Archives for October 2014

Prok Prok Prok!

That’s the sound of applause in Indonesian, according to illustrator James Chapman in BuzzFeed, “explaining what the world sounds like in different languages.” The illustrations are a delight and I haven’t noticed any obvious errors in the multilingual onomatopoeia; there’s not much else to say except go, look, enjoy! (Also, it’s interesting, now that he points it out, that English has no standard rendition of the sound of toothbrushing.) A tip o’ the hat to John Emerson for the link.

The Revision (1864).

Back in 2009 I was posting enthusiastically about The Oxford History of English Lexicography, and in this post I discussed “Major American Dictionaries,” going straight from Joseph Worcester’s Dictionary of the English Language (1860) to the Century Dictionary (1889) without mentioning “The American Dictionary of 1864, the ‘Webster-Mahn'” (to quote the title of their section on it); at the time, I don’t think I realized quite how groundbreaking it was. Landau (the author of the OHEL chapter) calls it “the first dictionary commonly referred to as ‘the unabridged'” and says “The idea was to instil in the minds of more and more Americans that, apart from the Bible, a big dictionary was the one book they must have.” As it happens, the Merriam-Webster Blog is starting a whole series to mark the 150th anniversary of “the greatest dictionary you have probably never heard of – the 1864 revision of An American Dictionary of the English Language, commonly known as Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary.” Here‘s the first installment, by John Morse; after acknowledging the “serious competition” of Worcester’s 1846 dictionary, he continues:

Hence, in the mid-1850s Goodrich and the Merriam brothers, George and Charles, began making plans for a new edition that would address the dictionary’s known deficiencies and introduce features that would set it apart from its competition and ensure its long-term survival as America’s leading dictionary.

This was an act of some bravery for several reasons. First, the editors would have to acknowledge the flaws in Webster’s work and establish a new set of standards. This would require both intellectual and commercial courage and some tenacity, as it would meet much resistance, mostly from members of the Webster family.

Second, the Revision, as the project came to be called, would be a huge undertaking for which the company would have to employ a different production model from what had gone before. Previously dictionaries had been largely written by one person, whether it was Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, or Joseph Worcester. But this revision was too big to be a one-person job. So for the first time, the company had to assemble a large editorial team, thereby fundamentally altering the authorship model of dictionaries and introducing a set of management challenges never before encountered.

Third, the project would require a substantial investment, and the economic climate was hardly conducive to such risk-taking. Most of the investment was undertaken during the Civil War, when there were serious questions about how that war and its aftermath would affect the dictionary market.

The Merriams’ bold gamble paid off. The new edition met with near-universal praise and solidified Webster as the preeminent dictionary brand for years to come. […]

Still, the most significant aspect of the Revision was the restructuring of the definitions. Entries were reorganized to remove redundancies and to ensure that each was logically structured, with one numbered sense for each meaning. Senses were reordered to reflect historical succession, and all closely related definitions were gathered under a single numbered sense. New rules were established for when –ed and –ing forms would be entered at their own place, when open compounds should be entered, and how to handle derivative forms ending in suffixes such as –ly and –ment. This was hard and unglamorous work, but it resulted in a set of editorial principles still honored, for the most part, to this day.

Many hands participated in revising the entries, but the two principal defining editors were Professors William D. Whitney and Daniel Gilman of Yale University, and they were clearly intellectually equal to the task. Whitney would go on to become the editor of the much-admired Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia; Gilman would become the first president of Johns Hopkins.

However, the great unsung hero of American lexicography was the man who presided over this entire operation. The premature death of Chauncey Goodrich in 1860, when the project was still in its exploratory phase, led to the accession of Noah Porter. Porter was an excellent choice. […]

The importance of the 1864 revision cannot be overstated. It formed the solid foundation on which all subsequent Merriam-Webster unabridged dictionaries have been built. And it was well-known to the scholars at Oxford who were already planning the creation of what would become the Oxford English Dictionary. As Joshua Kendall, a Noah Webster biographer, states in a 2011 essay about this edition, “The 1864 Webster’s was in many respects the first draft of the OED. With the template for the modern dictionary in place, [James] Murray and his team could focus on expanding the text rather than rethinking the paradigm.”

I’m very much looking forward to future entries; the history of lexicography may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I slurp it up greedily. (I feel obliged, however, to reiterate my long-standing objection to the historical ordering of senses, which delights the specialist and confuses the ordinary user.)

Update. Webster’s After Webster: Part One, the first post in the series, includes this piquant tidbit: “In 1861, Professor Dana took on as an assistant one ‘William C. Minor, M.D.,’ a medical student at Yale who, according to Porter’s account, ‘labored with great ability and zeal.’ Minor, who would labor zealously (not to say madly) for Britain’s New English Dictionary more than a decade later, made his lexicographical start writing definitions for the 1864 American Dictionary.”


I’m continuing to read Abulafia’s The Great Sea (see this post), and I have to share this striking passage (the year is 1867, and Ismail is Isma’il Pasha):

Politically, Ismail found he had to steer a careful course. He persuaded the Sublime Porte to grant him a new title and the automatic right of succession through eldest sons, and saw this, with some justice, as recognition that he was now to all intents an independent sovereign. The Turks reluctantly dredged up an old Persian title, ‘khedive’, whose exact meaning was apparent to no one, but which seemed to be an assertion of regal authority. On the other hand, Ismail had good reason to be alarmed at the development of the powers of the Suez Canal Company, which acted, at least towards European settlers in the canal zone, as an autonomous government. The erosion of Egyptian control over the canal was already under way.

I always found “khedive” a confusing title, and now I see it was meant to be. (The etymology, from the American Heritage Dictionary: French khédive, from Turkish hidiv, from Persian khidēw, lord, from Middle Persian khwadāy, from Old Iranian khvadāta-.)

The Prehistory of Prehistory.

A 2006 paper (pdf) by Peter Rowley-Conwy, “The Concept of Prehistory and the Invention of the Terms ‘Prehistoric’ and ‘Prehistorian’: The Scandinavian Origin, 1833–1850” (European Journal of Archaeology 9:103–130), not only antedates by twenty years the OED’s first citation for the English word (1871 E. B. Tylor Primitive Culture II. 401 “The history and pre-history of man take their proper places in the general scheme of knowledge,” in an entry updated in March 2007), it provides a fascinating look at how the term and the concept developed. Here’s the abstract:

It is usually assumed by historians of archaeology that the ‘concept of prehistory’ and the terms ‘prehistoric’ and ‘prehistorian’ first appeared in Britain and/or France in the mid nineteenth century. This contribution demonstrates that the Scandinavian equivalent terms forhistorisk and förhistorisk were in use substantially earlier, appearing in print first in 1834. Initial usage by Molbech differed slightly from that of the present day, but within three years the modern usage had been developed. The concept of prehistory was first developed at the same time by C.J. Thomsen, though he did not use the word. It was used more frequently in the nationalism debates of the 1840s, particularly by J.J.A. Worsaae. One of the other protagonists, the Norwegian Peter Andreas Munch, was probably responsible for introducing the concept to Daniel Wilson in 1849, and suggesting that an English equivalent to forhistorisk was required.

And here’s the beginning of the introduction:

Modern archaeologists clearly grasp the concepts of ‘history’ and ‘prehistory’. We have no difficulty envisaging a historical period extending a certain distance back, and before this a much longer prehistoric period extending into the deep past. For the historical period there is documentary evidence; but we accept that there was a prehistoric period, studied by prehistorians, for which there is (by definition) no documentation – material evidence is the only means by which we can examine it. But until the 19th century there was no concept of prehistory. The origin of the concept is one of the key developments in our understanding of the human past, and has seen considerable discussion in the recent English and French literature. This discussion has explored the 19th century archaeologies of the two countries, examining both the concept of prehistory, and the terminology used to discuss it.

Terminology is the more clear-cut. The first use of the word ‘prehistoric’ in English was not by an Englishman at all, but by the Scot Daniel Wilson, in his Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland (Wilson 1851). It is generally thought likely that he invented the term himself (Daniel 1964, Chippindale 1988, Kehoe 1991, 1998, Trigger 1999, Kelley 2003). Clermont and Smith (1990:98-99) however point out that the French archaeologist Gustav d’Eichthal however used préhistorique as early as 1845, but add that it remains unclear whether Wilson ever came across this and (consciously or unconsciously) adopted it. Préhistorien first appeared in French in 1872, almost 20 years before ‘prehistorian’ first occurs in English (Clermont and Smith 1990:97).

The concept of prehistory is less clear-cut. In English, Daniel Wilson was probably the first to demonstrate a clear grasp of it; certainly no English or Irish archaeologist did so before him (Rowley-Conwy in press). In France, Paul Tournal used anté-historique as early as 1833 (Coye 1993, Stoczkowski 1993), but it is open to question whether he understood this in the way ‘prehistoric’ is now used. Tournal excavated caves and recovered human artefacts and bones of extinct mammals in the same layers, believing them to be contemporary. […]

The purpose of this contribution is to argue that the Anglo-French focus of the recent discussion has been misplaced. The Danish word for ‘prehistoric’ was first published in 1834, over a decade before even d’Eichthal’s monograph. This has passed almost entirely unnoticed in the recent Anglo-French literature […]

That gives you the gist; if you’re as interested in this stuff as I am, you’ll want to visit the link for more. (Christian Molbech, by the way, is perhaps best known today for having been nasty to Hans Christian Andersen.)

A Surprising New Sign Language.

Julie Sedivy of the University of Calgary (previously cited at LH here) has a post with the hyperbolic, but apparently not actually deceptive, title “The Unusual Language That Linguists Thought Couldn’t Exist”:

Languages, like human bodies, come in a variety of shapes—but only to a point. Just as people don’t sprout multiple heads, languages tend to veer away from certain forms that might spring from an imaginative mind. For example, one core property of human languages is known as duality of patterning: meaningful linguistic units (such as words) break down into smaller meaningless units (sounds), so that the words sap, pass, and asp involve different combinations of the same sounds, even though their meanings are completely unrelated.

It’s not hard to imagine that things could have been otherwise. In principle, we could have a language in which sounds relate holistically to their meanings—a high-pitched yowl might mean “finger,” a guttural purr might mean “dark,” a yodel might mean “broccoli,” and so on. But there are stark advantages to duality of patterning. Try inventing a lexicon of tens of thousands of distinct noises, all of which are easily distinguished, and you will probably find yourself wishing you could simply re-use a few snippets of sound in varying arrangements.

What to make, then, of the recent discovery of a language whose words are not made from smaller, meaningless units? Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL) is a new sign language emerging in a village with high rates of inherited deafness in Israel’s Negev Desert. According to a report led by Wendy Sandler of the University of Haifa, words in this language correspond to holistic gestures, much like the imaginary sound-based language described above, even though ABSL has a sizable vocabulary.

To linguists, this is akin to finding a planet on which matter is made up of molecules that don’t decompose into atoms. ABSL contrasts sharply with other sign languages like American Sign Language (ASL), which creates words by re-combining a small collection of gestural elements such as hand shapes, movements, and hand positions.

There is more, including a video, at the link; I have no idea how accurate the description of the language is, but it certainly sounds interesting. Thanks, David!

The Awful Consequences of Prescriptivism.

From A Hack’s Progress (J. Cape, 1997), the autobiography of Phillip Knightly (this takes place in Fiji):

The new editor, another New Zealander, drove Hanrahan, the sub-editor, mad with lectures on pedantic points of grammar. Late one night, overcome by the heat and tension, Hanrahan listened to half an hour on the use of the pluperfect, then snatched a painting off the editor’s wall and smashed it over his head. Understandably, he was fired. The printers, who had more to do with Hanrahan than with the editor, went on strike in his support. The clerical staff, who had more to do with the editor, went on strike in his support. Since I comprised the whole of the editorial staff, I had to choose which picket line to join, and since I was a paying guest in Hanrahan’s house, I joined him.

The proprietors, under pressure from the Government not to allow either strike to succeed because of the example it might set the native workers, sacked everyone and shut the paper down for good.

Let that be a lesson to peevers to at least be careful how they rant, and to whom! Thanks to Paul for both the quote and the subject line of his e-mail, which I have shamelessly stolen for my post title.


I’m racing through Blindsight, by Peter Watts (grim and gripping, and recommended to sf fans… but the plural of plexus is plexuses, not “plexii,” for God’s sake — I just had to get that off my chest), and when “Kolmogorov complexity” was mentioned I thought “Surely that should be Kholmogorov?” Because холм [kholm] is the Russian word for ‘hill’ (the Slavic word is borrowed from Germanic, cf. English holm), and гора [gora] is ‘mountain,’ and, well, it just seemed obvious. But I looked it up and sure enough it was named for Andrey Kolmogorov, so of course I had to look Kolmogorov up in Unbegaun’s book about Russian family names, and it turns out it’s the original form, based on a place name, Kolmogory, of Finnish origin, and the form Kholmogorov is a folk etymology. So I’m passing that along as a public service for those interested in Russian surnames.

For the rest of you, here‘s a parrot that spoke with a British accent when it disappeared from its home four years ago and now speaks Spanish, and here‘s a video rendition of John Skelton’s poem about a multilingual parrot, “Speke Parott,” recorded by students at Groningen University (see the Skelton Project website for more info); thanks to Martin Langeveld for all parrot links!

The History of Font Names.

Tobias Frere-Jones, a type designer (creator of the Gotham typeface) who teaches at Yale, has posted on his blog about how the names of typefaces developed:

For centuries, punchcutters would develop their style within a narrow group of genres. There would be only one style of roman or italic, even if that style had been refined and focused over a span of years. The name only needed to pin down the remaining variable, the size. […]

In Bodoni’s epic Manuale Tipografico of 1818, over one hundred romans and italics are shown with the name of a city as a kind of nickname, though the real name was still a size and a number. Trieste is really Ascendonica (22 point) No. 9, Palermo is Sopracanoncino (28 point) No. 3, and so on.

Throughout the Industrial Revolution, a new market for advertising drove typefounders to expand their inventories. The established vocabulary soon proved inadequate — a predictable result, given novelty was such a conscious goal. Founders needed to coin new terms, to signal the unique aspect of a new design. But customers would need to understand this new jargon, so it behooved the founders to establish and maintain some equivalence in new terms. […]

By the middle of the nineteenth century, names for the more common designs had settled into a reliable syntax of base words and modifiers, with numbers appended as necessary. The result often seemed more like an ingredient list than a recognizable name. Just as “scrambled eggs and bacon” isn’t really the name of a dish, but a tally of the items involved, “Gothic Condensed No. 7” is a (hopefully unambiguous) report of attributes. […]

A concocted name, the next stage of evolution, appears in the same specimen with the design “Graphotype”. […]

There are, obviously, many more details at the link, which I encourage you to visit. (If you’d like to read it on a site with bells, whistles, and ads, here‘s the Slate version.) I found it via MetaFilter, and I can’t resist quoting the comment (from a 2012 thread) that supplied the title of that post:

> “I always thought Garamond sounded like a weapon name.”

In the fourth year of the reign of Emperor Trajan, my legions were attacked by the Calibri in the hills of Helvetica. The canny tribesmen made their assault before we could reach and lay siege to the city of Gentium, thereby rendering useless our trebuchets and high towers.

My couriers soon reported that the Calibri, as was their normal habit, had assembled a force of light cavalry, clad in copperplate gothic and armed with arials, while also bearing short onyx used for close-in fighting. They relied on speed and maneuverability in the rough terrain, using their arials to fire flaming caslons into our midst and then retreating.

A generation ago, this tactic would have wrought grievous damage. But by the grace of the gods, this was a more modern era, and I was able to deploy a force of heavy infantry, armored in stout verdana and armed with the new garamonds. No cavalry, however fleet, can stand long against a trained force armed with garamonds.

So this I say to the fools who have said that our armies have fewer meliors and sylfaens than they have at any time since the war with the Lucida Sans. We have no need of such toys now. Those are the weapons of the old Rome – a century old style.

And these are the Times New Roman.
posted by kyrademon at 2:33 PM on October 23, 2012

Afanasy Nikitin’s Languages.

Intrigued by a mention in The Cambridge History of Russian Literature (see this post), I turned to the long extract from “Afanasy Nikitin‘s Journey Across Three Seas” in Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales, by Serge A. Zenkovsky, and was struck not only by Nikitin’s audacious and open-minded journey to Persia and India (and return by way of Ethiopia, Arabia, and Armenia — alas, he died in Smolensk in 1472 before he could reach his native Tver) but by his linguistic accomplishments. In his introduction, Zenkovsky discusses the “pious and lyric digressions that sometimes take the form of a prayer or appeal to the Creator, or an evocation to his beloved Russian land”:

Curiously, part of these digressions were written by Nikitin in the language of the Koran, or in the “basic Islamic” business dialect of the Near East in which Arabic, Turkic, and Persian words are interwoven. One may presume that he did this to protect his notes from unwanted readers. It may be added that some intimate and practical observations of Indian women are given in the same dialect.

The presence of Near Eastern linguistic and stylistic elements, together with descriptions of unknown, fairy-tale-like lands, lends Nikitin’s story a particularly exotic touch. The writer obviously enjoyed the profuse use of foreign words and sonorous Oriental names of cities and lands, and played unremittingly with them. […]

The statement that there is just one and the same God in Islam and Christianity, as well as the use in Christian prayer of the word, “Allah,” […] are a most unusual and unexpected demonstration of religious tolerance in both medieval Russian and Western writing. […]

(Nikitin ended his report with a long Christian prayer in Arabic.)

A very interesting-sounding fellow; I’d like to have had a chance to talk with him.

Folkloric Elements in the Russian Chronicles.

I recently got The Cambridge History of Russian Literature, edited by Charles Moser, and it looks like exactly the kind of detailed scholarly history I’ve long wanted; I’m reading the first chapter, “The literature of old Russia, 988–1730” by Jostein Børtnes, and I found the following passage so intriguing I thought I’d pass it along (he’s discussing the Primary Chronicle — see this LH post):

A very different style prevails in the episodes dealing with the coming of the Varangians and the history of the Varangian rulers in pre-Christian Rus. Told in the form of short, pointed independent anecdotes, often culminating in dramatic dialogues, these episodes reflect an oral epic tradition, and have been associated with the Varangian element in the retinue of the Kievan princes. Some of them are clearly based on motifs also found in old Norse literature.[…] In this part of the chronicle Prince Vladimir is no longer the Christian ruler but a Varangian warrior who ravishes Rogned (Scand. Ragnheidr), the daughter of the Varangian Prince Rogvolod (Scand. Ragnvaldr) of Polotsk. The story of her unsuccessful revenge occurs in another variant in the story of Gudrun, Ironbeard’s daughter, in the Olaf Tryggvasson Saga. [N.b.: I don’t know which of the sagas is meant here. -LH]

Correspondences such as these have given rise to the theory that the Varangians brought their own oral epic tradition with them from Scandinavia to Rus. More plausible, however, is the explanation put forward by Adolf Stender-Petersen, who suggests that both the old Russian and the old Norse material reflect a Greek-Byzantine tradition passed on to Varangian merchants and mercenaries in Byzantium and carried back to Kiev and Scandinavia. From this perspective, the tales about Gudrun, Rogned and Sigrid appear as echoes of ancient Greek heroic tales.

One of the most enigmatic heroes of the Primary Chronicle is Prince Vseslav of Polotsk, whose birth is recorded under 1044. Conceived by magic, he was born with a caul which his mother was told by magicians to bind upon the child that he might bear it for the rest of his life. This he did, and so was “merciless in bloodshed,” according to the chronicler. The figure of Vseslav is surrounded by ominous signs: a large star appeared “as if it were made of blood,” the sun was “like the moon,” and these signs “portended bloodshed.” By combining the account of Vseslav given in the Primary Chronicle with the description of him in the Igor Tale and with the figure of Volkh (i.e. wolf) Vseslavevich of the byliny, it is possible to reconstruct an old Russian Vseslav epic about the prince-werewolf, based on an ancient werewolf myth also reflected in Serbo-Croatian epic poetry and deeply rooted in the Indo-European tradition common to both Slavs and Scandinavians (Roman Jakobson and Marc Szeftel).

Vseslav of Polotsk is the hero of an extensive digression in the Igor Tale (Slovo o polku Igoreve), in which the description alternates between his diurnal life as prince and warrior, and his nocturnal adventures as a werewolf:

    Vseslav the prince sat in judgment over men,
    as prince he ruled over cities;
    but at night he coursed as a wolf;
    running from Kiev to the ramparts of Tmutorokan,
    as a wolf he crossed the path of Great Hors.
    For him the bells rang early for matins in Polotsk at St.
    Sophia, but he heard the ringing in Kiev.

The folkloric character of this passage is reinforced by the reference to the Great Hors, an Iranian borrowing designating the radiant sun, another name for Dazhbog (“giver of wealth”), the sun god of the pagan Slavs. In the Igor Tale the old pagan deities have lost their cultic value. Like the werewolf myth, they seem to belong to an oral epic tradition exploited by the author of the Tale for purely poetic purposes.

I have no idea how much of this is generally accepted and how much is controversial; I look forward to seeing what my readers say.