Archives for January 2015

Two Idioms.

I’ve recently had my attention drawn to two idioms, an ambiguous English one and an opaque Russian one:

1) Punching above one’s weight. Harley Cahen wrote me as follows:

I just stumbled upon your remarkable and effective 2002 demolition of David Foster Wallace’s infamous Harper’s essay.

At one point you write: “OK, even I am getting tired of this. It should be clear by now that Wallace is punching above his weight. He has no right to parade erudition he has no claim to, still less to condescend to people who know far more than he.”

I venture (cautiously) to observe that you have chosen a poor metaphor. To me it conveys the opposite of what you meant. To punch above one’s weight is to punch harder and more effectively than would be expected from a fighter of that weight. A flyweight might punch like a welterweight, a middleweight might punch like a heavyweight. To say that Wallace is punching above his weight is (on that interpretation) to praise him for doing much better than could have been expected of him.

What do you think?

I responded:

Good heavens, what an interesting question! It had never occurred to me that the phrase might not mean what I (no boxing fan) took it to mean, but a bit of googling suggests that you are using it in the/a standard sense; the Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary, for example, says:

If a country or business punches above their weight, they become involved in, or succeed in, an activity that needs more power, money, etc. than they seem to have:
Singapore punches above its weight in the world economy.

But Urban Dictionary, which is certainly not suitable as a scholarly reference but is useful for current senses of slang, says:

1) To be in a situation that requires powers or abilities that one does not possess.
2) To be (temporarily) successful in such a situation.

Their first definition is how I have always understood it […]. The Phrase Finder says “Competing against someone who you are no match for” and provides a potted history of its use in boxing. All in all, I am pleasantly confused and will probably have to post about it and poll the assembled multitudes.

So what say you all? Do you think of someone punching above their weight as succeeding or failing?

2) Живи ― не хочу. I ran across this Russian expression, which literally means “(You) live ― I don’t want to” (with the first verb in the imperative), and could make no sense of it. A typical example would be this, from Gazdanov’s Панихида: “Теперь у меня все это есть: и квартира, и обед, и жена, и даже ванна ― живи, не хочу” [Now I have all that: an apartment, and dinner, and a wife, and even a bathtub ― zhivi, ne khochu.] So I wrote to Sashura and Anatoly, and both were helpful as always; Sashura said “it’s used both as an expression of complete and utter joy and satisfaction with things that are going right in life, beautiful and plentiful, and in the opposite, ironic, sense, when someone swaps ideals for material well-being or favours,” and Anatoly wrote:

I understand “живи не хочу” to mean something like “such luxury!” or “such fine living!” or “such convenience!”, depending on context. I expect it to follow and emphasize a description of the fine living in question. Sometimes it might seem sarcastic or sad, but that’s because the whole description is sarcastic or sad, building up the impressive catalogue of fine living only to emphasize why the speaker can’t or won’t do it.

Similarly “ешь не хочу” [eat ― I don’t want to] is “wow, so much food!”, “гуляй не хочу” [stroll ― I don’t want to] is “so much great space/so much free time for strolling around” etc.

I’m puzzled by the structure of this idiom, and how “не хочу” got transformed into that. Never thought about it before (as is typical with idioms of course). Doesn’t seem to appear before the 20th century as you also no doubt noticed.

He sent me links to Ushakov, pointing out definition 5 (“1 л. ед. ч. хочу́ с отрицанием «не» и с предыдущим пов. накл. употр. также для обозначения сильной степени или большого количества чего-н. (простореч.). — Теперь наша воля… Гуляй не хочу. А. Островский. Яблок там — бери не хочу. Бумаги много — пиши не хочу. Закуски столько — ешь не хочу.“) and this poem by Hemnitser with the line “Ешь не хочу всего, чего душа желает” [(You) eat I don’t want to everything that the soul desires]. So though I’m still curious about the origin and history of the idiom (or rather family of idioms), at least I have a good sense of what it means — “What a life!” seems like the best translation to me — and I thought I’d pass it along for the delectation of other lovers of the Russian language.

Reports of the Death of Irish Have Been Exaggerated.

Or so says Nicholas Wolf, who teaches courses in Irish history at New York University, in this piece for the Irish Times; it starts off with some irrelevant stuff about how “speakers of Irish well into the nineteenth century held that the language possessed such a tremendous antiquity that it had been spoken by Adam and Eve,” but gets down to actual evidence:

As long ago as 1970, the late professor Breandán Ó Buachalla republished the text of a public speech delivered in Irish by a Meath scholar named Robert King in 1843 in favour of the Repeal movement and its moves to restore an Irish parliament.

A close look at any of the major Irish newspapers from the early nineteenth century will similarly reveal a multitude of reports from Emancipation, anti-tithe and Repeal demonstrations at which, as an account in the October 1838 Freeman’s Journal of an address by a Galway priest put it, a speech was given “for a considerable time in the Irish language, which had visibly a great effect on the multitude”. The Irish language emanated, in other words, from a variety of high-status public places, including political meetings, courtrooms and Catholic churches, and not just from the cloistered homes of a dwindling minority.

As it turns out, the Irish-speaking community in Ireland of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – precisely the time period when the vitality of the language was supposedly at its lowest point – was also able to extract a number of concessions from governing authorities regarding the language. […]

Still, there is no doubt that Ireland was an Irish-speaking kingdom in the nineteenth century despite claims to the contrary by contemporary administrators, travel writers, and observers – and even by certain scholars today. This is especially true once the perspective is shifted from the national level – where of course English had already gained an ascendancy numerically – to the regional level, where a close look reveals Irish to have remained stubbornly relevant in a variety of settings, whether public, private, legal, political or religious.

Obviously you’d have to go to his book An Irish-Speaking Island: State, Religion, Community, and the Linguistic Landscape in Ireland, 1770–1870 for the full argument, but the taste given here is certainly provocative. (Thanks, Trevor!)

Language vs. Genetics.

I’m inherently skeptical of attempts to link linguistic history with genetic history, so I was glad to see this piece (thanks, Paul!) by Cathleen O’Grady reporting on Nicole Creanza, Merritt Ruhlen, Trevor J. Pemberton, Noah A. Rosenberg, Marcus W. Feldman, and Sohini Ramachandran, “A comparison of worldwide phonemic and genetic variation in human populations,” PNAS, whose abstract says:

Linguistic data are often combined with genetic data to frame inferences about human population history. However, little is known about whether human demographic history generates patterns in linguistic data that are similar to those found in genetic data at a global scale. Here, we analyze the largest available datasets of both phonemes and genotyped populations. Similar axes of human geographic differentiation can be inferred from genetic data and phoneme inventories; however, geographic isolation does not necessarily lead to the loss of phonemes. Our results show that migration within geographic regions shapes phoneme evolution, although human expansion out of Africa has not left a strong signature on phonemes.

O’Grady quotes Dr. Dan Dediu, who researches linguistics and genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, as saying:

“This is a very interesting and important addition to the field, not only because it uses such a large database and introduces (relatively) new methods to the field, but also because of its findings… If its main finding survives replication with other databases and methods, then it’s a very powerful confirmation of the idea that demographic processes are one of the main driving forces behind both linguistic and genetic diversity. It also highlights the fact that language and genes have different properties, especially when it comes to small, isolated communities and contact between populations.”

I don’t assume that genetic history is entirely irrelevant to linguistics, but it’s too tempting and too common to try to smash them together and produce a falsely detailed picture of the past, so I’m glad to see research like this producing a more nuanced view.

Some Links.

Once again links are piling up faster than I can post ’em, so here are several:

1) U-M helps open more than 25,000 early English books to public:

The U-M Library, the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries and ProQuest have made public more than 25,000 manually transcribed texts from 1473-1700 — the first 200 years of the printed book.

The texts represent a significant portion of the estimated total output of English-language work published during the first two centuries of printing in England.

(If you’re wondering why the texts are manually transcribed, they explain that “these first printed works use character sets and spelling that aren’t OCR-friendly.”)

2) Balashon is back in business after a hiatus of several years (see this post for explanation: “I often felt that if I didn’t come up with some original insight in my research, it wasn’t worth posting anything. …it became fairly intimidating to start anything new, particularly if I didn’t have the time required to work on something so big. So now, I think I’d like to return to my original format. I’ll try to write frequently, and often I’ll just quote one or two sources”); there have been wonderful posts on words for lion, cholent, bashert, and many other Hebrew words and expressions; one unexpected derivation particularly caught me eye: sechus סחוס ‘cartilage’ “arose through a misreading of חסחוס as הסחוס, whose ה was mistaken for the article and was consequently dropped” — i.e., “chas’chus was read as has’chus, meaning ‘the sechus‘.” Isn’t that great? A hearty welcome back to a fine blog.

3) The poet featured in this year’s Compass Translation Award is Boris Slutsky. There doesn’t appear to be a webpage at the Stosvet site yet comparable to last year’s for the Arseny Tarkovsky Competition, but if you use Facebook, here‘s the relevant FB page — one translated poem per entry (team entries are allowed), the translation (along with the Russian original) should be sent via email to with the words “Slutsky Contest” in the subject line, and the fee is $20 per entry. Slutsky was something of an unpoetic poet; his poems tend to feature such plainspoken lines as “Плохие времена тем хороши,/ Что выявленью качества души/ Способствуют и казни, и война…” (Bad times are good in that they assist the qualities of the soul in showing themselves, executions, war…). He started out as a war poet and gained official recognition, but starting in the late 1950s some of his work appeared abroad as samizdat (never with his permission); after the death of his wife in 1977 he apparently suffered a mental breakdown and stopped writing (he died in 1986). He was one of the members of the Union of Writers who voted for the expulsion of Pasternak in 1958, which left him with a sense of guilt; he wrote a poem “Прощение” (Forgiveness) that begins “Грехи прощают за стихи./ Грехи большие — за стихи большие” (Sins are forgiven for poetry. Great sins — for great poetry). There are links to his poems at this XIX век post.

Simplification Isn’t Simple.

Victor Mair has a post at the Log about John McWhorter’s Wall Street Journal article “What the World Will Speak in 2115: A century from now, expect fewer but simpler languages on every continent.” After a fair amount of chitchat, the thread gets quite interesting; I agree with the commenters who say that no matter how much global power China accumulates it’s unlikely Mandarin will replace English as the world’s main language. What leads me to post is a brilliant comment by Sally Thomason (January 27, 2015 @ 5:15 pm), which I will take the liberty of reproducing in toto, adding a paragraph break for readability:

The trouble with McWhorter’s scenario about languages getting simpler if they’re learned by non-native speakers is that there’s a lot of evidence against the hypothesis. Modern English morphology (word structure) is simpler than Old English morphology was, but English syntax is hardly simple. Nobody has come up with a satisfactory measure of overall syntactic (sentence structure) complexity for English or any other language — because, for one thing, no complete syntactic description of any language exists. Language contact is a universal of the human condition; simplification under language contact definitely isn’t, and that includes language shift situations, where non-native speakers learn a target language: some such changes do lead to overall simplification, but others don’t. One salient example: Russian (like English) has been learned by many, many non-native speakers over the centuries, and Russian morphology has not gotten simpler as a result of all this second-language learning. Another example: in the aboriginal Pacific Northwest of the U.S. and neighboring Canadian provinces, multilingualism was the norm, much of the language learning was done by non-native speakers of the various target languages, and these languages had and have some of the most complex morphological systems in the world.

And a partial answer to reader_not_academe’s question about family trees vs. sociolinguistics: family tree models have been constructed for a great many language families all over the world, and the results of efforts to reconstruct undocumented prehistoric parent languages have led to a great many successes in the form of testable hypotheses about family-specific language changes. But historical linguists have always known that family trees can tell only part of the story of a language family’s history: the Comparative Method (by which family trees are constructed and parent languages reconstructed) identifies anomalous data, but cannot provide explanations for anomalies — other methods must be used to explain anomalies, most notably methods from contact linguistics. Modern sociolinguistics is providing wonderfully rich insights into processes of language change, but it remains true that the ultimate results of language diversification, in all but a handful of cases, turn out to fit into family trees (with reconstructable parent languages and testable historical hypotheses). The handful of family-tree-less cases include pidgin and creole languages, as well as bilingual mixed languages.

Makes me want to get back into the field, or at least take a class from her.

Update. John McWhorter responds; here’s his take on the Russian issue:

A crucial caveat, though: this kind of acquisition was most impactful before widespread education and literacy. Russian has been used as a second-language quite a bit without being simplified, indeed – but its spread has been reinforced to a large extent by formal education, literacy, and then media. Certainly there have been non-native varieties of Russian spoken in a great many places – but they almost never reach print and will never become the standard. “Broken” English took over in a country where most people were essentially illiterate, there was barely a such thing as school, and then after a long period when only French was written and the old tradition of writing in a high West Saxon Old English became a mere memory, it felt natural to start using “on the ground” English on the page.

Today, it is much harder for non-prescriptive varieties to be reinterpreted as prestigious ones in this way. The “immigrant” Swedish now spoken by children of immigrants will never oust standard Swedish or affect it in any real way, whereas the “immigrant” Norwegian spoken by Low Germans several centuries ago became the Norwegian norm in the area (whereas Scandinavian dialects further north such as the unfortunately obscure Elfdalian retain Old Norse’s three genders, etc.). We moderns perhaps have to strain a bit to imagine worlds where language was primarily oral and our prescriptivist sense of language barely existed.

The whole thing is worth reading (as, of course, are the comments); he addresses many of the issues raised.

15 Unique German Illnesses.

An enjoyable list from Arika Okrent; alongside the usual suspects like Ostalgie (nostalgia for the old way of life in East Germany) and Weltschmerz (you probably know what Weltschmerz is), there are such piquant entries as Kevinismus (“a strange propensity to give their kids wholly un-German, American-sounding names like Justin, Mandy, Dennis, Cindy, and Kevin”) and Ichschmerz (“like Weltschmerz, but it is dissatisfaction with the self rather than the world”). A few others:


Kreislaufzusammenbruch, or “circulatory collapse,” sounds deathly serious, but it’s used quite commonly in Germany to mean something like “feeling woozy” or “I don’t think I can come into work today.”


Hörsturz refers to a sudden loss of hearing, which in Germany is apparently frequently caused by stress. Strangely, while every German knows at least 5 people who have had a bout of Hörsturz, it is practically unheard of anywhere else.


Putzen means “to clean” and Fimmel is a mania or obsession. Putzfimmel is an obsession with cleaning. It is not unheard of outside of Germany, but elsewhere it is less culturally embedded and less fun to say.

I expect my Germanophone readers to tell me some of them are invented, others exaggerated, and yet others misinterpreted, but it gave me a chuckle on a day spent reading about the Holocaust and worrying about the weather, so I thought I’d pass it on.

Speaking of the weather, I don’t know if there’s a word Schneeweh, but we’re promised at least a couple of feet of snow in the next two days and power lines may come down, so if I don’t post, you’ll know what’s happening. Please join me in hoping no trees fall near our house!


My wife informed me today that what we’d been calling an igloo, the snow fort the grandkids made in the yard when the weather permitted, was actually a quinzhee. I’d never heard of such a thing, but sure enough, it has a Wikipedia article and an OED entry (Third Edition, December 2007):

Etymology: < Slave kǫ́ézhii, lit. ‘in the shelter’, or < a similar form in another Athabaskan language.

N. Amer.

A snow shelter of a type originally used by North American Indians, consisting of a mound of snow with a domed chamber dug into it.
1984 G. Durrell How to shoot Amateur Naturalist v. 97 Crawling into the quinzhee, Lee found that, although the temperature outside was minus thirty, inside our snowhouse it was one degree above freezing.
1995 Leader (Canada) Mar. 26/1 The night they slept in their backyard quinzhee the temperature dropped to -15 C.
2005 K. Callan Happy Camper 252 Don’t forget to store your shovel inside the quinzee in case there’s a snowstorm..and you have to dig yourself out.

The fact that there are no citations prior to 1984 at least partly explains why I’ve never heard of it, but it’s a useful word (allowing “igloo” to be confined to structures made of ice), and I will try to remember to use it. (Both Wikipedia and the OED say the pronunciation is /ˈkwɪnziː/, though I don’t see why the zh sound couldn’t be used — and if it’s not, why not use the spelling quinzee?).

English Purity, French Corruption.

No, I’m not talking about morals, I’m talking about Latin. Another enlightening passage from Curtius (see this post):

The chain of French literature begins only with the eleventh century. Spanish literature begins at the end of the twelfth century; Italian not until about 1220, with St. Francis’ Hymn to the Sun and the Sicilian art lyric. The late start of Spain and Italy is to be explained by the predominant position of France; the early appearance of Germanic literary works (in England about 700, in Germany about 750), on the other hand, by the intrinsic foreignness of “Germanic” in comparison with Romance. […] The Romanian [i.e., speaker of a Romance language] could still get along for a considerable time with a more or less barbarized Latin, could start from there to acquire correct Latin. The Germanic has to learn Latin from the ground up—and he learns it very well. An amazingly pure Latin is written in England about 700, at a time when corruption is the rule in France. But even highly educated Italians could overlook grammatical blunders which set German monks laughing. The experience befell Gunzo of Novara, who came to Germany in 965 in the retinue of Otto I, and who used a wrong case in conversation with monks at St. Gall. He justified himself in a letter, in which he says that he was wrongly accused of grammatical ignorance, “although I am often handicapped by the use of our popular language, which is close to Latin.”

Literature from Underrepresented Languages.

An essay by editor Daniel Goulden on rare and underrepresented languages in Asymptote:

[…] In expanding the umbrella of world literature, Asymptote helps shine a light on languages neglected by publishers in New York and London. In our October 2013 issue, for instance, we published a series of poems by Natalia Toledo, the first woman to write in the Isthmus Zapotec, an indigenous American language still spoken by over 750,000 people in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. We not only published the original text alongside its translation but also included an audio clip of the author reading her work, which allowed readers to engage with the text on a whole new level by listening to a language they had most likely never heard before.

In our October 2011 issue, we published James Byrne’s and ko ko thett’s translations of various Burmese poets. If you haven’t seen Burmese writing before, you should click over to these poems now and select ‘Read the original in Burmese’ in the right hand column for a special treat—it could be the most beautiful language you have ever seen.

Asymptote has also published languages with very few speakers. In fact, John Smelcer, who gave us three Ahtna poems for our January 2012 issue, is the only living tribal member who can read and write in Ahtna—one of the most endangered languages in the world. By publishing his work we were able to introduce Ahtna literature to readers around the world and help it live longer.

What a great project — may it live long and prosper!

The News in Hausa.

Another link from frequent commenter Paul: BBC News in Hausa. As he says, it’s a useful resource because “you know roughly what the news is in English so it should give you good clues.” Another example of the riches provided by the internet; when I bought my Hausa dictionary, I never dreamed it would become so easy to hear the language used! And it was worth investigating the link just for the short clip Boko Haram ta dauki alhakin harin Baga (my dictionary tells me it means “Boko Haram takes responsibility for the Baga raid”), which teaches me how to say Boko Haram (see this LH post) in Hausa: the first word sounds to me like two equally long and high-pitched syllables, the second word is unstressed and lower-pitched.