Archives for November 2015

No Language Is the Mother Tongue.

Another quote from Elizabeth Klosty Beaujour’s Alien Tongues (see this post), this time from the section on Marina Tsvetaeva:

In 1926, she wrote in German to Rainer Maria Rilke:

Goethe says somewhere that one can never achieve anything of significance in a foreign language — and that has always rung false to me. . . . Writing poetry is in itself translating from the mother tongue into another. Whether French or German should make no difference. No language is the mother tongue. To write poems is already to write “after” something. That’s why I am puzzled when people talk of French or Russian poets. A poet may write in French; he cannot be a French poet. That’s ludicrous. I am not a Russian poet and am always astonished to be taken for one and looked upon in this light. One becomes a poet … to be not Russian or French, but in order to be everything.

[Goethe sagt irgendwo, dass man nichts Bedeutendes in einer fremden Sprache leisten kann – und das klang mir immer falsch. . . . Dichten ist schon übertragen, aus der Muttesprache – in eine andere, ob französisch oder deutsch, wird wohl gleich sein. Keine Sprache ist Muttersprache. Dichten ist nachdichten. Darum versteh ich nicht, wenn man von französischen oder russischen etc. Dichtern redet. Ein Dichter kann französisch schreiben, er kann nicht ein französischer Dichter sein. Das ist lächerlich. Ich bin kein russischer Dichter und staune immer, wenn man mich für einen solchen hält und als solchen betrachtet. Darum wird man Dichter . . . um nicht Franzose, Russe etc. zu sein, um alles zu sein.]

Tsvetaeva is therefore a particularly interesting case: a poet who could have become a real bilingual — perhaps even a trilingual — writer, but who ultimately rejected bilingual practice although she did not believe that poetry was “national.” As we shall see, Tsvetaeva’s resistance to writing in French was ferocious and emotional, and her refusal to write poetry in German was more spiritual than linguistic.

Incidentally, Rilke (who had immersed himself in Russian around 1900) wrote to Tsvetaeva that of all earthly languages, “Russian came closest to being the totalizing one to which Tsvetaeva aspired, and which Rilke recognized as being the ultimate language”: “in das Licht halte, in dem alle Sprachen eine Sprache sind (und diese, Deine, die russische, ist ohnehin so nah, alle zu sein!”


As a tribute to the great actress Setsuko Hara, who recently died after decades of seclusion, my brother watched her in the 1951 movie Repast (めし) and sent me this piece about it by Catherine Munroe Hotes; it has a linguistically interesting section which I’ll share here:

If I were a teacher of Japanese, I could imagine using Naruse’s Meshi to teach students about one radical difference between men and women in Japan: the use of language. The different usages of language between men and women in Japanese is apparent in all family dramas, but in Meshi it is foregrounded by film’s title, which is also a key motif throughout the film. The difference between men’s and women’s Japanese rarely comes across in the subtitles because it is difficult to translate. The translators of Meshi had a real problem translating the title in particular and I’m not sure that they were successful. ‘Repast’ is a rather formal-sounding French loan word and it’s in my estimation, a bit of an archaic word for a meal in English. In contrast, the Japanese word ‘meshi’, as I will elaborate in a moment, is very informal. I can’t really criticize whoever came up with the title ‘Repast’ though, because there would also be the complication of the different usages of words for meals among different regions of English speakers (supper and tea have very different meanings depending on what side of the Atlantic you are one for example). The noun ‘meal’ itself also has multiple meanings just to add to the translation difficulties.

Focusing on the Japanese meanings of ‘meshi’ though, the first dilemma when translating the title of the film is that it can mean both a meal and rice. As rice is the staple of all traditional Japanese meals ‘gohan’, the synonym for ‘meshi’, also means both a meal and rice. ‘Gohan’ is the word that most students of Japanese will learn and it is what women will use with each other and when talking to men. It is more polite than ‘meshi’, which men will use with each other and when talking to their wives.

Does that ring true to my Japanese-speaking readers? And what do you think about the English version of the title? (Thanks, Eric!)

IKEA Names II.

Back in 2003 I posted about a site “explaining a few of the basic rules of IKEA’s often bizarre-sounding product names”; now that the internet has grown and matured, I can point you to a much more comprehensive site, The IKEA Dictionary by Lars Petrus:

Part of what makes IKEA unique is their product names. Each name means something, often in a funny or ambigious way. When IKEA went international, they decided to use the same Swedish names everywhere. This makes sense from an organizational sanity standpoint, but it deprives most of the world of this particular joy.

Until now!

IKEA product names fall into a few main groups.
Proper Swedish words.
Improper Swedish words. IKEA laughs at the ‘rules’ of human language!
First names. Mostly Swedish, some Scandinavian, occasional exotic names.
Geographical names. Swedish, Danish, Norwegian or Finnish. Yes, there are patterns. Here is a map of all 320 places
A few names that defy categorization.
? Mystery names I haven’t figured out… Currently 130 out of 1362 names.

(Note that the original page has colors not reproduced above, which is why the sigla for Proper and Improper Swedish words look identical.) Via MetaFilter, where Foci for Analysis explains some of the words Petrus couldn’t:

Most of the words lacking definitions are actually old-timey names of towns, villages, hamlets, etc. Typically, they reference nature, agriculture or old professions.

KOTTEBO: KOTTE=cone, slang:individual BO=resident, dwelling, den, nest

BERGSBO: BERGS=mountain BO=resident, dwelling. den, nest


EKTORP: EK=oak TORP=cottage

Seejiq Abstract.

The Seejiq (called Seediq in Wikipedia) are a Taiwanese aboriginal people who speak an Austronesian language; I learned about them from Scott Simon’s article “Real People, Real Dogs, and Pigs for the Ancestors: The Moral Universe of ‘Domestication’ in Indigenous Taiwan,” forthcoming in American Anthropologist — or rather from the abstract, which is at the link. Why am I mentioning it here? Because the abstract is repeated in Seejiq (“Pnegluban seejiq ni kana samat o saw bi tkrakaw sun imi ‘nguciq,’ aji asaw quri pnegluban quri kmlawa ka nii…”), which I think is such a terrific idea I wanted to post about it. And don’t bother talking to me about practicality, because I don’t give a damn.


During Thanksgiving dinner (and I wish a happy Thanksgiving to all of my readers who celebrate it today), it somehow came up that three of the people at the table differentiated between the pronunciations of niche, using “nitch” for a recess in a wall and “neesh” for (in the words of Merriam-Webster) “a place, employment, status, or activity for which a person or thing is best fitted.” I myself use “nitch” in all senses; I was aware that a lot of people said “neesh,” but was astonished to find this bifurcated use, and am curious to know if others among you do the same thing (or differentiate them otherwise).

It also turned out that two of the three distinguished the two pronunciations of patronize, using the long a (pate-ronize) for “frequent (a store, theater, restaurant, or other establishment) as a customer” and the short a (pat-ronize) for “treat with an apparent kindness that betrays a feeling of superiority,” so if you differentiate those I would like to hear about it as well (and, in fact, any similar pairs that come to mind).

Singular They Is Word of the Year.

I find the whole “word of the year” thing annoying and generally ignore the many news stories based on PR releases by lexicographers and other harmless drudges trying to drum up a little attention, but I have three cheers for this one from Dennis Baron:

Singular they is word of the year for 2015. A common-gender third-person pronoun, singular they has been popular in English speech and writing for over 650 years. Although frequently classified by purists as ungrammatical, its use seems undiminished, and it may even be on the rise because it fills an important linguistic niche. In recent years, more and more English speakers have sought a gender-neutral alternative to pronouns that express the traditional male/female binary, turning either to invented pronouns like xe and zie, or to that old stand-by, singular they. Because singular they has witnessed a dramatic rehabilitation over the past year, the Web of Language Distinguished Usage Panel unanimously chose to honor it as word of the year for 2015.*

The footnote says, “Truth in advertising: The Web of Language Distinguished Usage Panel, charged each year with picking the Word of the Year, consists entirely of me.” The rest of the post contains a nice history of the form and its history, and I applaud Baron’s choice. If anyone has a problem with it, let them eat xe!

Addendum. Geoffrey Nunberg posted this on Facebook, adding:

I took Dennis Baron’s selection of singular “they” as his Word of the Year as occasion to change my Facebook pronoun to “they” (as in “Wish them a happy birthday”), not so much because I have a problem with cisgender pronouns, but as a finger in the eye of the pedants who think there’s something wrong with “Everyone took their coat,” secure in the grammar they learned in eighth grade at the end of Sister Petra’s ruler.

Automated Reconstruction of Ancient Languages.

This BBC Science story by Rebecca Morelle… well, really all I need do is point out that the affiliations of the authors of the paper it’s based on, “Automated reconstruction of ancient languages using probabilistic models of sound change,” are one Department of Statistics, one Department of Psychology, and two Computer Science Divisions. My basic response to any paper making claims about language that does not have at least one actual linguist on board is to toss it in the circular file. But I guess it’s possible that this system that “automatically and accurately reconstructs protolanguages from modern languages” (it slices! it dices!) might be useful in chewing through large quantities of data and spitting out correlations that could save linguists some time; at any rate, there it is for those who might find it of interest.

Languages and Ecosystems.

This Living on Earth story makes a point that’s been made here before but that needs to be repeated because it’s often neglected by those who think the death of languages is no big deal (why can’t they just speak English?):

But [Jonathan] Loh, who’s also a research associate at the Zoological Society of London, says that languages are dying off due to many of the same issues that plants and animals face.

“Some of the drivers that are driving the extinction of biodiversity — such as increasing global population, increasing consumption of natural resources, increasing globalization and so on — are applicable to languages as well,” he says.

And that’s no coincidence. Loh explains that languages have a lot of specific local knowledge built in. “The cultures have evolved in a particular environmental context, so they have an extraordinary amount of traditional ecological knowledge — knowledge of the local species, plants, animals, the medicinal uses of them, the migration patterns of animals behavior,” he says.

So when the languages die off, much of that knowledge goes with them. “Then children stop learning the language, they also stop acquiring that traditional knowledge,” Loh says.

There are plenty of linguists who are studying and trying to preserve native languages, but Loh wants to see them work with biologists to make sure that valuable ecological history isn’t missed. “Linguists often don’t have the knowledge of natural history that’s necessary in order to be able to record an endangered language because so much of the lexicon is tied up with names of species or types of ecosystems,” he says.

He argues that “if we can recognize that culture and nature are inextricably interlinked, then working on a biocultural diversity as a whole, as a subject, would be a more fruitful way of looking at conservation.”

As is so often the case, specialists need to talk to each other across the boundaries of their specialties.

The History of Nationalized and Marginalized Languages.

I thought this AskMetaFilter question was interesting enough to repost here; I couldn’t think of relevant books offhand, and I’m sure some of my commenters can:

I know there was this process in the last few hundred years of European history where newly forming nations, trying to take hold of themselves, would decree one language official (French, Spanish), and try to squelch all of the many other languages/dialects (Occitan, Catalan) spoken within their borders. Where can I learn more?

Simple googling is not turning up enough to assuage my curiosity. I have a bunch of questions: is there a name for this process? How much resistance was there to it in Europe (like the modern Catalan independence movement)? How similarly did this process play out in Europe vs. other parts of the world (Russia, Japan, China)?


These Fragments I Have Shored.

I have a few envelopes stuffed with the “pocket papers” I used to carry around to jot down phone numbers, book titles, and other bits of information I didn’t want to lose, and every once in a while, in a fit of nostalgia, I go through them. The one I have before me is a call slip from Yale University Library (“Books must not be marked, annotated, or defaced in any way”), so it’s presumably from the 1970s, and on its back are scribbled a few items. The first is self-explanatory:

WWI: “If a sgt said, ‘Get your f-ng rifles,’ it was understood as a matter of routine. But if he said, ‘Get your rifles,’ there was an immed. implic. of urgency & danger.”

The second is more cryptic:

kwoy inam (ma) — mild piece of chaffing
kwoy lumata (sis) — very serious
kwoy um’ kwava (wife) — Mal only heard twice; learned of its exist. only after had been long in Trob’s

This turns out to be from Ashley Montagu’s The Anatomy of Swearing (as you can see, I’ve been interested in the topic for a long time); you can read the very instructive passage at Google Books (page 323). And the third is the amusing sentence “If I had a son who was an idiot I would make him a parson”; this turns out to be an anecdote about “that witty clergyman, Sydney Smith,” whose “quick rejoinder” was “Your father was of a different opinion.” Once again, I say thank heavens for the internet!