Archives for June 2015

Königin Victoria.

From Dinah Birch’s TLS review (subscribers only) of A. N. Wilson’s Victoria: A Life:

But it was marriage to her high-minded cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, which transformed her life. Her letters and journals leave no doubt that she was deeply in love with him, and the union was never simply a matter of political expediency. One reason for her passionate attachment was her sense of kinship with Albert as a German. Victoria’s mother was German, with imperfect English. Her father was half-German. Albert was a handsome prince from another land, but he made her feel at home. In 1874, long after Albert’s death, a visitor to Osborne House noted with surprise that the royal family spoke German to each other in the privacy of their home. Victoria, who has come to seem the quintessence of Englishness, was in many ways scarcely English at all.

I knew the family was of German origin, of course, but I had no idea Victoria and her family spoke German to each other at home.

Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources.

Sara Uckelman of Durham University commented on this 2008 thread about the Medieval Names Archive to say “Working with the Academy and for the MNA is directly responsible for my newest project, the Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources,” and the site looked interesting enough I thought I’d give it its own post. The About page says:

The Dictionary aims to contain all given (fore, Christian) names recorded in European sources written between 600 and 1600, minus the names of historical/non-contemporary people, and names occurring only in fictional literature or poetry. Development of the Dictionary is planned in two phases:

• First phase: Sources from Great Britain, Ireland, Iceland, Scandinavia, Iberia, Italy, France, Germany, Hungary
• Second phase: Sources from Eastern Europe (Romania, Greece, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic states, etc.)

I’m looking forward to the second phase!

Pronunciation Errors that Changed Modern English.

An Alternet piece by David Shariatmadari begins with this charming anecdote:

Someone I know tells a story about a very senior academic giving a speech. Students shouldn’t worry too much, she says, if their plans “go oar-y” after graduation. Confused glances are exchanged across the hall. Slowly the penny drops: the professor has been pronouncing “awry” wrong all through her long, glittering career.

We’ve all been there. I still lapse into mis-CHEE-vous if I’m not concentrating. […] The point is malapropisms and mispronunciations are fairly common. The 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary lists 171,476 words as being in common use. But the average person’s vocabulary is tens of thousands smaller, and the number of words they use every day smaller still. There are bound to be things we’ve read or are vaguely familiar with, but not able to pronounce as we are supposed to.

The term “supposed” opens up a whole different debate, of course. Error is the engine of language change, and today’s mistake could be tomorrow’s vigorously defended norm. There are lots of wonderful examples of alternative pronunciations or missteps that have become standard usage. Here are some of my favourites, complete with fancy technical names.

There’s nothing surprising in the list for those of us who concern ourselves with such matters, but it’s well done, and this bit did actually address an issue I’d wondered about:

In Norwegian, “sk” is pronounced “sh”. So early English-speaking adopters of skiing actually went shiing. Once the rest of us started reading about it in magazines we just said it how it looked.

Graffiti and Virgil.

Emily Gowers, in her TLS review of Graffiti and the Literary Landscape in Roman Pompeii by Kristina Milnor, makes some very interesting points about the inseparability of low and high, just the kind of thing I love:

Milnor reads the graffiti as carefully as any literary text, picking out clever manipulations of lines from Ovid and Virgil and the rhymes hidden in abbreviations that speak of subtle play on the aural and read experience of words. […] In her view, one reason graffiti should intrigue us is because it shows how permeable the borders were between elite and popular culture. Street songs influenced higher genres; conversely, letter-writing etiquette and the metrical conventions of epic, drama and elegy were widely known among ordinary scribblers. The affinity between Catullus’ more aggressive poems and graffito abuse is famous (and acknowledged by him when he follows up a threat of oral rape by offering to cover tavern walls with phallic images), while the satirist Persius likens himself to a naughty boy peeing in sacred precincts and scrawling insults behind the emperor’s back.

One of the most extreme forms of high–low exchange takes the form of engagement with Virgil’s Aeneid. Published three generations before the destruction of Pompeii and already consecrated as Rome’s national epic, this would seem to be the perfect example of a unified textual corpus. But, as Milnor shows, Virgil was almost instantly atomized into bite-sized snippets which permeated the popular consciousness and embarked on their own creative afterlife – just as “To be or not to be” did, or “The boy stood on the burning deck”. It would be nice to find something significant in the Pompeians’ choice of Virgilian lines (a few of them contain anti-Greek sentiment, for example). But mostly they are mindlessly ludic, especially when they use the momentous opening, “Arms and the man”. One variation, “I sing of fullers and the screech owl, not arms and the man”, takes us neatly from the Olympian heights of Augustan literature to the world of street traders and craft guilds (the owl was the fullers’ mascot). Some wag, spotting that a formal election announcement fortuitously contains the acronym DIDO, has inserted a tiny “Arma virumque” beneath it. “Everyone fell silent”, the audience’s preparation for Aeneas’ narrative of his post-Troy adventures, is knowingly redeployed in a mural context. Milnor has to conclude that most quotations, above all those of Virgil’s opening words, are “meaningless, not meaningful”. Aeneas had already become a kind of Everyman, his poem a dispersible symbol of authority and national spirit available for all Romans to imprint on its segments their individual stamp. Yet such authorship as is claimed is of an offbeat kind – opportunist and ultimately irresponsible.

[…] Pompeii, a city dedicated to Venus, contains a disproportionate amount of erotic graffiti and erotic wall-painting, though it is still unclear how much that really reflects the economic activities of this particular town. At any rate, it was more multilingual and cosmopolitan than quiet, graffiti-free Herculaneum (Pompeii even offers samples of the proto-Arabic Safaitic script). Yet it is less local difference than the wide reach and common repertoire of Roman popular culture that Milnor is keen to emphasize. The address to a beleaguered wall quoted above [“I’m amazed, wall, that you haven’t fallen down in ruins, since you bear the tedious outpourings of so many writers”] is no one-off but is found at least three times in Pompeii in different hands. Far from being the authentic voice of a single individual, the message was a replicable meme: a kind of ancient “Kilroy was here”. And repeated variations on the motif “We couldn’t wait to get here, we can’t wait to leave” made it the Roman equivalent of “. . . and all I got was this lousy T-shirt”.

Interestingly, whereas the online review is titled “Ancient vandalism?” the version in my physical copy is called “Conticuere omnes,” the Latin original of the “Everyone fell silent” quoted in the review. I don’t think an American publication for a general (i.e., non-classicist) readership would allow itself such an allusion; I’m glad someone does.

Mayan Spoken Here.

An Indian Country Today piece by Dominique Godrèche makes me want to visit the Biennale in Venice:

The 56th edition of the International Art Biennale of Venice, All the world’s futures, curated by Okwui Enwezor, presented, for the first time, “Voces Indigenas,” an exhibition entirely dedicated to the Native languages of Latin America. All the world’s futures runs through November 22.

Located on the huge site of the Arsenale, in the Pavilion of Latin America, curated by Alfonso Hug and Alberto Saraiva, and run by the Italo-Latin American Institute (IILA) the project “When the voice is the soul of a people,” was conceived by artists, linguistic experts and tribal members, through sound installations exclusively representing the mythology, history… of Native communities from 16 countries of Latin America.

Each audio installation transmits a particular story, told by members of the various tribes, in their respective languages. […]

Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Uruguay were among the countries represented with Sandra Monterroso representing Guatemala. Monterroso was one of the few artists who spoke her own text given that she had studied her language – Maya Q’eqchi’.

There’s a good interview with Monterroso, and I was moved by her final, simple wish: “I dream that one day, you will be able to choose the Mayan language in school.” (Thanks, Trevor.)


Patrick Taylor, etymologist for the American Heritage Dictionary, is an occasional commenter at LH and always has interesting things to say, so I’m pleased to pass along his excellent revision to the etymology of garbanzo, to appear in the AHD update this fall (I found it in Steve Kleinedler’s Facebook feed):

[Spanish, perhaps alteration (influenced by Old Spanish garroba, carob) of Old Spanish *arvanço (compare Portuguese ervanço, chickpea), perhaps from Gothic *arwaits; akin to Dutch erwt and Old High German araweiz, pea, both from Proto-Germanic *arwait-,*arwīt-, pea, pulse, probably from the same European substrate source as Greek erebinthos, chickpea, and Greek orobos and Latin ervum, bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia), a vetch once widely cultivated in the Mediterranean region as a pulse and as fodder for livestock.]

I add, totally irrelevantly, that I have always loved the phrase “bitter vetch,” though I wouldn’t know one if I saw it. Also, erwt is a weird-looking word.

The Beasts at Ephesus.

John Cowan sent me a link to Daniel Frayer-Griggs, “The Beasts at Ephesus and the Cult of Artemis,” Harvard Theological Review 106 (2013): 459-477, a detailed exegesis of 1 Cor 15:32, which begins “εἰ κατὰ ἄνθρωπον ἐθηριοµάχησα ἐν Ἐϕέσῳ, τί µοι τὸ ὄϕελος;” The King James Bible renders the full sentence “If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me, if the dead rise not?” I have always found this line mysterious and wonderful, and I have myself seen the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, so I was particularly interested in the article, which is full of good stuff. Frayer-Griggs discusses the difference between Greek and Asiatic Artemis, saying that by the first century “Ephesian Artemis had appropriated the attributes of Greek Artemis.” He refers to “Xenophon’s Ephesiaka, a magnificent novel from sometime in the second century C.E.,” which makes me want to check it out. He focuses on “the difficult phrase κατὰ ἄνθρωπον,” mentioning

suggestions including the following: “with merely human hopes,” that is, without hope for the resurrection; “man-wise,” whatever that might mean; “humanly speaking,” suggesting the figurative nature of Paul’s statement, or even “according to human folly,” indicating that the story of Paul’s beast fight was a false report.

He himself concludes:

In this instance, κατὰ ἄνθρωπον may thus be translated “in the image of humankind,” “in human form,” or “in human likeness.” The first clause of our verse may accordingly be rendered, “If at Ephesus I fought with beasts in human form.”

The final sentence: “If Paul’s claim to have fought with beasts in Ephesus is in fact an allusive instance of anti-Artemis rhetoric, it may be the earliest known example of a developing tradition of early Christian polemic against the goddess and her cult.” If any of this sounds intriguing, I recommend reading the whole thing.


Yesterday’s WSJ has an enjoyable column by Ben Cohen describing a word, or quasi-word, or pseudo-word, that was new to me:

There are few words in any language as fun to say as schadenfreude.

Its etymology is easy to understand. Schadenfreude, the pleasure in someone else’s pain, comes from the German words for those exact emotions.

But people can also take pain in someone else’s pleasure. Why isn’t there a word for that?

It turns out there is. Scholars have finally found a linguistic relative of schadenfreude, and it sounds like another German portmanteau: gluckschmerz.

Except it isn’t.

“It’s not an actual word in the German language,” says University of Kentucky psychologist Richard Smith. “You won’t find it in any German dictionary.”

It turns out that it’s sort of existed—in English, not German—for three decades, and there’s a kicker at the end that I’ll let you discover for yourself. Once upon a time I would have been irritated at the attempt to foist yet another cutesy non-word on the long-suffering English language, which has plenty of actual resources with which to describe emotions, but I’ve mellowed, and if people enjoy this sort of thing, more power to them, may they have—as they don’t say in German—Wortschatzfälschungfreude. (Thanks, Bruce!)

Changing Languages.

Aidan Doyle, author of the forthcoming A History of the Irish Language, has a mini-rant at OUPBlog that begins:

In the literature on language death and language renewal, two cases come up again and again: Irish and Hebrew. Mention of the former language is usually attended by a whiff of disapproval. It was abandoned relatively recently by a majority of the Irish people in favour of English, and hence is quoted as an example of a people rejecting their heritage. Hebrew, on the other hand, is presented as a model of linguistic good behaviour: not only was it not rejected by its own people, it was even revived after being dead for more than two thousand years, and is now thriving.

He says, “In language, as in life, it sometimes happens that a certain code outlives its use,” pointing out that “Language does not exist independently of society and culture, and if a community comes under intense pressure from another one, it has to adapt to survive.” There’s nothing profound or especially new, but it’s an enjoyable read, and of course I heartily approve of his conclusion: “Change is part of language: you can embrace it, or resist it, but there’s no escaping it.” Thanks for the link go to Trevor, who adds that he is bothered by “the omission of any mention of the penalties for using Irish in the 19th century and before.”

A World of Languages.

A nice infographic by Alberto Lucas López:

There are at least 7,102 known languages alive in the world today. Twenty-three of these languages are a mother tongue for more than 50 million people. The 23 languages make up the native tongue of 4.1 billion people. We represent each language within black borders and then provide the numbers of native speakers (in millions) by country. The colour of these countries shows how languages have taken root in many different regions.

Obviously one can always quibble about the details, but at least Chinese is called a macrolanguage that “includes different languages and dialects” (though Arabic is treated as a single language), and it’s a striking way to present the information.

Addendum. Matt Zajechowski and a team at Olivet Nazarene University have developed an interactive graphic/map that covers the second most spoken languages around the world, which makes a nice companion to the posted one. Thanks, Matt!