Archives for July 2015

Thirteen Years of Languagehat.

As of today, it’s thirteen years since the first LH post. Amazin’, amazin’! (as Casey Stengel used to say); I vividly remember being surprised I made it to six months, at which point I hoped “to keep everyone entertained for at least another half-year.” The fact that the ship is still afloat is entirely due to the lively commentary provided by my readership, and I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for sticking around and keeping the conversation going. Me, I have no intention of stopping unless and until I hit an iceberg, at which time life jackets will be issued to all passengers. Like Jack and Stephen, we sail on!

The Queen’s Latin.

Ben Yagoda has a Lingua Franca post on an often-discussed phenomenon, “why, in American movies and TV shows set in foreign or imagined lands, the characters almost invariably speak in British accents, especially if they’re bad guys”:

The invaluable website TV Tropes dubs the custom “the Queen’s Latin” and has this explanation for its use in historical dramas:

Britain’s long history causes British accents to seem somehow “older” — they are used to suggest a sense of antiquity. This is actually inaccurate from a linguistic perspective; the modern British accents actually represent a more evolved form of English. Older English accents were closer to modern Irish and American accents.

In any case, using the Queen’s Latin makes a series or film commercially viable in the U.S. It alleviates the need for subtitles, while maintaining the appearance of historical authenticity. It’s just foreign and exotic enough. (Many British actors already Play Great Ethnics.) It’s also no doubt inspired by productions of Shakespeare‘s plays set in Ancient Rome. Remember: Romeo might have been Italian, but he’s not realistic unless he talks like a proper British toff.

(That last link mentions “the exaggerated smack of a boxing glove” and notes: “Real-life fistfights tend to be eerily silent, which obviously wouldn’t be very dramatic or exciting.” I never knew that.) And it’s not just movies and TV; Yagoda discusses a book that “is set in France and Germany during World War II, yet the author, Anthony Doerr — an American — continually uses British terms: crisps instead of potato chips, lift instead of elevator, and biscuits.” The sun may have set on the Empire, but this silly tradition shows no sign of going away.

Cockney Disappearing from London.

This MetaFilter post has a roundup of links pertaining to the arrival of Multicultural London English (MLE) and its gradual displacing of Cockney as the form of speech of working-class London youth. This brief BBC News story from 2010 refers to “a study by Paul Kerswill, Professor of Sociolinguistics at Lancaster University .. to be published in early 2011,” but it doesn’t seem to have been published, and the Wikipedia article doesn’t have any sources more recent than 2011. Anybody know more about this interesting development? (Apparently kids today are no longer dropping their aitches!)

Familiae Rossicae.

I was looking up something else in my Russian edition (Русские фамилии, Moscow: Progress, 1995) of Unbegaun’s Russian Surnames when I found myself getting lost in Boris Uspensky‘s essay “Социальная жизнь русских фамилий” [The social life of Russian family names], appended to Unbegaun’s text. I was first struck by a passage on the history of the name Zinoviev (my translation):

For example, the Russian noble family [род] of the Zinovievs goes back to the Polish-Lithuanian family of the Zenovichi [Зеновичи], of Serbian origin: the Serbian Zenovichi despots, having moved to Lithuania, started calling themselves Zenov’evichi [Зеновьевичи], and afterwards, in Great Russian territory, they were renamed Zinovievs [Зиновьевы].

On the next page, Uspensky writes:

The capacity of Russian family names for modification, adapting themselves to one or another social norm, should not surprise us, if we bear in mind that family names are a relatively new phenomenon in Russia. This is evidenced by, among other things, the foreign origin of the word фамилия [‘family name’], which was borrowed in the 17th century, originally meaning ‘clan, family’ [род, семья] (corresponding to the meaning of the Latin or Polish word familia); the sense of a designation for the family began to crystallize around the 1730s, but did not become solidly fixed until the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century. It is instructive that until the 18th century there was no way in Russian to adequately express the concept (such words as прозвище and прозвание could refer either to family or individual appellations).

In a footnote, he quotes this delightful passage from Vyazemsky‘s notebooks:

В каком-то губернском городе дворянство представлялось императору Александру, в одно из многочисленных путешествий его по России. Не расслышав порядочно имени одного из представлявшихся дворян, обратился он к нему: “Позвольте спросить, ваша фамилия?” — “Осталась в деревне, ваше величество, — отвечает он, — но, если прикажите, сейчас пошлю за нею”.

In a certain provincial capital, the nobility was being presented to the Emperor Alexander during one of his many journeys around Russia. Not having heard properly the name of one of the nobles being presented, he turned to him: “Your familia, if I may ask?” “They’re back in the village, Your Majesty,” he answered, “but if Your Majesty wishes, I can send for them.”

Curse Words as Dialect Maps.

Check out the amazing maps at this HuffPo story by Lorenzo Ligato, reporting on research by Jack Grieve, a professor of forensic linguistics at Aston University in Birmingham, who published the maps on Twitter last week. The one for “fuck” is a thing of beauty: you could replace the hackneyed phrase “flyover country” by “where they don’t say ‘fuck.'” (Via Mark Liberman at the Log.)

Chinese Billiards.

I was recently reading Turgenev’s charming one-act comedy Где тонко, там и рвется (It breaks where it is weakest, translated in 1909 as One May Spin a Thread Too Finely), and hit a crux before a line was spoken: the stage directions, in describing the furniture of the stage (the hall of a landowner’s house), include китайский бильярд ‘Chinese billiards.’ What did that refer to in 1847 Russia? (The translation just says “a small billiard table.”) I found this piquant anecdote from Gilyarovsky’s memoir Москва и москвичи (Moscow and the Muscovites):

The billiard room kept its old character, described by L. N. Tolstoy. Even on my last visit to the club in 1912 I saw there a Chinese billiard table in memory of L. N. Tolstoy. On this billiard table in 1862 Lev Nikolaevich lost a thousand rubles to an officer passing through and experienced an unpleasant minute: he had no money to pay his debt, and the club rules were strict — he could have been blackboarded [banned from attending until the debt was paid]. There’s no knowing how it might have ended if Mikhail Katkov, the editor of the Russian Messenger and the Moscow News, hadn’t been in the club; when he learned what was going on, he rescued Tolstoy, giving him a loan of a thousand rubles to cover his loss. And in the next issue of the Russian Messenger appeared Tolstoy’s The Cossacks.

(You can read the original Russian here; scroll down to “Бильярдная хранила старый характер.”) But that doesn’t help. If anyone knows what kind of game this was, I will be glad to learn.

Two for the Bookshelf.

I’ve gotten a couple of review copies that I won’t have time to read for a while but that look so interesting and useful that I want to put the word out about them right away:

1) The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics, by Asya Pereltsvaig and Martin W. Lewis. The blurb says:

Over the past decade, a group of prolific and innovative evolutionary biologists has sought to reinvent historical linguistics through the use of phylogenetic and phylogeographical analysis, treating cognates like genes and conceptualizing the spread of languages in terms of the diffusion of viruses. Using these techniques, researchers claim to have located the origin of the Indo-European language family in Neolithic Anatolia, challenging the near-consensus view that it emerged in the grasslands north of the Black Sea thousands of years later. But despite its widespread celebration in the global media, this new approach fails to withstand scrutiny. As languages do not evolve like biological species and do not spread like viruses, the model produces incoherent results, contradicted by the empirical record at every turn. This book asserts that the origin and spread of languages must be examined primarily through the time-tested techniques of linguistic analysis, rather than those of evolutionary biology.

I’ve often cited Asya’s blog Languages Of The World (e.g., here), and that description is certainly singing my song (“the time-tested techniques of linguistic analysis”: hear, hear!), so I’m very much looking forward to reading the book.

2) May I Quote You on That?: A Guide to Grammar and Usage, by Stephen Spector. I generally look askance at popular usage guides, but this one looks very well done; it starts off pointing out that “We all use language in different styles, depending on the situation,” it’s written in a lively manner, it uses well-chosen quotes to make its points (and leads each section with them, rather than with a rule), and above all, it actually mentions the history behind the rules rather than presenting them as graven in stone — under “It’s or its,” for example, Spector says “The distinction that we use today didn’t become standard until the nineteenth century and into the twentieth.” For twelve bucks (or seven for the Kindle edition), you could do a lot worse.


Many thanks to Steve Lubman for sending me links to Forty-three translations of Hadrian’s “Animula, Vagula, Blandula” (at and Lev Oborin’s LJ post collecting a few Russian versions. Of the English translations, my favorites are the first two:

Minion soul, poor wanton thing,
The body’s guest, my dearest darling,
To what places art thou going?
Naked, miserable, trembling,
Reaving me of all the joy
Which by thee I did enjoy.
—Molle (1625)

My soul, my pleasant soul and witty,
The ghest and consort of my body,
Into what place now all alone
Naked and sad wilt thou be gone?
No mirth, no wit, as heretofore,
Nor Jests wilt thou afford me more.
Henry Vaughan (1652)

I don’t know if “Molle” is the John Molle, or Mole, who died in January 1639 in an Inquisition prison in Rome where he had been kept for decades, but if so, he certainly had sufficient personal experience to underlie his excellent version; the only flaw for me is the final rhyme, but I presume it was perfectly OK in his day to rhyme “joy” and “enjoy.” The nineteenth-century versions are pretty much uniformly awful (again, from my point of view); I would single out as an exception this one:

Wandering, gentle little sprite,
Guest of my body and its friend,
    Whither now
    Goest thou?
Pale, and stiff, and naked quite,
All thy jests are at an end.
—W. A. S. Benson

It would be nice if someone were to collect later versions (the ones at the post appear to be from this 1876 book, which has translations into other languages as well, including Ancient Greek) — I imagine the twentieth century did a better job. The Russian ones are certainly superior to most of the English ones; I particularly liked Olga Sedakova‘s:

Душенька, беженка, неженка,
дружок и гостья бренности,
куда теперь отправишься,
голодная, сирая, босая?
утехи твои кончились!

How Do You Speak American?

A nice Atlas Obscura piece by Sarah Laskow on the history and psychology of American English, with discussions of Mencken and others:

English in America has always been different than the English spoken in the British metropole. In his 1992 book, A History of American English, the late linguist J.L. Dillard, who specialized in African American Vernacular English, demonstrates that the most originally American form of English was a pidgin, originating with sailor’s language. Early explorers of North America, he argues, would have used nautical pidgins and passed those on to native people. By the time the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts, there were people here—most famously the men the new arrivals called Samoset and Squanto—who already spoke a version of English that Puritans could understand.

But the English spoken by American settlers of European origin, too, quickly split off from the English spoken in Britain. At the beginning of the colonial period, America was a backwater. Not only was it distant from the cultural centers of Europe, it was far from the most happening place on this side of the Atlantic. So trends that surged in the language of London took longer to reach here, if they ever did.

It’s more correct to say, for instance, that people living in England developed a new accent than that Americans “lost” their British way of speaking. […]

What does American sound like today? There are some hints from the corpora that Davies put together: his Corpus of Historical American English contains 400 million words, drawn from sources from 1890 through 2009; his Corpus of Contemporary American English contains 450 million words, from texts, including soap operas, created from 1990-2012. With corpora this big and carefully constructed to draw consistently from a mix of popular and academic sources, linguists can look more carefully at how grammar and usage change over time. For instance, one hundred years ago, Americans would have said: “Have you any time?” “It’s very British, very old fashioned,” says Davies. Now, we would say: “Do you have any time?” We also might say: “You’re going to end up paying way too much for that book.” You’re going to end up—that construction wasn’t around 100 years ago.

Thanks, Paul!

Also, my wife and I are regular listeners to Fresh Air; having been annoyed a couple of weeks ago by a segment in which Terry Gross interviewed a speech pathologist who happily pathologized perfectly normal speech (hey, it’s what people pay her for) without any counterpoint from someone who knew linguistics, I was thrilled that for today’s show (the link has a transcript of excerpts as well as the audio file) she brought the pathologist back but this time sharing the air with an actual linguist, Stanford linguistics professor Penny Eckert (as well as journalist Jessica Grose, who has had to deal with people criticizing her voice). I was nodding so vigorously my wife said “You really like her, don’t you?” I said “It’s such a pleasure to listen to someone who knows what she’s talking about!” The poor pathologist clearly felt ganged up on, but that’s what you get when you’ve been selling astrological charts and then have to deal with an astronomer. It’s well worth a listen.


Time for another Languagehat Reader Survey! On the radio news this morning they mentioned a sortie (‘combat mission’) and pronounced it sor-TEE (stress on the last syllable). I had been aware of that pronunciation, since it is given as the second option in dictionaries, but I have always pronounced it SOR-tee (stress on the first syllable), which felt more natural, and that seems to be the only UK pronunciation. Is this sor-TEE version an authentic straight-from-French thing, like herb with no /h/, or a post-hoc Frenchification? Is it used primarily by military folk? What’s the story? Tell me your thoughts (and of course your own usage).