Archives for November 2014


My wife and I are continuing to read Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End (see this post), and in the first chapter of the third novel, A Man Could Stand Up—, I ran across a word unfamiliar to me in this sense:

But of course that had been ten minutes ago…Before the maroons or the sirens, whichever it had been, had sounded…[…]

Intense heat possessed Valentine Wannop. She imagined indeed her eyes flashing. Was this the moment?

She didn’t even know whether what they had let off had been maroons or aircraft guns or sirens.

It occurs several more times, and clearly meant some kind of noisemaker, but it wasn’t in either Merriam-Webster or AHD; of course, the OED (entry updated 2000) has it, s.v. maroon 1 “A kind of large chestnut.” The second sense is:

2. a. A firework designed to make a single loud report like the noise of a cannon (often with a bright flash of light), used esp. as a warning or signal.
Used as an air-raid warning, etc., in the First World War (1914–18).
1749 G. Ruggieri Descr. Machine for Fireworks 13, 5000 Marrons in Battery, which continue firing to the End of the Fireworks.
1773 Rivington’s N.Y. Gazetteer 15 July 3/3 (advt.) In the Bowery-Lane, Will be exhibited a grand and curious Fire-Work… A Piece representing a Wind-Mill. Two Perpendicular Wheels with Maroons.
1818 Handbill July in Pall Mall Gaz. (1885) 5 Nov. 4/2 A battery of maroons, or imitation cannon.
1840 T. Hood Miss Kilmansegg i, in New Monthly Mag. 60 87 To have seen the maroons, And the whirling moons.
1884 St. James’s Gaz. 13 June 10/2 The display last night included signal maroons..rockets, and shells.
1918 Flying 6 Feb. 90/1 Clearly, the authorities ought to have posted notices..explaining that the maroons are warnings to take cover.
1918 Daily Mirror 12 Nov. 2/1 London went wild with delight when the great news came through yesterday… Bells burst into joyful chimes, maroons were exploded, bands paraded the streets, and London gave itself up wholeheartedly to rejoicing.
1934 E. Wharton Backward Glance xiii. 358 Four years of war had inured Parisians to every kind of noise connected with air-raids, from the boom of warning maroons to the smashing roar of the bombs.
1957 J. Kirkup Only Child xiii. 177, I would go to bed, to be awakened at midnight by bells and maroons and hooting sirens and laughter and shouting and singing in the streets.
1985 Lifeboat Winter 258/3 The deputy launching authority for Alderney lifeboat was contacted and..maroons were fired.

The etymology, after saying that the word is from Middle French marron chestnut and its etymon Italian marrone (“further etymology uncertain”), adds: “French marron is attested in sense A. 2 from 1752; Trésor de la Langue Française explains that the firework makes the noise of a chestnut bursting in the fire.” I’m curious as to whether this sense is still current outside the US (where it seems to be unknown).

Side note: the first sentence of the novel, “Slowly, amidst intolerable noises from, on the one hand, the street and, on the other, from the large and voluminously echoing playground, the depths of the telephone began, for Valentine, to assume an aspect that, years ago, it had used to have — of being a part of the supernatural paraphernalia of inscrutable Destiny,” reminds me of a sentence from Lolita: “With people in movies I seem to share the services of the machina telephonica and its sudden god.” Nabokov, of course, is playing on deus ex machina; I don’t know if there are other examples of the supernatural/divine telephone trope.

Israeli Hebrew Imperatives.

Mark Liberman has a post at the Log quoting Tal Linzen reporting that Google Translate renders Hebrew “Please return to me” as “Please me like an alien creature”:

The first word אנא [‘ana] means ‘please’ (though only in the request sense) and the last word אלי [e’laj] means ‘to me’. The source of the mistranslation is the second word חיזרי, which can be either [xiz’ri] ‘return (imperative, singular, female)’ or [xajza’ri] ‘extraterrestrial (adjective)’.The spelling for the ‘return’ sense is typically חזרי, but it’s not that unusual to spell it with the vowel חיזרי. A more common spelling for the second form would be חייזרי, doubling the י to indicate that it’s used as the glide [j] rather than the vowel [i]. Regardless of the spelling, though, it’s surprising that ‘extraterrestrial (adjective)’ is more frequent than ‘return (imperative)’.

Hilarious as this is, the reason I’m posting about it here is an interesting disagreement in the comment thread. David L. Gold writes:

In non-formal latter-day Israeli Hebrew, most of the historically imperative forms are not used. Rather, future-tense forms are used. […]

For chazar, the historically imperative forms (masculine singular chazor, feminine singular chizri, and plural chizru) are not used (remember, I am speaking here about non-formal latter-day Israeli Hebrew; those three forms ARE used in formal Israeli Hebrew).

Rather, in non-formal latter-day Israeli Hebrew, the imperative forms are the future-tense forms:

masculine singular tachzor! (literally, ‘you will return!, you shall return!’)

feminine singular tachzeri (literally, ‘you will return!, you shall return!’)

plural tachzeru! (literally, ‘you will return!, you shall return!’)

Ran Ari-Gur responds:

That’s true in spoken Hebrew, but in written Hebrew imperative forms aren’t nearly so uncommon; and one would have expected Google’s bilingual corpora to bias toward the latter. (Googling “חיזרי” and looking through the first few pages, by the way, I find that almost all hits are instances of /xiz’ri/; very few are /xajza’ri/.)

I’m guessing that Yoav Goldberg has it right; if this translation came from a dictionary rather than from corpus analysis, then the lemma form /xajza’ri/ would have had an advantage over the non-lemma form /xiz’ri/ (lemma = /xa’zar/).

Both reiterate their points; Gold says:

In latter-day Israeli Hebrew, the controlling factor in the choice between (1) historically imperative forms (such as !חזור) and future-tense-forms-used-as-imperatives (such as !תחזור) is not the means (written or oral) by which the utterance is conveyed.(*)

Rather, the controlling factor is the location of the utterance (be it written or spoken) on the continuum of (in)formality.

Ari-Gur responds:

It’s true that, all else being equal, the true imperatives are more formal and the future-tense-forms-as-imperatives are more informal — and I don’t think I implied otherwise. But I stand by what I wrote. In general, true imperatives occur much frequently in writing than in speech. (In part, this is because people tend to write more formally than they speak; though I’m not sure if that’s the whole story. To some extent I think the converse may also be true, that people sometimes affect formality in speech by borrowing elements of a written style, and vice versa.)

I’m curious to know what my readers have to say about it.


I recently came across a reference to “Odradek,” which sounded vaguely West Slavic but otherwise meant nothing to me; Google told me it was from a very short story by Kafka called “Die Sorge des Hausvaters” (“The Cares of a Family Man”), which turns out to be one of the few works of literature I know that puts etymology front and center. The first of the five paragraphs, followed by my attempt at a translation:

Die einen sagen, das Wort Odradek stamme aus dem Slawischen und sie suchen auf Grund dessen die Bildung des Wortes nachzuweisen. Andere wieder meinen, es stamme aus dem Deutschen, vom Slawischen sei es nur beeinflußt. Die Unsicherheit beider Deutungen aber läßt wohl mit Recht darauf schließen, daß keine zutrifft, zumal man auch mit keiner von ihnen einen Sinn des Wortes finden kann.

Some say the word Odradek is of Slavic origin, and on the strength of that they try to demonstrate the formation of the word. Others think it is of German origin, and that Slavic has only influenced it. The uncertainty of both interpretations, however, allows us to conclude with good reason that neither is correct, especially since neither of them provides us with a meaning for the word.

You can see a translation of the whole, very creepy, story, with a creepy illustration (as well as an attempt at interpretation which I did not read much of), here; the Wikipedia article has a whole series of interpretations, one more bizarre and unlikely than the next (hey, there’s Slavoj Žižek!), as well as the suggestion that an alleged “antiquated Slavonic verb ‘odradeti’, which means ‘to counsel against’ could be the root of the word” — does anybody know what this “odradeti” might be, or be supposed to be? Me, I like Noah Willumsen’s approach:

Allegorical readers of “Die Sorge des Hausvaters” have sought to tame the text and its wild creature, Odradek, by establishing stable correspondences between text and theory, replacing Odradek, in all its unknowability, with some element of their own understanding. … I will argue that an interpretation of his works must deal only with their sensus literalis. Their truth is autonomous: independent of reference, undetermined by a conceptual framework.

Not Truly Lost.

Emily Chung has a CBC story reporting on an interesting discovery:

You may not recall any memories from the first year of life, but if you were exposed to a different language at the time, your brain will still respond to it at some level, a new study suggests.

Brain scans show that children adopted from China as babies into families that don’t speak Chinese still unconsciously recognize Chinese sounds as language more than a decade later.

“It was amazing to see evidence that such an early experience continued to have a lasting effect,” said Lara Pierce, lead author of the study published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in an email to CBC News.

The adopted children, who were raised in French-speaking Quebec families, had no conscious memory of hearing Chinese.

“If you actually test these people in Chinese, they don’t actually know it,” said Denise Klein, a researcher at McGill University’s Montreal Neurological Institute who co-authored the paper.

But their brains responded to Chinese language sounds the same way as those of bilingual children raised in Chinese-speaking families.

Only a preliminary study, but certainly suggestive. (Thanks, Kobi!)

Phrasebook Alternative History: 1940.

Tamas Deak at Poemas del río Wang posts about a courageous man and his unique Polish-Hungarian phrasebook:

Wladysław Szabliński vel Krawczyk was the Polish lector of the Tisza István University in Debrecen from the thirties. He was born in Warsaw on 7 December 1912. On 1 September 1935 he was already teaching at the university, and took an active part in the work of the summer university, too. He had an excellent command of Hungarian, many people only knew him as “Szablinski László”, and he had a Hungarian wife, Ágnes Juhász. The example sentences of his phrasebook make you understand why the Nazi cultural attaché demanded his dismissal in the summer of 1941. […]

WAR / the British government sent an ultimatum to the German government / the German government rejected the ultimatum / England declared war on Germany / the Germans invaded Poland without ultimatum / the technical superiority was on the German side / defense reports / our army is rapidly advancing
our troops repulsed the hostile attack / there is tranquility on the front / the enemy was lured into a trap / the French troops went on counterattack / the soldiers dug trenches and forced the taken positions / the German troops retreated to the previously chosen positions / the hostile troops fled in disorder / we have won the battle! / the enemy’s defeat is unavoidable / the Siegfried Line was broken through / an air attack was ordered against Warsaw / the anti-aircraft artillery shot down two planes / they dropped twenty bombs / the public buildings were bombed / the civilians suffered the most / they bombed the Red Cross hospital / we had ten casualties and forty-three wounded / the losses of the enemy are unknown / the troops encamped / the siege of Warsaw lasted nearly a month / the fort garison surrendered

A glorious alternative history unfolds from the example sentences of the book. Britain and France did not let down their ally in a shameful way, as they did in reality, but, as they previously agreed, they immediately attacked the German aggressor. Thus, Poland came out of the war as a winner.

Britain successfully continues his anti-submarine campaign / the resources of the enemy are exhausted / they signed an armistice / peace talks began / they made peace / the defeated enemy had to sign the peace treaty

See the post for images and more.

The Unity of Australian Languages: 1841.

Matt of No-sword posts a quote from Dixon’s The Languages of Australia (which looks wonderful — insert ritual complaint about overpriced academic books here) involving George Grey‘s “second great breakthrough in Australian linguistic studies”, in Grey’s 1841 Journals of Two Expeditions of Discovery in North-West and Western Australia, During the Years 1837, 1838, and 1839:

Grey showed not only that there was a typological similarity between the languages of Australia, he also gathered enough cognates to suggest an historical connection between them: in effect, he suggested that the languages all belonged to a single genetic ‘language family’.

Matt points out that the Journals are online, quotes the actual passage from Grey, and compares it to William Jones‘s famous proclamation of the unity of the Indo-European languages (though that name was not then in use, and he was far from the first to make the observation).

I did a series of posts on Dixon and Australian languages back in January 2006: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.


Even after all these years of looking up words, there are still plenty whose origins and history I’m unfamiliar with. Sometimes when I look one up, I nod and think “about what I expected”; sometimes I’m surprised; and sometimes I’m so taken aback that “astonished” doesn’t really cover it. This just happened to me with a word I’d been meaning to look up because I kept running across it in Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, a series of novels about WWI my wife and I are currently reading. Now I learn from a Wordorigins thread that it meant “A man in charge of a bat-horse and its load; a military servant of a cavalry officer. Now generally, an officer’s servant” (“now” being 1885, when the unrevised OED entry was written), that the “bat” in both batman and bat-horse was French bât ‘pack-saddle’ (Old French bast < late Latin bastum), and that the old-fashioned pronunciation was /ˈbɑːmən/, with French-style /bɑː/! Now I want to know when the spelling pronunciation /ˈbætmən/ came into use; from the OED citations (1844 “A Bât Man is allowed to the Surgeon for the care of the horse carrying the Instruments,” where the â clearly indicates a French-style pronunciation; 1855 “The English loss was..a waggoner, three bat-men, and a horse,” where it’s ambiguous) I’d guess the mid-19th century. At any rate, by WWI I imagine only the most aged of officers still said /ˈbɑːmən/; my Daniel Jones Pronouncing Dictionary (13th ed., 1967) doesn’t even mention it, and it’s pretty careful to include obsolete forms that might still be encountered.

How Interpreters Do It.

Geoff Watts reports on “the lives and minds of real-time translators”:

…As the delegate spoke, Pinkney had to make sense of a message composed in one language while simultaneously constructing and articulating the same message in another tongue. The process required an extraordinary blend of sensory, motor and cognitive skills, all of which had to operate in unison. She did so continuously and in real time, without asking the speaker to slow down or clarify anything. She didn’t stammer or pause. Nothing in our evolutionary history can have programmed Pinkney’s brain for a task so peculiar and demanding. Executing it required versatility and nuance beyond the reach of the most powerful computers. It is a wonder that her brain, indeed any human brain, can do it at all.

Neuroscientists have explored language for decades and produced scores of studies on multilingual speakers. Yet understanding this process – simultaneous interpretation – is a much bigger scientific challenge. So much goes on in an interpreter’s brain that it’s hard even to know where to start. Recently, however, a handful of enthusiasts have taken up the challenge, and one region of the brain – the caudate nucleus – has already caught their attention.

The caudate isn’t a specialist language area; neuroscientists know it for its role in processes like decision making and trust. It’s like an orchestral conductor, coordinating activity across many brain regions to produce stunningly complex behaviours. Which means the results of the interpretation studies appear to tie into one of the biggest ideas to emerge from neuroscience over the past decade or two. It’s now clear that many of our most sophisticated abilities are made possible not by specialist brain areas dedicated to specific tasks, but by lightning-fast coordination between areas that control more general tasks, such as movement and hearing. Simultaneous interpretation, it seems, is yet another feat made possible by our networked brains.

There’s lots of good stuff in there, and of course no such piece would be complete without the requisite funny translation stories:

Word order is a particular problem in fish meetings, which Miles said she dreads. In a long sentence about a particular variety of fish, and in a language where the noun – the name of the fish – comes towards the end, the interpreter is left guessing about the subject of the sentence until it’s completed.

There’s humour in these pitfalls, of course. Miles told me about an agricultural meeting at which delegates discussed frozen bull’s semen; a French interpreter translated this as “matelot congelés”, or ‘deep-frozen sailors’. And she shared an error of her own, produced when a delegate spoke of the need to settle something “avant Milan” – ‘before Milan’, the city being the venue for a forthcoming meeting. Miles didn’t know about the Milan summit, so said that the issue wasn’t going to be settled for “mille ans”, or ‘a thousand years’.

These people are amazing, and I take my hat off to them (and to the scientists who are figuring out how they do it).

Poljarnyj vestnik.

Erik’s latest post at XIX век alerted me to a journal I hadn’t been aware of:

Here’s another open access and (as of 2014) peer-reviewed journal: Полярный вестник (The Polar Herald), out of Norway. The 2014 volume has an article about Baratynskii by Elena Pedigo Clark, one about Gertsen by Kathleen Parthé (whose book on village prose I liked very much), and articles about language by Maria Nordrum and Olga Steriopolo. You can download pdfs of anything in their archive going back to 1998 for free without registering.

Aside from the articles Erik singles out, I was taken with “Four Ways to Get Tangled Up in Russian” by Maria Nordrum (“In this paper I will analyze the four Natural Perfectives of the simplex verb путать ‘tangle up’, namely впутать, спутать, перепутать and запутать. […] My hypothesis is that the choice of prefix largely depends on the construction in which the verb appears and the semantics of its internal argument”); when I went to the archive, I tried Vol 1 (1998) and was immediately struck by “Оценка языка-пиджина руссенорск глазами современного лингвиста (Assessment of the pidgin Russenorsk (RN) seen with the eyes of a contemporary linguist),” by Ingvild Broch. I’m obviously going to be exploring this for a while.

And I was glad to learn about Parthé’s book, Russian Village Prose: The Radiant Past; it’s a topic I’m interested in, and I’ll have to add it to the to-read-someday list.

Austronesian and Taiwan.

John Cowan sent me a link to Roger Blench’s paper (draft circulated for comment) “Suppose we are wrong about the Austronesian settlement of Taiwan?,” a fascinating attempt to upend the usual narrative. Here’s the abstract:

The current model of the prehistory of Taiwan assumes that it was first settled some 25,000 years ago by a population of unknown affinities, who reached what is now an island via a landbridge, at a time of much lower sea-levels. Some 5500 years ago, the Ta Pen Keng (TPK) culture, attested on the Peng Hu islands in the Taiwan Strait, apparently represents an incoming Neolithic population. Similar TPK sites are recorded around the shores of Taiwan in the centuries immediately following this. The pervasive assumption has been that these early settlers were the bearers of the Austronesian languages, which then diversified. If so, related Austronesian languages were formerly spoken on the Chinese mainland and these subsequently disappeared as a consequence of the Sinitic expansions. The indigenous Austronesian languages of Taiwan are claimed to reconstruct to a single proto-language, PAN, and from these reconstructions we can derive hypotheses about the lifestyle and subsistence of the earliest settlers.

This paper will argue that the single migration model is mistaken, and that it is not consistent with either the archaeology or the lexicon. If Formosan languages appear to reconstruct to a proto-language it is because they have been interacting over a long period, but they actually represent a continuing flow of pre-Austronesian languages from the mainland. Part of the evidence for this is the exceptional diversity of lexical items which are supposedly part of basic subsistence vocabulary.

Three phases of migration are distinguished, the TPK, the Longshan type culture and the Yuanshan, all of which originate on different places on the Chinese mainland. A further back migration from the Philippines may be responsible for the primary settlement of Green island and parts of the east coast, resulting in the present-day Amis population.

From the conclusion:

From this it follows that a single PAN cannot be reconstructed, in the sense of an apical ancestor, merely a Common Formosan (CF). The Formosanisms identified by Dyen and Blust are not PAN but rather local innovations. This explains why reconstructions of PAN phonology and grammar have always tended to be inconclusive. The flat arrays proposed by Blust and Ross would thus be a reflection of prehistory, although not in the sense originally intended.

It’s clearly written, and there are very useful maps, tables, and illustrations; I’ll be interested to see if the theory becomes accepted.