Archives for September 2014

No, the Other Right!

Mark Liberman at the Log follows up on Bob Ladd’s suggestion for a post “about inexcusably unmemorable terminology for related concepts that have to be sharply distinguished from one another.” It’s turned into a really interesting discussion, with pairs I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of; Bob’s examples are progressive/regressive assimilation, sensitivity/specificity, and tonicity/tonality/tone, and commenters have weighed in with accuracy/precision, sequence/series, hyper-/hypo- (“often indistinguishable when spoken”), coherence/cohesion, mean/mode/median, afferent/efferent, abductor/adductor, high-context/low-context, determiner/determinative, meiosis/mitosis, syncline/anticline, stalactite/stalagmite, meteor/meteoroid/meteorite, metatarsal/metacarpal, affluent/effluent, molarity/molality, phonetic/phonemic, pleistocene/pliocene/miocene… more are coming in even as we speak! hector asks:

Is the ur-example of this problem the distinction between right and left? Most people occasionally use the wrong word. Both are words of one syllable, thus easy to say, and often need to be said as quick responses to events. If one of the two was one-syllable, and the other multi-syllable, would this reduce the number of mistakes?

And narmitaj responds:

As well as normal confusion (I got confused during my early driving lessons and even briefly – and non-disastrously – during my test at one point), there is also the problem that crops up in film-making and other environments when people are facing each other and trying to give and take directions. The cinematographer might say to the actress “move to the right” and the actress moves to her right, and the cinematographer says “no, the other right”, his right, camera right or screen right.

A similar pair in Spanish is derecho ‘straight (ahead)’ and (a la) derecha ‘(to the) right’; after I had terrified my driving instructor in Argentina one too many times by turning when he wanted me to go straight, he made me teach him the English words (which in his pronunciation were /es’tre/ and /rai/). At any rate, I’m beginning to suspect that specialists like having hard-to-distinguish distinctions; it makes the specialty that much more impenetrable and mysterious.

Looking for ‘Arses.

No, not the arses you think; from BBC Radio:

Ian McMillan goes on a quest to find one of Britain’s strangest linguistic features. Somewhere between Sheffield and Chesterfield, people stop saying house and say something that sounds a lot more like ‘arse. It’s an isogloss, a kind of linguistic boundary line where accent and dialect changes. Ian calls it the house / arse interface, and with his friend the musician Ray Hearne and linguist Kate Burland in tow, he sets out to track it down. But can it really be as simple as crossing a line on a map?

Thanks, AJP!

Pausing Over Pronunciation.

A nice piece by Anne Curzan on not being sure how to say a word; she begins by describing reading aloud to students from a quote and seeing the word islet coming up:

Torn about the status of the “s,” I decided to try to turn this moment of pronunciation panic into a teachable moment. I stopped when I got to the word, and I said to the class, “How do you all pronounce that word?”

There was a noticeable pause. A few ventured, “Eye-let?” Then a couple of students said they thought they had heard “iss-let.” One student from Florida confirmed that this pronunciation occurs in Florida. Others admitted that they weren’t sure they had ever said the word out loud.

We checked a couple of standard dictionaries and found just one pronunciation: “eye-let.” So now we know what is considered standard. (That said, I’m not convinced that the pronunciation with an /s/ won’t make enough inroads in American English to become a standard variant. I’ve suggested to the editors at American Heritage that we track it on the usage ballot.)

Learning the standard pronunciation, however, seems to me not the most important benefit of the pause. We were also able to have a conversation not only about some of the vagaries of English spelling but also about the way our status as an “educated speaker” can feel up for evaluation when we hit some of these tricky words we’re not sure how to pronounce. Can we actually say, “I’m not sure how to pronounce that” without getting laughed at?

I was thinking about this story a couple of days ago because I mentioned to a colleague that I had just recorded a radio segment about the pronunciation of the word niche. He exclaimed, “That word always gets me! I am never sure how to pronounce it.” We commiserated over our shared angst when confronted with this word. Does “neesh” sound too French and too pretentious? Does “nitch” make us sound unsophisticated?

If you’re thinking “nitch” must be the new, “bastardized” pronunciation, you are wrong. Many standard dictionaries include both pronunciations. And according to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (fifth edition), the current pronunciation “neesh” is a 20th-century innovation, as the word was “Englishified” (my term) to “nitch” soon after it was borrowed from French in the 17th century.

My colleague then added, “And then there’s homage! I don’t know what to do with that one either…” I agreed: there’s the issue of where the stress goes as well as whether to say the initial /h/. I added the word forte to the how-should-I-pronounce-that mix. […]

Some of those words probably figure on almost everybody’s mental list of worrisome pronunciations; I think I’ve settled on “nitch” and “for-tay,” but the rejected variants buzz around my brain reproachfully. It is well, as always, to try not to judge either oneself or others harshly in these matters.

Stuff in Old Books.

A few years ago I posted about Forgotten Bookmarks (“I work at a used and rare bookstore, and I buy books from people everyday. These are the personal, funny, heartbreaking and weird things I find in those books”); now I’m passing along another such site, stuff in old books (“We own a 2nd hand bookshop in West End, Brisbane, Australia. Sometimes we find cool stuff in the books we buy”). If this is the sort of thing you like, you’ll like it, and I found an item of linguistic interest not far down the page, “A spoonful of Irish,” with a slightly misspelled version of this Irish proverb:

Ar mhaithe leis féin a dheineann an cat crónán.
It’s for his own good the cat purrs.
Explanation: Said of people doing what they like, particularly when it’s hard to understand their motivation. Also said to imply that someone thought to be being generous is actually being selfish.

I find that an irresistible saying and will adopt it for use around the house; in the Connemara dialect I learned, it’s pronounced something like “air WAHhə lesh HANE ə YENyən ə cut CROOnawn.” There is much discussion of the details of the Irish (with some support for dhéanann rather than dheineann) here; my spoken Irish, never impressive to begin with, has deteriorated to the point that I wouldn’t dream of trying to adjudicate such a delicate point.

Also, for those interested, I have finished Fifth Business (see this post) and am turning eagerly to the next book in the trilogy, The Manticore. I highly recommend the Davies books to anyone who enjoys a well-told tale that involves all sorts of unexpected areas of knowledge; from the first, for instance, I learned about a musical that was all the rage during WWI, Chu Chin Chow — from the Wikipedia article: “The piece premièred at His Majesty’s Theatre in London on 3 August 1916 and ran for five years and a total of 2,238 performances (more than twice as many as any previous musical), an astonishing record that stood for nearly forty years until Salad Days.” Who would have guessed from the name that it’s set in the world of the Arabian Nights?

Translating Smartphone Technology.

A short but interesting Economist piece about efforts to create technological terms for speakers of smaller languages:

Ousmane sweats under a tin roof as he thumbs through a Chinese smartphone that he is selling at the technology market in Bamako, Mali. Words in French, Mali’s official language, scroll down the screen. “A ka nyi?” (Is it good?) a customer asks him in Bambara, Mali’s most widely used tongue.

Mozilla, the foundation behind Firefox, an open-source web browser, wants Ousmane’s customers to have the option of a device that speaks their language. Smartphones with its operating system (OS) are already on sale in 24 countries, including Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Mexico, for as little as $33. Other countries will be added as it makes more deals with handset manufacturers. And Bambara is one of dozens of languages into which volunteer “localisers” are translating the OS. […]

Ibrahima Sarr, a Senegalese coder, led the translation of Firefox into Fulah, which is spoken by 20m people from Senegal to Nigeria. “Crash” became hookii (a cow falling over but not dying); “timeout” became a honaama (your fish has got away). “Aspect ratio” became jeendondiral, a rebuke from elders when a fishing net is wrongly woven. In Malawi’s Chichewa language, which has 10m speakers, “cached pages” became mfutso wa tsamba, or bits of leftover food. The windowless houses of the 440,000 speakers of Zapotec, a family of indigenous languages in Mexico, meant that computer “windows” became “eyes”. […]

As a non-profit, Mozilla can put effort into languages that offer no prospect of a quick return. Songhai and Fulah, recently made available in Firefox, are spoken mainly by poor, illiterate herders and farmers in the Sahel, who do not have smartphones. But when such people eventually get online, they will benefit more if they can do so in their own tongues.

As more languages are added, the Firefox OS will create a sort of global Rosetta stone. It uses all parts of speech, and older, colourful words are pressed into service. Mozilla has created a statistical tool for linguistic analyses. And though 40,000 words is not a whole vocabulary, it is a significant part. As well as bringing the linguistically excluded online, localisation may keep small languages alive.

Incidentally, what they call Fulah is also known as Fula, Fulani, Fulfulde, Pulaar, and Peul. With some 25 million speakers, I wonder if it’s the most-spoken language for which there is no settled term?

Pawpaw French.

My wife called immediately after driving off to do some shopping to tell me to turn on the radio — NPR was doing a language story. It turned out to be this one, about a French dialect that’s quickly disappearing in southeastern Missouri:

Pawpaw French — named after a local fruit-bearing tree — is a linguistic bridge that melds a Canadian French accent with a Louisiana French vocabulary. The French originally settled Old Mines around 1723, back when the area was part of upper Louisiana. Floods of workers from Canada and Louisiana came to work the lead mines.

The dialect faded in other nearby towns like De Soto and Bonne Terre and Ste. Genevieve a long time ago. Pawpaw French persisted in Old Mines because it is much more remote.

Historian and musician Dennis Stroughmatt is pawpaw French’s ambassador to the outside world. He first visited Old Mines back in the 1990s for a class project while a student at Southeast Missouri State University. At the time, there were hundreds of pawpaw speakers there.

Just like that, he was hooked.

At the link, you can read the whole story or listen to it (it’s fun to hear the dialect spoken), and for those of you with JSTOR access, here‘s W.M. Miller’s 1930 French Review article on it.


The estimable Bathrobe sent me his translation of this NHK News story, which, as he says, has a nice prescriptivist ending:

More than half had a mistaken understanding of seken-zure

September 24

A survey by the Agency for Cultural Affairs found that more than half of respondents misunderstood the term seken-zure to mean ‘deviating from common ideas’ instead of the original meaning ‘wise in the ways of the world’. [Note: seken-zure, derived from 世間 seken ‘society, the world’ and 擦れる sureru ‘to rub’, refers to the state of having become crafty and sly due to various kinds of experience in this world. This has obviously been reinterpreted as 世間 seken ‘society, the world’ and ずれる zureru ‘to deviate’.]

The Agency conducts an annual study in order to determine how Japanese usage has changed. This time the survey covered 2028 men and women over the age of 16 across the country.

When asked the meaning of seken-zure, 35.6% chose the original meaning of ‘having become cunning through experience in the world’ while 55.2% chose ‘separated from the thinking of the world’.

In response to the same question in a survey nine years ago, half chose the original meaning. In the current survey, 85% of people in their teens, 80% of people in their twenties, and more than half of people in their 30s, 40s and 50s chose the incorrect meaning.

In another example, while the original meaning of manjiri to mo sezu (まんじりともせず) is ‘staying wide awake’, 51.5% of respondents incorrectly understood it to mean ‘staying motionless’.

In addition, 43.7% of respondents chose ‘reluctantly’ as the meaning of the expression yabusaka de wa nai in preference to the original meaning of ‘willingly’.

Kishimoto Orie, chief of the National Language department of the Agency for Cultural Affairs, said, ‘Differences in the understanding of meanings between generations can cause miscommunication. We would like people to be aware of the original meaning.’

It reminds me of Anatolii Koni’s rage a century ago at Russians using obyazatel’no to mean ‘obligatorily, without fail’ rather than ‘obligingly, courteously,’ which is what it meant in his day (he was born in 1844).

Veltman’s Wigs.

I’m about a third of the way through Alexander Veltman’s novel Приключения, почерпнутые из моря житейского (Adventures drawn from the sea of life, published in book form as Саломея [Salomea] — see this LH post), and I’m completely hooked. (One of the problems with recommending Veltman to people is that he’s the opposite of one of those grab-the-reader-by-the-lapels-and-don’t-let-go writers; he is deliberately confusing and seems almost to be driving the reader away, and it usually takes many chapters to settle in and start to see what he’s up to.) I’ve run across one of those startlingly modern, or postmodern, moments that keep cropping up in Veltman (compare my evocation of Pirandello here), and I’m hoping my readers can come up with parallels that I am too ignorant or forgetful to think of myself.

One of the protagonists is Dmitritsky (his given name has not so far been revealed); what he cares about most in life is gambling, and whenever he comes into money he immediately goes and finds a card table. Unfortunately, he’s not a very good gambler, and towards the beginning of the novel he gets cleaned out by a cardsharp named Zhelynsky (i.e., Zieliński, a common Polish name) and is forced to flee because he can’t pay what he owes. Many pages and adventures later, dead broke once again, he hires himself out to a rich traveler named Chernomsky (presumably Czarnomski), refusing wages and saying he’ll work for food until things pick up. He is a perfect servant (renamed Mateusz: “I call all my servants Mateusz”), treating Chernomsky so deferentially and behaving so imperiously with innkeepers and merchants that they treat his boss far better than usual. When they pull into Gomel, Chernomsky tells him he’s going to visit some friends, and he comes back to the inn so drunk he collapses and starts snoring. Dmitritsky takes the opportunity to extract the key Chernomsky keeps on his person at all times and opens the trunk his boss won’t let anyone touch. There, along with great quantities of coins, bills, and valuables, he finds wigs and false mustaches. He’s had a niggling feeling all along that Chernomsky was somehow familiar, and once he sees a reddish wig, it comes to him: he puts it on the head of his boozed-up boss, and realizes he’s looking at none other than the very Zhelynsky who had long ago cheated him of the money he had been hoping to cheat Zhelynsky out of, and who was responsible for his life of nervous exile without identity papers. He then puts on the wig Chernomsky had been wearing, attaches a pair of false mustaches, looks in the mirror, and says: “Браво! Черномский, да и только!.. Да! надо надеть мое платье, а дрянную венгерку отдам этому пьянице, моему камердинеру Матеушу Желынскому.” [Bravo! Chernomsky to the life!.. Yes, I just have to dress myself, and give the wretched dolman to this drunkard, my servant Mateusz Zhelynsky.] I love not only the peripeteia but the identification of clothes and wig with personhood: if he dresses as Chernomsky, he is Chernomsky. This must be a well-known trope, but I’m not well-read enough to cite other examples; can my readers?

Another question, a niggling linguistic one: he keeps throwing in bits of Polish and/or Ukrainian, and one phrase that gets repeated is пан(е) грабе [pan(e) grabe], apparently an address to a rich, high-ranking, or otherwise impressive person. Pan, of course, is a well-known Western Slavic and Ukrainian honorific, but what’s the grabe? It looks like it might be related to German Graf ‘count,’ but I can’t find out anything about it.


Fans of American football (and, really, all Americans, because you can’t escape football in the news even if you don’t care about it) are familiar with the use of the word “bowl” in stadium names, the most famous being the Rose Bowl. It makes sense, because such stadiums are shaped more or less like bowls, but it’s not so obvious as to need no explanation; it turns out, as we learn from Mark Alden Branch’s piece in the latest Yale Alumni Magazine, that the nomenclature began a century ago, at Yale:

Next time you sit down to watch the Super Bowl—or any of dozens of other postseason football games—think of Noah Haynes Swayne 2d, Class of 1893. Although Swayne’s life work was in the coal, pig iron, and coke business, he ought to be better known for something he did as a member of the Committee of 21, the Yale alumni group that oversaw the construction of a new football stadium for the Bulldogs in the early 1910s.

According to accounts of the time, it was Swayne who suggested that because of the new edifice’s shape, it should not be called a “stadium” or a “coliseum” but simply the Yale Bowl. It was the first use of the word “bowl” to describe a stadium. Then, when the city of Pasadena borrowed the word for its new Rose Bowl stadium in 1923, their annual postseason football game also took the name, and a bowl became not just a place but also an event.

Scots Yiddish.

Philologos at the Forward has a fine column on a long-forgotten dialect:

Recently, as Scotland’s independence vote began to loom large in the media, someone asked me if I had ever heard of Scots Yiddish. “I canna say that I have,” I answered, only to be told that there was an entire chapter on the subject in David Daiches’s autobiographical “Two Worlds: An Edinburgh Jewish Childhood.” Scots Yiddish? I decided to have a look.

The dialect turns out to be “merely a Scottish version, one might say, of the English that Eastern European Jewish immigrants were speaking on the streets of New York in the same period”:

Still, such “Scots Yiddish” has a charm that the English of Orchard or Delancey Street never had. “Vot time’s yer barmitzvie, laddie?” Daiches recalls being asked by a fellow synagogue-goer shortly before his 13th birthday. “Ye’ll hae a drap o’bramfen. Ye ken: Nem a schmeck fun Dzon Beck.” Bronfn is Yiddish for liquor (in Eastern Europe it generally meant vodka, but Edinburgh is whisky land), while “Nem a shmek,” Yiddish for “Have a taste,” is, as Daiches points out, a clever translation that preserves the rhyme of the first half of the advertising slogan “Take a peg of John Begg.” And when Daiches once asked someone in the same synagogue why he scolded a visitor for talking during services when he was wont to talk during them himself, the reply was:

“Two men vent into a poob and ordered a glass beer. Dey hadna been in dat poob more dan vonce or twice before. Vell, day sip deir beer un’ dey sit talking un’ schmoosing. Dey sit un’ talk un’ talk. At last de barman leans over de counter and he says to dem: ‘Oot!’ Nu, dat’s how it is mit a shul. I come here every veek and Hakodosh Borukh Hu [the Holy One Blessed Be He — that is God] kens me vell, un’ he don’t mind if I take it easy. But dese bleggages dat come vonce or twice a year — no! Dey daven or dey shot op!”

There are more suggested derivations, as well as discussion of the purported mutual intelligibility of broad Scots and Yiddish, at the link. Also, I actually own a copy of Two Worlds, and now I’m even more eager to read it. (Thanks, Paul!)