Archives for April 2015

When Orientalism met Taxonomy.

At the blog Catching Flies, L. Shyamal has a very interesting post about the impact of orientalism on the study of the fauna and flora of India. There are all sorts of nice linguistic bits (as well as great images); a sampling:

The Dutch East India Company project of Hendrik van Rheede is exceptional in the nature of collaboration in knowledge production that put Indian traditional knowledge on record and gave local knowledge its due. Rheede came from an enlightened upper class background and it is interesting to see how he viewed other cultures. Rheede worked at a time when Linnaeus’ ideas of binomial nomenclature were still in development. The only labels that he could use were what he could find from local usage. He was aware of local variations both regional and linguistic and recorded them quite carefully. He had copperplate engravings made for printing the illustrations and all of them include local names in their original scripts in the corner.

Linnaeus considered words that came from non-classical languages (Greek and Latin) as ‘barbarous’. He is said to have had reservations about using local names except in the Latinized form as species epithets and only rarely for generic names. Joseph Needham accused Linnaeus of being prejudiced about Chinese knowledge although some later workers have pointed out there is little evidence for this claim.(Cook, 2009) It has been pointed out that Linnaeus used nearly 258 names from Malayalam based on Rheede’s work, the Hortus Malabaricus. (See Jain and Singh 2014 for a list)

We have already seen how Brian Hodgson was a big fan of local names in his descriptions as well as binomials. He was however forced by peer-pressure to shift to the use of Greek and Latin roots.

…The French entomologists Amyot and Serville are quite careful in their use of Sanskrit for insects from India. Redescribing a common northeast Indian bug which they called Lohita, they are careful in indicate the etymology and the association, even transcribing the original Sanskrit.

Thanks, Dinesh!

Stalin’s Jaffna Kolaveri.

The admirable fisheyed not only revived this old thread (and remember, every time an old thread is revived, an angel gets his wings) but linked to a video and an explication thereof by Fotheringay-Phipps at Ground Views that are so interesting I thought I’d give them their own post. From the latter:

The day before yesterday SJ Stalin released a fascinating response to the song, entitled “Yarlpanathilirunthu Kolaverida”, a rough translation would be “Dude, Bloodlust from Jaffna”. Its essence is a celebration of Tamil language and culture, a deploration of the bastardisation of Tamil and chastisation of those who are ashamed of their Tamilness.

At first glance, the music video appears to be primarily targeted at Dhanush. His mix of English and Tamil in the Kolaveri song has proved immensely popular with over 30 million hits on Youtube. Stalin considers his song a war on the Tamil language and describes his attitude toward it as bloodlust. He wonders why Dhanush chooses to use English – he asks why Tamil is scarce in its heartland, Tamil Nadu. He seems to imply that if Tamil gave sufficient creative freedom for Kamban, Valluvar and Bharathi it should be enough for Dhanush. Stalin thinks that Dhanush doesn’t give Tamil the respect that it deserves. As an ancient language, one which Stalin describes as predating the creation of stones and sand, Tamil has a rich literature and culture and Dhanush appears to ignore this and consider Tamil lacking. This is brought out by the poignant contrast between the focus on the keyboard in Dhanush’s work as opposed to the harmonium, perceived to be a more indigenous instrument, in Stalin’s video.

Once I got over the cognitive dissonance caused by reading “Stalin” and having to remind myself “No, not that Stalin,” I found the whole thing very enjoyable. Warning: fisheyed says there are some errors in the Ground Views translation of the lyrics.


The Trimūrti (sez Wikipedia) “is a concept in Hinduism ‘in which the cosmic functions of creation, maintenance, and destruction are personified by the forms of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer or transformer.'” I couldn’t have told you that, but my years of Sanskrit study, though mercifully four decades in the past, left me with enough passive knowledge to guess it meant something like ‘triad’ when I ran across it, in Russian guise, in Veltman’s Salomea (which I’m still reading — it’s very long). He’s been describing the unhappy marriage of Maria “Mary” Nilskaya, whose stupid and officious husband cuts her off from her family and treats her badly, and he says that she is unable to fulfill a wife’s duty to love her spouse: to love truly, they say, you have to love with mind, heart, and senses. “Но это тримурти любви, говорят, мечта” [But this trimurti of love, they say, is a dream]. The National Corpus of the Russian Language shows no other instance of a writer using the word metaphorically in this way; all other citations are about Indian religion. It’s quite striking to me that Veltman would presume an awareness of the word on the part of at least a substantial element of his readership, which is a reminder of the fact that the Bhagavad Gita was translated into Russian as early as 1788 (by Nikolay Novikov, working from Charles Wilkins‘ English version — it wasn’t translated from the original until 1956).

Computer Finds Lost Shakespeare Play.

Or so they say. I confess that while I accept in theory the idea of computer analysis of word use to determine, or at least provide evidence for, authorship, it makes me uneasy. At any rate, here‘s what Helen Anders writes in The Daily Beast:

Nearly 300 years ago, an editor named Lewis Theobald published a drama called Double Falsehood that he called an adaptation of a lost Shakespeare play. Nobody believed him, primarily because any Shakespeare original was, indeed, lost.

Now, two University of Texas researchers say they have proof that the Bard really did write the play, in collaboration with playwright John Fletcher—not because of the composition of iambic pentameter soliloquies but largely because of how the writers used little words like a, the, of, by, for, thee, and ye. What’s more, the validation in a newly published article in the journal Psychological Science comes not from literary scholars but from social psychologists using a computer program.

Essentially, works by Shakespeare, Fletcher, and Theobald were fed into a computer and examined for each writer’s signature use of what researchers Ryan Boyd and James Pennebaker call “function” words—little words such as articles, prepositions, pronouns, and simple verbs such as will and be—as well as social words such as brother, sister, and mother. The computer determined what the researchers call “psychological fingerprints” for each writer, and then looked for them in Double Falsehood.

I had read about the lost Cardenio, but didn’t realize it was supposed to have been reused for Double Falsehood (as part of a collaboration). At any rate, with regard to the reasons the play no longer exists, “Pennebaker says Shakespeare might have been complicit in its suppression because he wasn’t very proud of it, saying that scholars at the UCLA conference largely felt it was a ‘shitty play.'” So I guess I won’t worry my head too much over it. (Thanks, Paul!)

Guide Words.

Guide words are those words in boldface at the tops of dictionary pages telling you what the first and last words on the page are. Sometimes they’re striking and/or hilarious. Here are two that have struck me:

1) From p. 89 of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, right-hand guide word (i.e., last word on the page):

avadavat /’avədəvat/ (also amadavat) n. a red or green South Asian waxbill sometimes kept as a cage bird. [Genus Amandava: two species.]
ORIGIN C17: named after the city of Ahmadabad in India.

The word itself is amazing, with the same sort of oomph as abracadabra, but the etymology lifts it into the stratosphere. (Best OED citation: 1871 C. Darwin Descent of Man II. xiii. 49 The Bengali baboos make the pretty little males of the amadavat..fight together.)

2) From p. 553 of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition, same location:

grutten past part of GREET

“Grutten”? Seriously? Further investigation reveals this is not the usual greet but the Scottish verb meaning ‘weep, lament,’ for which the past tense is grat and the participle grutten. (Best DSL citation: 1728 Ramsay Poems (S.T.S.) II. 123: Dar’st thou of a’ thy Betters slighting speak, That have na grutten sae meikle learning Greek.)

No, Totally.

Kathryn Schulz has a nice New Yorker piece, “What part of ‘No, totally’ don’t you understand?,” that focuses on the odd affirmative use of “no” seen in this snippet of conversation:

MARON: They can look at any painting and go, “Eh.” They can look at a Rothko and go, “Hey, three colors.” And then you want to hit them.
DUNHAM: No, totally.

She finds some similar examples (“No, definitely.” “No, exactly.” “No, yes.”) and writes:

At first blush, “no” does not appear to be the kind of word whose meaning you can monkey with. For one thing, there is its length. At just two letters and one syllable, it lacks the pliable properties of longer words. You can’t stuff stuff inside it. (You can say “unfreakingbelievable,” but you cannot say “nfreakingo.”) You can’t mangle it, à la “misunderestimate” or (the finest example I’ve heard lately) “haphazardous.” On the contrary, it is so simple and self-contained that it is a holophrasm, a word that can serve as a complete sentence.

She discusses its odd part-of-speech status and explains the four-form system English used to have (which I learned about from John Cowan), using some excellent examples:

Shoot, there aren’t any open pubs in Canterbury at this hour.
Yes, there are.

Is Chaucer drunk?
Yea, and passed out on the table.

Is the Tabard open?
Nay, it closed at midnight.

Isn’t Chaucer meeting us here?
No, he went home to bed.

When it comes to explaining the affirmative-no phenomenon, however, things get murky. She quotes unnamed “linguists I spoke with” as claiming that “this use of ‘no’ might be a response to an implicit or explicit negative in the preceding statement,” but this strikes me as so clearly wrong I’m surprised any linguist would suggest it. And “the theory I like best”—that “No, totally” is really a contraction of “I know, totally”—is just silly. But the whole thing is enjoyable and worth reading, and there’s more discussion at the Log.

Edith Aldridge’s Publications.

I can’t improve on Matt Treyvaud’s No-sword post, so I’ll just quote it:

Your East Asian (and Austronesian!) treasure trove of the day: Dr Edith Aldridge’s “Publications” page. Her two papers on Chinese historical syntax are a great 80-page overview of the topic and a fine complement to Pulleyblank’s invaluable but more lexeme-centric Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar. Her papers on word order in hentai kanbun also make worthwhile reading if you care about that topic (and I do!). And she’s put it all online for free, because she’s on the side of good.

Three cheers for Edith Aldridge and all others who put their work online for free, because they’re on the side of good!

As lagniappe, speaking of free online resources: the complete contents of the 12-volume Jewish Encyclopedia, originally published between 1901-1906. (Thanks, Paul!)


Thanks to recommendations from John Cowan and Brett in this thread, I’ve started Brian W. Aldiss’s Cryptozoic! (which turns out to have been waiting on my shelves to be read for almost fifty years, a new record); it occurred to me to wonder whether the title was a real word—I thought I’d seen it, but couldn’t remember what it meant—so I checked the OED, and it turns out there are two such words, Cryptozoic adj.1 and n (Geol.) “Designating the eon before the beginning of the Cambrian period (about 542 million years ago), equivalent to the Precambrian period; of or relating to this eon, which is characterized by a lack of obvious fossils (as contrasted with the Phanerozoic eon)” and cryptozoic adj.2 (Ecol.) “Designating animals that live in concealed habitats where they remain hidden from view, as in crevices or caves; of or relating to such animals.” That seemed annoying at first, but then I realized there would be few contexts in which the homonymy would cause confusion.

Incidentally, I learn from Wikipedia that the original U.K. title of the book was An Age. I guess that didn’t sound zippy enough for the U.S. market.

A Visit to Troubadour/Grey Matter Books.

Last October I wrote about the merger of Troubadour Books with Grey Matter Books; today my wonderful wife drove me thither so I could enjoy the end of their spring sale (and reward myself for finishing the copyediting of a book on athletics in Ancient Greek history and poetry), and here is what I came back with:

Dictionary of Russian Literature Since 1917 by Wolfgang Kasack (1988)
Novel Epics: Gogol, Dostoevsky, and National Narrative by Frederick Griffiths and Stanley Rabinowitz (1990)
The History of Polish Literature, 2nd ed. by Czeslaw Milosz (1983)
Decentralization and Self-Government in Russia, 1830-1870 by Frederick S. Starr (1972)
Readings in Russian poetics: Formalist and structuralist views ed. by Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska (1978)
The Positive Hero in Russian Literature by Rufus W. Mathewson (1975)
The Literature of Roguery in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Russia by Marcia A. Morris (2000)
Through the Russian Prism by Joseph Frank (1989)
Fifty Years of Russian Prose: From Pasternak to Solzhenitsyn (2 vols) ed. by Krystyna Pomorska (1971)

Oh, and I got Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, because I’m more than halfway through Wolf Hall and I know I’m going to want to plunge right into the sequel.

American Colonial English.

A reader writes: “I am writing a story which takes place in colonial America. Do you know of any resources for someone interested in the dialect and grammar of American Colonial English?” My answer: “I don’t, but it’s an interesting question, and I’ll post it.” So, anybody know?