубокое молчанье…
Пустыня мёртвая… И небеса над ней…

I like it a lot — it’s not “faithful,” but it carries across what’s vital — so I thought I’d pass it along.

Zahir on Lushootseed.

A correspondent writes: “Here are a couple of videos from a guy I’m a big fan of, Zeke Zahir, a speaker of Puget Sound Salish (Lushootseed).” The first is a thirteen-minute talk by Zahir (his father was from Afghanistan) about how he came to learn Lushootseed (xʷəlšucid) and discussions he had with Vi Hilbert (taqʷšəblu), according to Wikipedia the last speaker with a full native command of the language. The second is a half-minute exchange in Lushootseed between Zahir and a little girl about cereal; all the dialogue is transcribed and translated in captions (perfect for learning a language), and it’s a lot of fun to see “ʔəcəda! OMG!” If you enjoy it, there are others like it in the list of videos on the right.

The talk is well worth watching; I’ll quote a few bits. When he asks taqʷšəblu if it’s appropriate to pay the language he’s learning as you would pay a medicine man, she says: “We pay Lushootseed with our mind. We give it our mind. That’s how you pay the language.” Later he says, “When you listen to those stories and you work with those stories and you start translating and transcribing those stories, and learning how to tell those stories, your mind changes.” The last segment is about the much-discussed topic of the influence of language on how we see the world; he says that indeed there are words and concepts that are hard to translate, but “the ultimate is that there are actual realities, that are real as this table, that exist in one language but not in another. And that’s very powerful. Because you’re literally living then in two different worlds…. So we’re very limited when we’re monolingual. We think we know a lot, we think we know how to talk about anything, but we don’t.” I like the last sentence a lot, and of course it applies to more than just knowing languages. (Thanks, Yoram!)

Shadow Tongue.

Tom Birkett’s TLS review of Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake, “set in the aftermath of 1066, during the period of resistance to the Norman invasion,” makes it sound quirkily interesting in a linguistic way:

As the author explains, this account of invasion and insurgency is written in a “shadow tongue”, a curious imitation of Old English “intended to project a ghost image of the speech patterns of a long-dead land”. This involves limiting the protagonist’s vocabulary to words with Germanic roots for the most part, as well as reviving several Old English terms including “smearcian”, a verb meaning both “to smirk” and “to smile”, whose duality is exploited effectively to heighten the paranoia that plagues the narrator. The noun “stenc”, meaning “smell”, but surviving as “stench” is another word deployed with unsettling effect, and other less-familiar words such as “scucca”, “gebur” and “esol” are used so frequently that they present few barriers to fluent reading. This shadow language underscores our distance from the world Buccmaster describes, while recalling what Geoffrey Hill refers to as the “strange likeness” of this culture.

Since the Old English words that survive into the modern language tend to refer to the natural world and everyday objects and actions, our continuing relationship to the landscape is reinforced at a linguistic level. The limited vocabulary also gives the novel a feeling of constriction that adds enormously to the protagonist’s progressive isolation. Reading this imitative language as an Anglo-Saxonist, there were a few places where I felt the rich Old English word-hoard was done a disservice – particularly in the liberal use of “Anglo-Saxon” language of another kind – and there are other moments where the idiom is more “Merrie Olde England” than pseudo-Old English, but the “shadow tongue” is nonetheless an impressive simulation.

The review ends, “the message of this extraordinary novel is as honest and timely as it is discomforting: being waecend to the grim fate of your society doesn’t mean you can do anything to prevent it happening. Ultimately, The Wake highlights the difficulty of finding triewth in a world where comfortable certainties have been eroded and words no longer mean what you expect them to mean.” Thanks, jamessal!

Mèfi and Ratapignata.

This MetaTalk thread (about the owner, Matt Haughey, donating the twitter handle “mefi” to OGC Nice for the use of their eagle mascot) led to a couple of interesting words in Niçois/Niçard, mèfi ‘watch out!’ and ratapignata ‘bat,’ a symbol of Nice:

The ratapignata of Nice is not well-known outside of the city, and even articles on it in French tend to diminish its importance, due largely to its status as a symbol of imperial resistance. […] Nice was once part of the Duché de Savoie, which was not French. It only became part of France just over 150 years ago, and under rather suspicious circumstances – the ballot was stuffed, with people long dead mysteriously voting to become part of France, and votes against the rattachement oddly being lost. Even before that, however, Nice’s place in Savoy was the result of conquest; the Comté de Nice had been a semi-autonomous member of the Comté de Provence starting in the 12th century, after the fall of Rome.

While most French articles about the ratapignata start with the Carnaval of 1875, the black bat has been a counterweight to the royal eagle for much longer than that. Indeed, as this excellent article in French by Niçois Eric Fontan notes, it symbolizes the power of the people, being the eagle turned upside down. With its wings open wide, to the difference of the more restrained eagle, it is also said to represent the desire of Niçois to take an active part in their city’s affairs.

The linked article I quoted from is by Anna Stevenson, “Located in Nice, France since June 2000, and Paris since March 2014.”

Where Did Yiddish Come From?

Tablet magazine, an excellent source of discussion of all things Jewish, has reprinted a 2010 article by the late Cherie Woodworth (I wrote about her sudden death last year, and I still miss her and find it hard to believe she’s gone) on the titular subject; she begins with the great scholar Max Weinreich and the new edition of his magnum opus, History of the Yiddish Language (over 750 pages of footnotes!), and his very influential theory that

…Jews from Rhineland France, presumably through contact with Jewish settlements in southern Germany, converted from old Judeo-French to western Yiddish, which was more purely German with some elements of Latin or early French. In subsequent centuries—when, exactly, is a source of considerable debate—this language moved east with Jewish emigrants, settlers, and refugees, either in the 12th century (after the Crusades and persecutions) or in the 14th or 15th. There it picked up a significant cargo of Slavic vocabulary and expressions and became the Yiddish more familiar today: eastern Yiddish.

She then moves on to Paul Wexler and his very controversial book The Ashkenazic Jews: A SlavoTurkic People in Search of a Jewish Identity; you can tell from the title why it’s controversial. Her discussion of all this is fascinating and (like all her work) well written; I’ll just quote a bit on my own former specialty and leave you to read the whole thing when you have the time and attention span:

Comparative linguistics poses two genuine, and interconnected, problems when its methods are used to make arguments about history. The first is that in its most specialized details, the evidence and arguments are inaccessible to outsiders; Wexler will not be able to persuade historians about the origins of the Jews by discussing lexical inventories and phonemic shifts (especially as long as other linguists return fire with equally arcane and scientific-sounding counterarguments about other phonemic shifts). Second, despite its stress on precision and details, comparative historical linguistics is not as scientific or as purely historical as it seems; lost forms must be reconstructed, development must be interpolated, and thus no argument is definitive. The majority view among Yiddish linguists—a very small but committed cadre of scholars—is that Wexler’s argument is untenable.

Tablet followed up Cherie’s piece with an equally long and very lively one by their staff writer Batya Ungar-Sargon, “The Mystery of the Origins of Yiddish Will Never Be Solved,” in which she discusses the, shall we say, vivid personalities involved in the arguments. She starts out with an amazing story about a 1987 book, Origins of the Yiddish Language, which got a scathing review in Language that turned out to have been almost certainly written by Wexler under a pseudonym (though he denies it). She goes on to describe the various contending theories. Dovid Katz’s is that “the Jews arrived in what Katz calls ‘the cradle of Yiddish,’ the city of Regensburg, speaking Aramaic. It is this spoken language that provided the source material for the Semitic component of Yiddish, spreading both further east as well as west, to the Rhineland, replacing whatever language the western Jews were speaking.” Then there’s Alexandre Beider, who has a doctorate in applied mathematics from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology and “believes that western and eastern Yiddish are simply too different to have a common origin. Rather, Jews spoke German dialects until the 14th century, when gradually their dialects became different from those of their co-territorialists.” And of course Wexler, who “holds the controversial position that Yiddish is neither German nor Jewish but a Slavic language with German and Hebrew words slotted into Slavic grammar in a process called ‘relexification’:

Other linguists have not taken kindly to the Slavic hypothesis, nor to its author. “I have no impression that Paul Wexler is searching for the truth,” said Beider. “Sometimes I even wonder if he himself believes in what he writes. If he is not believing, but making a provocation, his writings of the last 20 years are oriented just to prove that Jews are not Jews. In this case, there is nothing to discuss.” Indeed, though he has a following amongst non-specialists, most linguists disagree with Wexler. “I respect him as a linguist, but I don’t agree with him,” said Steffen Krogh. Simon Neuberg called the relexification theory “very adventurous” but said ultimately it “seems more of a marketing trick.”

And finally, there’s Manaster Ramer, who “believes that Roman Jews speaking a Romance dialect, not French but related to it, lived in both western and southern areas of what would become Germany. When the German tribes invaded the Roman territories, these Jews learned perfect German”:

So, if the Jews who started speaking Yiddish originally spoke German, how and when did the Semitic component enter the language? The question itself is unscientific, said Manaster Ramer, ignoring as it does the historical context in which Yiddish came to be, which incidentally was a time in which German too underwent a similar process, incorporating loan words from Latin. Indeed, said Manaster Ramer, the influence of Latin on German was far greater than the Hebrew and Aramaic influence on Yiddish, “and yet no Yiddishist seems to asks, why does the massive Latin influence on German not mean that German is not German, if the much smaller Hebrew influence on Yiddish is supposed to mean that Yiddish is not German,” he wrote in an email. Any language spoken by polyglot people can incorporate words from their second or third language at any time. Furthermore, he said, almost all of the Hebrew and Aramaic words in Yiddish are accretions added to the language after the 13th century.

We’ll probably never know the truth, but I sure enjoy the back-and-forth. Thanks for the links, bulbul and Kobi!

The Language of the Game.

As I wrote here, I got David Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer to accompany the World Cup, and I’m finding it riveting; it’s almost certainly the best history of any sport I’ve read, brilliantly combining sporting and social history. Surprisingly (to me), it starts with Chinese cuju and continues with the ball game both popular and culturally central in ancient Mexico and Central America, immortalized in the Popol Vuh (in which the sun and moon are the bodies of the hero twins who lost a game of ball to the gods), but neither are ancestral to the modern game, and he soon turns to the “large-scale and often riotous” ball games of the Celtic world which probably gave rise to the medieval English pastime so often, and fruitlessly, banned by the authorities. Having survived royal prohibition, it nearly succumbed to modernity, and in 1801 Joseph Strutt could write, “The game was formerly much in vogue among the common people, though of late years it seems to have fallen into disrepute and is but little practiced.”

But football, as we know, survived. It did so because it was preserved and nurtured in institutions that were beyond the cultural reach of Methodists, industrialists and artisans. Britain’s public schools were the ludic zoos of the age. They provided refuge for the wild and endangered games of rural Georgian Britain where they were bred and developed before being released into the new sporting and social ecology of industrial Victorian Britain.

If you find that as delightful as I do, you may want to read the book. At any rate, in the chapter on the first expansion of the game to the wider world around the turn of the twentieth century, I found a passage of clear LH relevance:

The English language itself was considered the mark of modernity and an essential device for excluding any would-be players from the lower classes. In its inaugural statutes the early Parisian club White Rovers stated, ‘Football being an essentially English game, all players must use the English language exclusively when playing together.’ This homage to the power of English remains in the Anglicized club names of the Netherlands, like Go Ahead Eagles and Be Quick Denver, and of Italy, where it is AC Milan not Milano, and Genoa not Genova. In Switzerland Grasshoppers and Young Boys remain among the leading clubs, while in Latin America Liverpool, Everton, Arsenal, Lawn Tennis, Corinthians and The Strongest still play in Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia respectively.

He goes on to talk about “Dr James Spensley, the leading force and player at Genoa Cricket,” who “was described in his obituary as having ‘widespread interest[s] in philosophical studies, Greek language, Egyptian Papyrus, football, boxing and popular university. He even initiated an evening school in Genoa.'” Talk about your Renaissance man!

Addendum. And now I know why the Italians call it calcio; on p. 154 Goldblatt, writing about the rise of Italian nationalism, says:

This flicker of Italian nationalism in football was inflamed even further when in 1908 representatives of the gymnastic movement acquired a majority on the Italian Football Federation’s governing council. The cabal immediately began to agitate over the power and role of foreigners in Italian football, and Milan, Genoa and Torino — all of whom insisted on fielding foreigners — were excluded from that year’s national competition. In a strained compromise, indicative of the fundamental weakness of Italian ultra-nationalism, the ban on foreigners was rescinded in return for the official adoption of calcio as the name of the game rather than football: a symbolic victory based on an invented history.

Superlative Violence.

Sandra Blakeslee’s NY Times piece “Computing Crime and Punishment,” while very interesting (it’s about the use of the trial records of the Old Bailey to help analyze in detail how the British criminal justice system came to distinguish between violent and nonviolent crimes), doesn’t have much to do with language until the end:

To simplify their task, the researchers turned to the 1911 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus, which sorts 26,000 distinct English words into 1,040 numbered categories called synonym sets. For example, words involving love and affection are in the high 800s, money and wealth in the low 800s. “Kick,” as in striking a blow, is No. 276, while killing is No. 361.

“The beauty of this,” Dr. DeDeo said, “is that for every word we have a number that equates with a meaning” that can be modeled mathematically.

One key finding is the gradual criminalization of violence.

In the early 1700s, violence was considered routine. […]

Over time, the transcripts have more superlatives and intensifiers — words like “very,” “so much,” “most” — in reference to acts of violence. Exaggeration is normal in a courtroom, but violence brings out more hyperbole; if someone steals your wallet, you are upset, but if someone beats you up, you are likely to use stronger language.

Apparently, the Old Bailey corpus is “the largest existing body of transcribed trial evidence for historical crime” and “the most detailed recording of real speech in printed form anywhere in the world.” Thanks, Kobi!

Wine and Grapes and Perfect Serenity.

Leland de la Durantaye has a very nice Boston Review piece on Swann’s Way, its reception, the difficulties of translating it, and the problems with Yale University Press’s new annotated edition of the original Moncrieff translation. The problems begin with the fact that the editor, William C. Carter, chose to go back to Moncrieff rather than taking account of the improvements by Kilmartin and Enright and the entirely new, and much-lauded, version by Lydia Davis; there’s a troubling account of a particular passage in which the narrator’s grandmother says of a country church she loves that if it played the piano it would not jouer sec, and Carter announces his own “version that matches Proust” (“I am sure it wouldn’t sound dry“): “not only does he fail to note that a very similar choice had already been made a decade earlier in Davis’s translation, he nowhere notes the existence of Davis’s translation—not once, not anywhere.” There are also problems with the annotations; one, on the church of Combray with “certain anecdotes of Aristotle and Virgil,” reads “Aristotle (384–322 B.C.), Greek philosopher revered by theologians and philosophers of the Middle Ages,” providing information any reader of Proust is likely to know already while ignoring Proust’s point, that the church depicts “Aristotle on all fours with a beautiful woman astride his back, riding him like a horse.”

The whole thing is well worth reading if you like this sort of detailed and occasionally captious discussion; I’ll quote a passage near the start, about one early reader’s reaction:

A few years later Virginia Woolf would sit down to thank a friend for sending her a slab of nougat from Saint-Tropez, but, put in mind of France by the package, she soon found herself talking only of the novel. “My great adventure is really Proust,” she wrote, “I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped—and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical—like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined.”

Thanks, Paul !