Archives for June 2015


I saw a reference to Vyacheslav Ivanov‘s first collection of poetry, «Кормчие звезды», which was translated as “Lodestars,” and I had two reactions in quick succession: “Ah yes, кормчий is ‘helmsman’ (Stalin was the Великий кормчий, the Great Helmsman), and a lodestar is what you steer by, that makes sense!” and “Wait a minute, why is a lodestar called that?” So I went to the dictionary and found that (unsurprisingly) lodestar is lode + star, but (surprisingly) lode originally meant ‘way’ (it’s from from Old English lād ‘way’) and is an o-grade nominal form (*loit-ā‑) of the PIE root *leit- ‘to go forth,’ which gives us the verb lead (Old English lǣdan). A load was originally that which leads. Isn’t that neat? How it came to mean ‘a vein of ore’ I don’t know, and the OED doesn’t say.

Via Bulbul on Facebook.

A couple of items I found while scanning my FB feed this morning (I generally do so once a day, which my younger acquaintances find hilarious):

1) Malta’s own colourful 18th century expletives:

In the 17th and 18th century, people used to report their neighbours to the Inquisitor for any behaviour they deemed went against the Catholic religion. Blasphemy was among them. Witnesses would describe in detail any blasphemy they would have heard.

“It looks like back then blasphemies were not a mere short utterance but rather complex short stories. Even reading them today can make you wince, as they were really harsh,” he noted.

In 1797, there are records of a priest uttering: “laħrac ruħ il Caddis ta’ Liscof li ordnani” (may the soul of the saint of the bishop who ordained me burn in hell).

Blasphemies commonly featured the devil, the Catholic faith – including the Pope, saints, the Virgin Mary and God – as well as parents and relatives.

There are also examples of how people used to resort to euphemisms over the years instead of the actual word to avoid the tribunal. Sagrament (sacrament) became legremew; osjta (host) became ostra; qaddis (saint) became qattus; imniefaħ instead of imniegħel.

Very reminiscent of Quebec.

2) Can you identify these Near Eastern languages? I was more chuffed about my 10/10 score before I saw the brackets:

90-100% 855 people
80-89% 411 people
70-79% 483 people
60-69% 486 people
50-59% 342 people
0-49% 265 people

(Warning: There’s a ringer at the end.)

Comparative Siouan Dictionary.

This is another of those things that makes me remember why I got into historical linguistics; Lameen Souag posts about a wonderful resource that’s finally online:

A key document in Native American philology which has been circulating in samizdat form for decades is finally online and searchable: the multi-authored Comparative Siouan Dictionary (as noted by Guillaume Jacques). Named for the last of its speakers to resist colonization, the Sioux or Lakota, the Siouan family was spread over a vast section of North America, covering much of the Missouri and Mississippi valleys but with old outliers as far east as Tutelo in Virginia. The names of several Midwesternstates derive from Siouan languages, so they make a convenient starting point for exploring the database. Minnesota is from Dakota mni sota “cloudy water”,both elements of whose history you can trace back here to proto-Siouan: *waRé• “lake, water” and *(a)só•tE “hazy, bluish, cloudy”. *waRé• also yields Chiwere ñį, which in combination with the Chiwere reflex of *parás-ka “spread > flat (1)” yields the name of Nebraska. Dakota, from a name of the Sioux, has a less venerable history, being traceable only back to proto-Mississippi Valley Siouan *hkota/*hkoRa/*hkora “friend”, with unexplained internal variation and similar forms in other families suggesting the possibility of a loan. (The la- element might have something to do with fire; see John Koontz’s discussion.)

Just looking at those lists of cognates makes me want to start learning the languages!

Swearing in Quebec II.

We’ve discussed the topic before, but Chi Luu (“a computational linguist and NLP researcher who tinkers with tiny models and machines to uncover curious mysteries in human language”) has a good piece at JSTOR Daily that takes a historical approach; after describing the sacres (and providing a couple of delightful video clips to illustrate them, including Laurent Paquin’s “Chant sacré”: “Ostie d’câlisse de sacrament/Ciboire de saint Ostie…”) goes on to ask:

So how did this come to be? How do seemingly harmless words in languages around the world start to develop a second life as taboo words which connote emotional extremes and are then considered offensive or harmful? How do good words go bad?

She has lots of interesting links, and concludes:

The more these taboo words are used in novel ways, the more diluted their efficacy and power. Across the years, it is the tenuous balance of taboo speech use or prohibition that can turn formerly innocuous words into terms that are mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Talking in the Real World.

Lane Greene of The Economist has another good “Johnson” column; this time he’s focusing on the importance of register:

I began learning Portuguese from an old secondhand book that taught forms like comê-lo-ia, which I dutifully studied, grumbling “who on Earth says this?” If only someone had answered “nobody”. When I finally talked to Brazilians, their Portuguese resembled my textbook in roughly the way that a Picasso resembles its subject. Sadly, many traditional textbooks still teach Portuguese this way—including to native speakers in Brazil.

All languages change, but as they do, some language groups are more willing to update the formal grammar books than others. If the books don’t change, but the spoken language does—the typical case—the two forms gradually drift apart.

This is a shame for many native speakers, who arrive at school to learn that the way everyone speaks is “wrong”, and an ossified written form is “right”. […]

Instead of a rigid right-wrong approach, with the written form always being taught as right, it would be better to teach the idea of register: that certain forms are used in casual speech, other forms in formal speech, others still in writing. Lingua Portuguesa also had an interview with Valéria Paz de Almeida, a linguist consultant to a news broadcaster, who lamented that newscasters feel the need to speak in an artificial register that resembles writing. They come to her with worried questions about rare and tricky grammatical forms. She in turn tries to get them to speak as they do with the cameras switched off: fluently and articulately, but naturally. She finds this make the journalists looser and happier, and the audience never complains.

What about foreign learners? It is distressing to show up in Paris and hear a mysterious mumble that sounds like j’sépa, over and over again, only later to discover that this is what your French teacher told you to say as je ne sais pas, “I don’t know.” Those silent s’s are a perfect example of the spoken language changing while the written remains the same. And a good textbook would explain that the negative particle ne is usually dropped in colloquial speech. But most books don’t trust learners to be able to master multiple registers. Mastering register is, to be sure, tricky. But it is not well solved by teaching only a register that will leave the learner bewildered by the first live contact with a human being.

He commends Routledge’s “Modern Grammar: A Practical Guide” series for doing it right, with “detailed, detached descriptions of the difference between speaking and writing, formal and informal, regional differences and the like.” I agree with him that that should be standard in language teaching.


I just ran across the marvelous phrase “kenspeckle bop tunes,” and turned to the Concise Oxford, where I found:

kenspeckle /’kɛnˌspɛk(ə)l/ adj. Scottish conspicuous; easily recognizable
ORIGIN C16: of Scand. origin, prob. based on ON kenna ‘know, perceive’ and spak-, spek- ‘wise or wisdom’

Now, Old Norse spakr ‘wise’ is apparently from the PIE root *spek- ‘observe,’ which is the source of Latin specere ‘to look at’ and speciēs ‘a seeing, sight, form,’ Greek skeptesthai ‘to examine, consider’ and skopos ‘one who watches; object of attention, goal,’ and a great many other words — scroll down to spek- at the American Heritage Dictionary Indo-European Roots Appendix for all the traces it has left in English. And if you scroll to gnō- ‘to know’ you’ll see the even larger number of traces left by that highly productive root, including ken. A nice, unexpected little Indo-European package!

Dostoevsky’s Weak Heart.

I’ve just finished Dostoevsky’s 1848 story “Слабое сердце” (“A Weak Heart,” translated by Constance Garnett as “A Faint Heart“), and it’s much better than I expected; in fact, I’d say it’s the best thing he wrote before being sent off to Siberia. It starts with a comic scene — Vasya Shumkov, a young clerk, comes home to tell his roommate and best friend Arkady he’s engaged to be married but can’t get a word out before Arkady throws him down on the bed and jokingly wrestles with him — but winds up in tragedy, and both the storytelling and the philosophizing are deeper and more convincing than ever. The parallel with (or parody of) Karamzin’s “Poor Liza” is clear (at one point Arkady even exclaims “Ах, бедная Лиза!” [Ah, poor Liza!], which made me laugh), and Joseph Frank (in Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849) compares it to Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman” (it “exactly parallels the main theme of Pushkin’s poem”), but what struck me were the parallels with the life and works of Dostoevsky’s friend Yakov Butkov (see these LH posts: 1, 2, 3). The story could be seen as a sort of mashup of Butkov’s “Первое число” [First of the month] (two roommates, both clerks and both in love with the same woman), “Партикулярная пара” [A suit of clothes] (a poor clerk falls in love with a woman but is too abashed to attend her birthday party), and “Ленточка” [The ribbon] (a clerk hopes his ability to copy documents in a fair hand will help win the hand of the woman he loves, who gets engaged to another man), but the deepest parallel is with Butkov’s own situation: in his growing madness Shumkov is convinced he is going to be forced to become a soldier (nearly equivalent to a death sentence in those days), and this is the actual situation that confronted Butkov, who as a poor man from the lowest non-serf class had no exemption from the draft. He was rescued by the editor Kraevsky, who bought his exemption and gave him a place to stay but “overwhelmed him with crushingly hard, poorly paid work” (to quote Geir Kjetsaa, who also noticed the parallel); Kraevsky is clearly represented by Shumkov’s friendly but stern benefactor Yulian Mastakovich. I can’t help but wonder what Butkov thought when he read the story.

Tongue Twisters in Australian Languages.

A fun post at Endangered Languages and Cultures:

A lively thread has been unwinding over on the RNLD email list recently, in response to a request for examples of Australian tongue twisters.

So many great phrases have come out of the woodwork that it behooves us to set them down here for posterity.

Oddly, listing them in alphabetical order by language means that (for me, at least) the best are at the top, beginning with


Intelyapelyape yepeyepe-kenhe lyepelyepele anepaneme
‘The butterfly is sitting on the sheep’s intestines’

Thanks, Yoram!

Gammawash and the Jacob Sannazars.

Two minor mysteries I’m hoping some LH reader might be able to shed light on:

1) At, aldiboronti quotes from Beaumont and Fletcher’s Thierry and Theodoret, Act V, Scene 1, in which the following exchange occurs (4th Soldier is Welsh; you can see the context here):

4th Soldier: It is the welch must doo’t I see, comrade man of vrship, St. Tauy bee her patron, the gods of the mountaines keepe her cow and her cupboord, may shee neuer want the greene of the leeke, nor the fat of the onion, if she part with her bounties to him that is a great deale away from her cozines, and has too big suites in law to recouer her heritage.

1st Soldier: Pardon me Sir, I will haue nothing to do with your suites, it comes within the statute of maintenance: home to your coznes and sowe garlicke and hempeseede, the one will stop your hunger, the other end your suites, gammawash comrade, gammawash.

As aldi says, “No gloss for the word in my edition and googling proved fruitless. I’m assuming it’s a Welsh term or a corrupted version of one. Any ideas?”

2) I’m reading Turgenev’s Записки охотника [A Sportsman’s Sketches], and in Татьяна Борисовна и ее племянник [Tatyana Borisovna and Her Nephew] I hit the following passage (the translation is Garnett’s, linked above):

И потому нисколько не удивительно, что эти господа любители также оказывают сильное покровительство русской литературе, особенно драматической… «Джакобы Саназары» писаны для них: тысячи раз изображенная борьба непризнанного таланта с людьми, с целым миром потрясает их до дна души…

And so it is not to be wondered at that these gentlemen extend their powerful patronage to Russian literature also, especially to dramatic literature. . . . The Jacob Sannazars are written for them; the struggle of unappreciated talent against the whole world, depicted a thousand times over, still moves them profoundly. . .

Now, “Jacob Sannazar” is presumably the Italian poet Jacopo Sannazaro (known for Arcadia, c. 1480), but I am unaware of any works about him in Russian (or any other language) well enough known to warrant a phrase like “the Jacob Sannazars“; any ideas?

The Grammar of Cuisine.

Back in September I posted about Dan Jurafsky’s book The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu; I’ve just gotten around to reading the TLS review (subscribers only) from last December, and I’m happy to report that the TLS assigned the review to an actual linguist, Kerstin Hoge (University Lecturer in German Linguistics at Oxford), so it’s well informed and has interesting things to say:

Jurafsky, a computational linguist, defines the grammar of cuisine as the rules that determine how parts (ingredients, dishes and flavour combinations) are structured into wholes (dishes, meals and cuisines). As with grammars of language, rules can vary from one community to another and can change over time, but there are also rules that hold for all cultures, possibly reflecting fundamentals of human nature. For example, by definition, a cuisine involves cooking, a uniquely human trait, which transforms raw materials into a new product, and, as argued by Claude Lévi-Strauss, provides the foundation of civilization. In most cuisines that have dessert, it is the last course of the meal, as evidenced by the word’s etymology (dessert is derived from the French desservir, to remove what has been served). Not all cultures, though, see the need for a sweet afterthought: in Chinese cooking, dessert does not constitute a “grammatical dish”. And the absence of dessert is not to be equated with an absence of sweet foods; as Jurafsky reminds us, “a donut on the way to the gym is not dessert; it’s just a lack of willpower”. Indeed, Chinese cuisine is no stranger to sweet foods (whether sweet and sour dishes or tong sui soups), but traditionally these are not eaten as desserts.

In Western cultures, too, the eating of sweet foods was not always as firmly associated with the end of the meal as it is now. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, sweet and savoury could intermingle in the course of the meal as well as within individual dishes; this is attested by recipes such as the Tudor “chekyns upon soppes”, glossed by Jurafsky as “basically chicken on cinnamon toast”. The gradual gravitation of predominantly sweet dishes to a place at the end of the meal appears to have gone hand-in-hand with a drop in the use of sugar in meat and fish dishes. A change in one part of the systemic whole thus had implications for other parts – which is reminiscent of language change, and nicely fits Jurafsky’s neo-structuralist approach to culinary traits, their cross-cultural similarities and differences.

And I like her conclusion:

Irrespective of whether we view our linguistic relationship with food as an entirely social construct or a facet of human cognition, one lesson that emerges repeatedly from its study is the insight that, as Dan Jurafsky puts it, “no culture is an island, that beauty is created at the confusing and painful boundaries between cultures and peoples and religions”. It is a lesson well worth remembering when tucking into supposedly national dishes.