Archives for October 2015

Latin American Spanish Accents.

This Log post by Mark Liberman presents a wonderful video in which Joanna Hausmann exemplifies a bunch of Spanish accents; I can attest that the Argentine one is both hilarious and spot-on, and I have been told by a knowledgeable source that the same is true for the Mexican. Much of the video is in English, so you’ll be able to enjoy it even if you don’t speak Spanish.

Lermontov in Scotland.

As every schoolboy knows, Mikhail Lermontov “was a descendant of a Scottish soldier of fortune, George Learmonth, who settled in Russia in the early 17th century and adapted his name to Lermontov”; I quote a NY Times story by Stephen Castle, which describes his reception in the land of his ancestors, and specifically in the village of Earlston:

On Saturday, a bronze bust of Lermontov, whose verse is considered by many Russians as second only to Aleksandr Pushkin’s, will be unveiled on the tidy village green. There will be Russian and Scottish dancing, poetry readings and Russian guests — including at least one descendant of Lermontov, whose modern-day family has created and officially registered its own tartan. […]

Lermontov’s link to Thomas the Rhymer remained obscure here until 2011. One day, Gwen Hardie, who leads a group in Earlston that promotes awareness of Thomas the Rhymer and who helped organize the installation of the bust, answered her door to two visitors from Russia, one of whom was researching a book on Lermontov.

The next year, Ms. Hardie had another Russian visitor, Maria Koroleva, who is a descendant of Lermontov through her maternal line.

So intrigued was Ms. Koroleva by Lermontov’s Scottish connection that she learned Scottish Gaelic (spoken by about 58,000 people, about 1 percent of Scotland’s population), changed her first name to a Gaelic variant, Màiri Òg, and now teaches the language at Moscow State University.

There can’t be many Russians who learn Scottish Gaelic. (Thanks for the link, Trevor!)

Monkeys and Wrenches.

Peter Jensen Brown’s “Charles Monk, Monkey Wrenches and ‘Monkey on a Stick’ – a Gripping History and Etymology of ‘Monkey Wrench’” is one of those philological investigations I so love. Here’s the conclusion:

It is nearly certain that Charles Moncky (or Monkay) of Brooklyn did not invent, coin, or inspire the term, monkey wrench; despite the actual existence of Charles Monk, the tool-maker from Brooklyn. That story may have been fabricated as a joke, given his tool-related occupation and playing on the similarity of his last-name to the well-known wrench; or could have, I suppose, been an honest mistake made somewhere along the line. In any case, he was too young to have been responsible for either the expression or the tool.

The three general types of monkey wrench, English, Merrick and Coes, all share similarities with the children’s toy, “monkey on a stick.” Pile-drivers, well-drillers, monkey engines and monkey machines also share similar attributes. They all have a movable “monkey” that climbs up and down along shaft; like a monkey climbing a tree – or a “monkey on a stick.” The theory is at least simple, consistent across several different contexts, and plausible.

But the post is full of great images and quotes; check it out. (Have you ever heard of “monkey on a stick”? I hadn’t.) Via Mark Liberman at the Log.

The Etymology of Literary Martian.

A delightful squib by Edmund Griffiths, Some remarks on the etymology of literary Martian, begins:

§ 1. MARTIAN is the language spoken by the intelligent indigenous inhabitants of the planet Mars. Since, to the best of current knowledge, there are no such inhabitants, its study has been somewhat neglected: in fact, I am not aware of a single learned monograph on the subject since Victor Henry’s pioneering Le Langage Martien appeared in 1901. The fictional exploration of space was then in its infancy, and the evidence on which Henry based his description came necessarily from ‘Martian’ glossolalia enunciated by the spirit medium Hélène Smith (see Flournoy, From India to the Planet Mars). Subsequently, however, more or less extensive samples of Martian have been offered to the reading public by several generations of writers in the science fiction idiom. True, these writers’ approach to the language has varied, as has their diligence in reporting it: Edgar Rice Burroughs luxuriates in naïve exoticism (Tars Tarkas, Barsoom), Aleksandr Bogdanov contents himself with a few rather monotonous personal names (Ènno, Mènni, Nètti), and Ray Bradbury disdains to concoct a plausible-sounding language at all, choosing instead to name his Martian characters Mr. Ttt, Mr. Bbb, and so forth; but A. N. Tolstoy presents whole sentences of Martian dialogue (Aiu utara šókho, Tao khatskha ra khamagatsitl), and Percy Greg even draws up grammatical tables (although the early date of Across the Zodiac’s publication means its Martian is rather archaic). Readers may feel that the language attested in these various records is an inept mishmash, just too crass and too shoddy to be spoken under minimal atmospheric pressure in the frigid and unchanging rockfields that we all know from the photographs. I make no objection; I share the feeling. I only ask such readers to wonder, as I do, whether our unease at seeing the perfect celestial places thus polluted with sublunary trash does not reflect an emotional attitude to the solar system that is really pre-Galilean,—one that we should perhaps be trying harder to overcome.

It’s a lot of fun, and much respect to him for including Russian sf writers as well as the more familiar Westerners.

Guardian Style Guide Twitter Account.

In the course of a very silly MetaFilter argument about whether it hurts the Guardian‘s feelings to be called the Grauniad (talk about your political correctness run amuck!), daisyk linked to the excellent Guardian style guide Twitter account, and I thought I’d share it here. Right off the bat I learned that the “La’s” of The La’s, a band I never heard of, is “an abbreviation of Lads, so the apostrophe signifies missing D, not a plural” and it’s pronounced Lazz (not, as apparently many people think, Lahz). Hooray for style guides!

New Chinese Borrowings from Japanese.

A Victor Mair post at the Log discusses the issue of Chinese borrowings from Japanese (with links to earlier posts on the topic), focusing on a striking recent example:

The word “desu です” is a copula that occurs at the end of a statement sentence in Japanese. In Mandarin there was originally no such sentence final copula. However, in contemporary internet language usage, it is fashionable among Chinese young people to add deshuō 的说 (lit., “X’s saying”) to the end of sentences. Though many of them may not know the origin of the expression deshuō 的说, despite their being fond of using it, it is most likely a usage borrowed from Japanese.

Here is an example showing the phenomenon:

English: It is very cold today.

Japanese: Kyō wa totemo samui desu 今日はとても寒いです。

Standard Mandarin: Jīntiān hěn lěng 今天很冷。

Sino-Japanese (Mandarin with Japanese characteristics!): Jīntiān hěn lěng deshuō 今天很冷的说。

This is a phenomenon I noticed back around 2008 […], but I am only prompted to write about it now because in recent years so many of my students from Sinophone countries have developed such an enthusiasm for learning Japanese. […]

Bilingual (Mandarin and English) Chinese colleagues have explained this usage of deshuō 的说 as being roughly equivalent to “it seems that; it is said that”. Monolingual Chinese have told me that they think of deshuō 的说 as meaning roughly jùshuō 据说 (“reportedly; it is said that”).

A trilingual (Japanese, Mandarin, and English) Japanese colleague suggested to me that deshuō 的说, rather than deriving from desu です, may have come from deshō でしょう (“it seems that; I suppose; perhaps; would”), the volitional form of desu です.

So far as I can tell, sentence final deshuō 的说 is used primarily by teenagers and young people in their twenties.

There is, as usual, good discussion in the comments.

Earliest Known Draft of King James Bible Found.

Jennifer Schuessler’s New York Times story reports on an exciting discovery; this bit is of particular LH interest:

The draft, Professor Miller argues, dates from between 1604, when the King James Bible was commissioned, and 1608, when the six teams were asked to send their work to the general committee for review. Unlike the other surviving drafts, which scholars date to later parts of the process, it shows an individual translator’s initial puzzling over aspects of the Greek text of the Apocrypha, indicating the reasoning behind his translation choices, with reference to Hebrew and Latin as well.

“You can actually see the way Greek, Latin and Hebrew are all feeding into what will become the most widely read work of English literature of all time,” Professor Miller said. “It gets you so close to the thought process, it’s incredible.”

Thanks, Bonnie!

Name That Language.

A reader writes:

Can you tell what language the man is singing in during the opening credits?

This is the 1966 Soviet movie Aladdin’s Magic Lamp. I am guessing that the language is supposed to be Arabic, but somehow it doesn’t quite sound like it. Also, I can’t think of many Arabic speakers in the USSR. In the movie, most of the “eastern” looking actors were Georgians. Could the language be some kind of Georgian or Caucasus language?

I didn’t know the answer, so I turn it over to the Varied Reader. Anybody recognize it?

Is Hamlet Fat?

Isaac Butler has an interesting investigation in Slate of what Shakespeare might have meant by the word “fat.” He begins by saying that we think of Hamlet as “lean and pensive”:

But what if our mental image of Hamlet is wrong? What if the grieving, vengeful prince is actually fat? Just because you’ve never considered the possibility doesn’t mean that Shakespeare scholars haven’t argued about it, just one front in a centuries-old debate about how you determine meaning in Shakespeare’s plays.

The most straightforward way to figure out whether Hamlet is fat is to look at the text itself, in which Hamlet’s own mother calls him fat. During the play’s final sword duel, King Claudius turns to Queen Gertrude and says that Hamlet will win the duel, and Gertrude replies, “He’s fat and scant of breath,” before turning to Hamlet and telling him to “take my napkin, rub thy brows.”

We can also look at the history of scholarship of Hamlet, as University of Wisconsin–Whitewater professor Elena Levy-Navarro does in this wonderful essay on the subject of Hamlet’s fatness. Levy-Navarro documents how, during the Victorian era—a time of fad diets and fitness crazes where one’s weight was mistaken for an indication of one’s moral fiber—a vocal minority of Shakespeare scholars, following the lead of Goethe, believed Hamlet was fat and that his fatness indicated weakness. A Victorian actor named E. Vale Blake declared in an 1880 article for Popular Science Monthly that Hamlet was “imprisoned in walls of adipose,” which, “essentially weakens and impedes … the will,” leading to his inability to, as Levy-Navarro puts it, “act decisively to avenge his father.”

I decided to get to the bottom of this with some help from John-Paul Spiro, a Shakespearean scholar who teaches at Villanova. According to Spiro, investigating the meaning of specific words in Shakespeare is particularly fraught because Shakespeare was the Ornette Coleman of language. Beyond inventing more than 1,700 words, Shakespeare was “deliberately coming up with new meanings of words, and opening up new conceptual spaces,” Spiro said. The play Macbeth invents the contemporary definition of the word success, for example, and Shakespeare was the first person to use crown as a verb.

In order to figure out what fat means at this specific moment of Hamlet, then, we must look not only at how Elizabethans understood the term, but how his contemporaries used the term, how Shakespeare uses it in his plays in general, and how Shakespeare uses it in Hamlet. To the Elizabethans, fat could indeed mean sweaty, but “sweaty in the way fatty meat is sweaty when you cook it,” Spiro said. “Even in Elizabethan times, you would never say, ‘I went for a run, and now I’m fat.’”

They go to the concordance, and much discussion ensues. I still am not sure what Shakespeare meant by the word, but I learned things and was entertained.

Saving Hakka.

Yes, this piece by Rosalie Chan is another “saving an endangered language” story, but Hakka is really interesting:

It’s 6:30 p.m. at a radio studio in Miaoli, a small city in Western Taiwan. Yin Chang is plugged in. Her headphones are on, and the microphone is adjusted close to her mouth. The lights are dim; a blue banner declaring “Voice of Hakka Radio 97.1 FM” hangs behind her.

Chang, 36, fixes her headphones and pushes a strand of her bobbed hair behind her ear. With a bright voice, she enthusiastically greets the audience: “Hello, tegaho gaihei DJ Yin!” – “Hello everyone, this is DJ Yin!”

Chang hosts a program called Heinai, or “It’s me” in a variety of Chinese known as Hakka, the language of a Han Chinese ethnic group scattered throughout the continent. Heinai is aimed at Hakka youth; it’s part of Chang’s efforts to reinvigorate the dying language.

Chang grew up in Miaoli and, like 62.2 percent of the local population, is Hakka. In Taiwan, the Hakka are frequently referred to as ke jia ren or “guest family people” because throughout their history, Hakkas have been a migrant group, fleeing settlements to avoid one catastrophe after another. The Hakkas arrived in Taiwan during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when they escaped the Manchurian Armies that were taking control of China. The Hoklo people had already settled the fertile land of Taiwan, so the Hakkas were left to make do with the remaining infertile foothills, and, thus are known for their history of hardship and frugality. […]

Every year the Hakka Affairs Council — an organization established in 2001 and dedicated to preserving Hakka culture and promoting Hakka media — surveys Hakka people in Taiwan about the presence of language in their lives. According to a 2013 survey, 47.3 percent can speak Hakka fluently; however, most of those are elderly. Only 22.8 percent of people aged 19 to 29 speak Hakka, and that figure is even lower for children 18 and under.

Chang hopes that by presenting Hakka music to young people in her country, it will spark their interest in learning the language and spur more engagement in the culture, the same way it did for her about ten years ago.

The link is from Victor Mair’s Log post, which contains an introduction to the remarkable history of the Hakka:

Although the Hakka amount to approximately only 4% of the total population of China, their influence on politics, the military, culture, and other spheres of life in the past two centuries has been disproportionately large

The Hakka have assumed positions of leadership not only in China, but in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the New World. To name only a few of the important Hakka statesmen, revolutionaries, and cultural leaders of the last century and a half, we may list the following:

The list includes everybody from Sun Yat-sen to Lee Teng-hui, Lee Kuan Yew, and Ne Win. I had no idea!