Archives for September 2015

How the Cherokee Language Has Adapted.

Eduardo Avila reports for PRI on a heartening success story for one of the better-known Native American languages:

From the printing press and the typewriter to today’s readily available digital technologies like computers and smart phones, the Cherokee language is fully functional thanks to the help of tireless advocates and activists.

As one of the most actively used native languages in the US, the Cherokee language is spoken by populations in North Carolina and Oklahoma, as well as other states across the country. While more people are now able to write the Cherokee language with syllabics — written characters that each represent a syllable — retaining and encouraging more speakers of the language continues to be a high priority. And the use of technology has been one way to attract increased interest.

A new animated video produced by the Cherokee Nation Education Services and the Language Technology Program tells the story of this adoption of new technologies over time. Narrated by the Cherokee hero Sequoyah, who created the first Cherokee syllabary in 1821, the video introduces viewers to some of these breakthroughs.

The five-minute video is in Cherokee (with English subtitles) and is a lot of fun to watch; I just wish my Aunt Bettie were still alive, because she loved everything Cherokee and would have gotten a huge kick out of this. Thanks for the link, Trevor!

Desideri’s Tibetan.

Alison Gopnik writes about Hume, history, and her midlife crisis for The Atlantic; it’s a long and interesting read, but not really LH material except for this passage, describing Ippolito Desideri‘s experience as a Jesuit missionary in Tibet:

When he finally arrived in Lhasa [in 1716], the king and the lamas welcomed him enthusiastically, and their enthusiasm didn’t wane when he announced that he was a lama himself and intended to convert them all to Catholicism. In that case, the king suggested, it would be a good idea for him to study Buddhism. If he really understood Buddhism and he could still convince the Tibetans that Catholicism was better, then of course they would convert.

Desideri accepted the challenge. He spent the next five years in the Buddhist monasteries tucked away in the mountains around Lhasa. The monasteries were among the largest academic institutions in the world at the time. Desideri embarked on their 12-year-long curriculum in theology and philosophy. He composed a series of Christian tracts in Tibetan verse, which he presented to the king. They were beautifully written on the scrolls used by the great Tibetan libraries, with elegant lettering and carved wooden cases. […] He worked on his Christian tracts and mastered the basic texts of Buddhism. He also translated the work of the great Buddhist philosopher Tsongkhapa into Italian.


It’s hard to imagine how Desideri kept any sense at all of who he was. He spent all his time reading, writing, and thinking about another religion, in another language. (Thupten Jinpa, the current Dalai Lama’s translator, told me that Desideri’s Tibetan manuscripts are even more perceptive than the Italian ones, and are written in particularly beautiful Tibetan, too.)

These world travelers with their endless appetite (and facility) for languages amaze me; to go all the way to Tibet to try to convert people is one thing, but to learn the language well enough to write in “particularly beautiful Tibetan” is quite another. (See my earlier posts The Tatarman of Vámbéry and Sándor Kégl for similarly astonishing travelers.)

Trailing and Trolling.

I’m still reading Jane Eyre, and in Chapter 17 I was amused by a chance resemblance to a modern usage. Jane’s employer (and heartthrob) Mr. Rochester has arrived with a bunch of fancy house guests, and after dinner she is observing the darkly beautiful Miss Ingram, whom she fears Rochester may have a fancy for:

She entered into a discourse on botany with the gentle Mrs. Dent. It seemed Mrs. Dent had not studied that science: though, as she said, she liked flowers, ‘especially wild ones’; Miss Ingram had, and she ran over its vocabulary with an air. I presently perceived she was (what is vernacularly termed) trailing Mrs. Dent; that is, playing on her ignorance: her trail might be clever, but it was decidedly not good-natured.

“She’s trolling that poor woman!” thought I with delight. The OED has this as sense 3b (though it should really be divided in two, with the “draw on” sense of the first two citations separated from the slangy one of the last two):

b. To draw as by persuasion or art; to draw on; hence colloq. ‘to quiz, befool’ (Farmer Slang).
a1717 T. Parnell Fairy Tale 158 Then Will, who bears the wispy fire, To trail the swains among the mire.
1748 S. Richardson Clarissa VII. x. 48, I sometimes long trailed on between hope and doubt.
1847 C. Brontë Jane Eyre II. ii. 42, I..perceived she was (what is vernacularly termed) trailing Mrs. Dent; that is, playing on her ignorance: her trail might be clever, but it was decidedly not good-natured.
1900 C. Kernahan Scoundrels & Co. xxi, To see the Ishmaelites ‘trail’ a sufferer from ‘swelled head’ is to undergo inoculation against that fell malady.

Incidentally, I have another issue with punctuation (to follow up on this post): twice within as many pages Brontë uses quotation marks in a way that makes me twitch. When the guests arrive, she writes: “I should not be called upon to quit my sanctum of the schoolroom; for a sanctum it was now become to me,— ‘a very pleasant refuge in time of trouble’.” This is an allusion to the beginning of Psalm 46, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” and a very clever allusion it is too (I love the switch from “present” to “pleasant”) — but it is not a quote. And on the next page, when Jane tells little Adèle that “she must not on any account think of venturing in sight of the ladies, either now or at any other time, unless expressly sent for,” Brontë adds: “‘Some natural tears she shed’ on being told this; but as I began to look very grave, she consented at last to wipe them.” This is a reference to the magnificent passage that ends Paradise Lost, when Adam and Eve are expelled:

Some natural tears they dropt, but wip’d them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They, hand in hand, with wand’ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

Again, not a quote. I realize conventions were different, and the quote marks are just signaling “Hey, I’m referring to something well known here,” but I’ve spent so much time and effort correcting misquotes in modern texts that I can’t seem to take it in stride.


Scrolling through my Facebook feed this morning (a chore I generally perform once a day), I found a series of posts from He Who Comments Here as under the heading “New students”; the relevant excerpts:

Today I used the word “parallelepiped” in class. I love good old geometry words. (I think that the phrase “good old geometry word” is one of those things I say a little too often when I’m teaching.) […]

By the way, at the blackboard I was clueless as to what the vowel between “parallel” and “piped” was — and I’m usually quite a good speller.

Also, I started wondering where the last part of that word came from. I was going to try to remember to look it up when I got home. No need: there was already an email from another student in the class who had already looked it up. This is one of the little gang who had me assigned as their first-year advisor. I knew he was a collector of arcane geographical knowledge, like myself, but I didn’t know that this applied to etymology, too.

It turns out that “epiped” means something like “plane surface”. Also, in the good old days this good old geometry word was pronounced “parallel-EP-iped”, whereas now we generally say “parallel-a-PIPE-ed”.

I had entirely forgotten the existence of this word, which I probably last heard in high school geometry class, and I too would have been clueless as to what the vowel between “parallel” and “piped” was; I am delighted with the etymology and accepting of the development of pronunciation away from the absurd-unless-you-know-Greek “parallel-EP-iped” to the more sensible “parallel-a-PIPE-ed” (though some people say “parallel-a-PIP-ed”). The OED (entry updated June 2005) has:

Pronunciation: Brit. /ˌparəlɛlᵻˈpʌɪpɛd/ , /ˌparəlɛlᵻˈpɪpɛd/ , U.S. /ˈˌpɛrəˌlɛləˈpaɪpᵻd/ , /ˈˌpɛrəˌlɛləˈpɪpᵻd/
Etymology: < post-classical Latin parallelepipedum (4th–5th cent.; also 5th–6th cent. in Boethius) or its etymon Hellenistic Greek παραλληλεπίπεδον parallelepipedon n. Compare French parallélépipède (1639; also parallelipipède (1762; attested earlier in Middle French as adjective (1570)). Compare earlier parallelepipedon n.
N.E.D. (1904) gives the pronunciation as (pærălelˌe·piped) /ˌpærəlɛlˈɛpɪpɛd/.

Oh, and if you were wondering, it’s “A solid figure whose faces are six parallelograms, of which opposite pairs are parallel; a prism whose base is a parallelogram.”


The Australian National Dictionary Centre, the fine folks who bring you Ozwords, a blog listed in my sidebar, have a dictionary listing as well, Meanings and origins of Australian words and idioms, and from the letter N I bring you:


It is a tradition at the Australian National University that computers have names as well as serial numbers. The computers at the Australian National Dictionary Centre are named after Australian food items: king prawn, icypole, pavlova, lamington, floater – and neenish. The last named computer gets its title from the neenish tart. But are neenish tarts Australian? Many people believe that they are. First, for those who are not of the cake-shop conglutination (aficionados of glucogunk), what is a neenish tart? It is, it seems, a cake with a filling of mock cream, and iced in two colours – white and brown, or white and pink, or (occasionally) pink and brown. In May 1995, Column 8 in the Sydney Morning Herald included some discussion of the origin of the term: Wendy Kerr and Jenny Hawke, of the Forbes public library, found this in Patisserie, an encyclopedia of cakes, by Aaron Maree: ‘Thought to have been invented by cooks in outback Australia.’ And that may be right. Leo Schofield, writing in the SMH in 1988, said his mother made them from a Country Women’s Association cookbook sold in Orange in World War II. When he asked for information, some readers suggested they had a Viennese or German origin. But a Mrs Evans said they were first made in her home town, Grong Grong. She and her sister, Venus, nominated Ruby Neenish, a friend of their mother’s, as the originator. Mrs Evans said that in 1913, running short of cocoa and baking for an unexpected shower tea for her daughter, Ruby made do by icing her tarts with half-chocolate, half-white icing. From then on they were known as neenish tarts. That, said Leo, would account for the tarts’ popularity in country districts and country cookbooks. We have been unable to track down the eponymous Ruby Neenish, and some of the ‘authenticating devices’ in this account feel a little shaky – just how ‘unexpected’ can a shower tea be?

The earliest reference to neenish we have been able to find occurs in a 1929 recipe for neenish cakes. This is in Miss Drake’s Home Cookery by Lucy Drake, published at Glenferrie in Victoria. The cases are made from: 8 ozs. almond meal; 6 ozs. icing sugar; 1 large tablespoon flour; essence almonds; 2 whites of eggs. The filling is made of: 1 gill cream; 1/2 gill milk; 1/4 oz. gelatine; 1 tablespoon sugar; essence vanilla. No mock cream here. The icing is half white and half pink.

The fifth edition of the Country Women’s Association Cookery Book and Household Hints, published in Perth in 1941, has the following recipe, provided by E. Birch of Baandee: Cream 2 ozs. butter and add 1 tablespoon sugar, rub in 5 ozs. self-raising flour and a pinch of salt and mix to a stiff paste with an egg. Knead well. Roll on a well-floured board till very thin, line patty tins with paste and fill with a good thick custard. Glaze the tops with thin icing. Use chocolate and white alternately’. This time, the icing is half chocolate and half white. And, of course, no mock cream. More interesting is the fact that the cakes are called nienich tarts. This certainly has a Germanic ring to it, and the spelling continues to be used in the CWA Cookery Book as late as 1964.

So here is the challenge. Do any of our readers have a cookery book printed before 1929 which includes neenish or nienich cakes or tarts? Can anyone provide evidence for a European origin? Are there any supporters of the pseudo-eponymous Ruby Neenish?

I love not only the word neenish but the ultra-Aussie town name Grong Grong. Thanks, Paul!

Juglandine Linguistics.

Brian Wallheimer reports for on what I must consider a dubious hypothesis:

Purdue University research shows that ancient languages match up with the genetic codes found in Persian walnut (Juglans regia) forests, suggesting that the stands of trees seen today may be remnants of the first planned afforestation known in the world.

In a paper published in the journal PLoS One, Keith Woeste, a research geneticist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service and a Purdue adjunct assistant professor of forestry, found that the evolution of language and spread of walnut forests overlapped over wide swaths of Asia over thousands of years. He believes as traders traversed the Silk Roads, connecting Eastern Europe and Africa with far-East Asia, they purposely planted walnut forests as a long-term agricultural investment.

The paper is “Ancient Humans Influenced the Current Spatial Genetic Structure of Common Walnut Populations in Asia,” by Paola Pollegioni, Keith E. Woeste, Francesca Chiocchini, Stefano Del Lungo, Irene Olimpieri, Virginia Tortolano, Jo Clark, Gabriel E. Hemery, Sergio Mapelli, and Maria Emilia Malvolti (not, n.b., by Woeste alone). One thing that gives me pause is that none of the authors has any connection to linguistics. But I do love walnuts, and I couldn’t resist using the word “juglandine” (which I created on the basis of Latin juglans, jugland– ‘walnut (tree)’ before discovering that it actually exists — but only, so far as I can tell, as a noun meaning “An alkaloid found in walnut leaves,” and thus I am staking my claim to it as an adjective), so here it is for your delectation. Shell and enjoy. (Thanks again go to Trevor for the link.)

You Moulting Desert Ram!

I love Old Irish and I love cursing, so what could be better than this?

This colourful collection of Irish insults dates from the Early Medieval era and is primarily based on the period’s satirical poetry and prose. The insults are sourced from the electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language which in this instance relies heavily on Róisín McLaughlin’s ‘Early Irish Satire‘.

The only thing that could make it better would be if the insults were linked to eDIL and/or McLaughlin. Thanks, Trevor!

Footling Foosball.

I just discovered that two words, neither of which is part of my active vocabulary, have alternate pronunciations on which dictionaries disagree. Merriam-Webster says footling ‘inept; trivial’ is either \ˈfü-təl-iŋ\ (three syllables, as would be expected for the participle of the verb footle) or \ˈfüt-liŋ\ (two syllables, rhymes with BOOT-ling), while American Heritage gives only the latter. Meanwhile, AHD says foosball ‘table soccer’ is FOOS-ball, as I would expect, whereas M-W gives only \ˈfüz-ˌbȯl\, as if it were a ball belonging to a guy named Foo. Since any intuitions I might have in the matter are worthless, I turn to the Varied Reader. If you use either or both of these words, how do you say it or them? Two syllables or three; FOOS or FOOZ?

Linguistics Gothic.

This post at All Things Linguistic made me laugh:

• This is a wug. Now there is another one. Now there is another one. Now there is another one. Now there is another one. Now there is another one. Now there is another one. There is a vast army of wugs and they are coming for you.
• A hooded figure approaches you. “So you’re a linguist…how many languages do you know?” You know there is no point in explaining. No one understands. No one will ever understand.

Of course, it helps if you know about linguistic memes like wugs and colorless green ideas. Remember, Google is your friend!

Antedating Gxddbov.

Back in 2007 I wrote about what was then the earliest known occurrence of the protean word fuck, in the late-15th-century macaronic/cipher line “Non sunt in coeli, quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk”: ‘They are not in heaven because they fuck wives of Ely.’ Now, in breaking profanity-related news, reports:

An English historian has come across the word ‘fuck’ in a court case dating to the year 1310, making it the earliest known reference to the swear word.

Dr Paul Booth of Keele University spotted the name in ‘Roger Fuckebythenavele’ in the Chester county court plea rolls beginning on December 8, 1310. The man was being named three times part of a process to be outlawed, with the final mention coming on September 28, 1311.

Dr Booth believes that “this surname is presumably a nickname. I suggest it could either mean an actual attempt at copulation by an inexperienced youth, later reported by a rejected girlfriend, or an equivalent of the word ‘dimwit’ i.e. a man who might think that that was the correct way to go about it.”

You can see a nice clear reproduction of that section of the rolls, as well as further discussion, at the link; all I can say is, Fuck yeah!

Update. Piotr Gąsiorowski says The Middle English Dictionary Needs a Fucking Update and gives what to me sounds like a very convincing PIE etymology of fuck. Don’t miss it.