Archives for January 2016

Ancient Indo-European Folktales?

Trond Engen sent me links to “Ancient Roots of Indo-European Folktales,” by Sara Graça da Silva and Jamshid J. Tehrani (“In this study, we introduce new methods for tackling these problems by applying comparative phylogenetic methods and autologistic modelling to analyse the relationships between folktales, population histories and geographical distances in Indo-European-speaking societies”), and the (inevitably breathless) BBC News story about it, “Fairy tale origins thousands of years old, researchers say” (“Analysis showed Beauty And The Beast and Rumpelstiltskin to be about 4,000 years old”). My immediate reaction is skepticism, and Trond says:

Maybe I don’t understand their probabilities, but it seems like they use the statistical procedure to seek out the outliers and then say “I’m almost certain that these are cherries!” I mean, 1/3 of almost 300 adventures showing more vertical affinity than expected by chance. Really? Gradually fewer of those 100 adventures being reconstructible (with a low bar) for each node up, resulting in only one out of 100 being (weakly) assigned to the top node. What do they expect from a scattershot? And no attempt to control with e.g. Finnish or Hungarian.

But both of us are eager to hear what Hatters have to say about it.

Update. Mark Liberman has posted about this at the Log.

Further update.
Julien d’Huy has written me to say he was one of the first to use modern phylogenetic tools to study mythology and folktales; you can see samples of his work here, and compare the approach of Jean-Loïc Le Quellec here — he shows the existence of one folktale during the Palaeolithic period in Africa.


Patrick Taylor, LH’s house etymologist, has a question; the following is quoted from his Facebook feed, and I’m hoping we can help solve the mystery:

Yesterday, Stephen Dodson at his blog Language Hat crowdsourced an interpretion of the word sheog occuring in the novel Cloud Atlas. I was thinking about asking LH readers about a puzzling word in another novel, Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red (Benim Adım Kırmızı), but I didn’t want to hijack the thread. In one passage of Pamuk’s novel, the color red—the title character—introduces itself to the reader:

Susun da dinleyin nasıl da böyle harika bir kırmızı olduğumu. Boyadan anlar üstat nakkaş, Hindistan’ın en sıcak yerinden gelen en iyi kırmızı böceğinin kurusunu kendi havanında elceğiziyle döve döve iyice toz edip, bunun beş dirhemini ve bir dirhem çöven ve yarım dirhem de lotor hazır etti. Üç okka suyu tencereye koyup, çöveni içine atıp kaynattı. Sonra lotoru suya koydu, güzelce karıştırdı. Bir güzel kahve içecek zaman kadar kaynattı.


Hush and listen to how I developed such a magnificent red tone. A master miniaturist, an expert in paints, furiously pounded the best variety of dried red beetle from the hottest climes of Hindustan into a fine powder using his mortar and pestle. He prepared five drachmas of the red powder, one drachma of soapwort and a half drachma of lotor. He boiled the soapwort in a pot containing three okkas of water. Next, he mixed thoroughly the lotor into the water. He let it boil for as long as it took to drink an excellent cup of coffee.

What is lotor? The translator doesn’t bother translating it (or the Ottoman measure okka—probably akin to English ounce in origin, but actually about 1.2 liters). Nobody in Turkey seems to know. One study of Pamuk that I found online says of the word: “Sözlüklerde tespit edilemeyen lotor bir çeşit bitki olmalıdır.” (Lotor, which cannot be found in any dictionaries, must be a sort of plant.) However, one can also find lists of ingredients for Ottoman pigments online, such as this one:

zamkı arabî, limon tuzu, kara hâlile, zaçı kıbrıs (demir sülfat), lutr, kireç, nişadır, bengal, mor bakkam, al bakkam, göztaşı…

Gum arabic, lemon salt [crystalline citric acid], chebulic myrobalan, copperas, lutr, slaked lime, sal ammoniac, munjeet, purple sappanwood [or logwood?], red sappanwood [brazilwood?], blue vitriol…

Lutr must be the same word as Pamuk’s lotor. One or the other must be a mistransliteration of an Ottoman term. Lutr can also be “otter” in Turkish, but that must be a modern borrowing from French, and I don’t [think] any otter parts or secretions would figure in the list. As it happens, lutr is flanked by two mineral substances in the list.

I thought that lotor/lutr might be borax and come from Latin lōtor, since borax is used in “washes” or flux, but borax in Persian and Ottoman is tenekâr تنکار (related to the old-fashioned English designation, tincal). But looking at the passage I thought it was perhaps an Arabization of Greek λίτρον, νίτρον, nitre, natron (sodium carbonate). However, the Ottoman usual name for nitre appears to be güherçile, and I find that the usual Arabic is naṭrūn نطرون . I couldn’t find anything that seems to be related in Syriac, either. Now I am tired and must go to bed.

Any ideas? (And of course no one should ever fear hijacking an LH thread with an interesting lexical question!)

Soviet Textbooks Online.

This treasure trove actually includes some prerevolutionary material, such as Родная речь (1913) and Азбука-сеятель (1915), but most of it is from the postwar Soviet period; it begins with elementary-school material and moves on to higher grades. It will be a source of nostalgia for some of my readers (as it is for “krogatchevskaia,” from whose COSEELIS post I got the link) and a window on an alien past for others (like me).


I finished David Mitchell’s wonderful Cloud Atlas, and I was so taken with it I immediately started rereading his first novel, Ghostwritten, which my brother gave me a decade or more ago and I devoured just as eagerly. I don’t have anything special to say about Cloud Atlas except that it’s a heck of a read (warning: it does get grim and sad in spots), so I’ll just mention as a point of linguistic interest that like any author worth his salt Mitchell uses interesting words, and at one point (on p. 8 of my edition) he seems to have invented one — the “Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” includes the remark “an unseen hand emptied a tankard of sheog over my person,” and the only Google hits for it are readers of the novel trying to identify it. (There are Google Books hits for an Irish sheog = sidhe ‘fairy mound,’ which is pretty clearly irrelevant.) Excuse me, I’ve got to get back to devouring Mitchell’s compulsively readable prose…


This Wikipedia article sounds completely mad, but apparently the book actually exists, and I leave my readers to sort out whatever kernels of truth might reside in this description:

The Siribhoovalaya (Kannada: ಸಿರಿಭೂವಲಯ) is a unique work of multi-lingual literature written by Kumudendu Muni, a Jain monk. The work is unique in that it employs not alphabets, but is composed entirely in Kannada numerals.[1] The Saangathya metre of Kannada poetry is employed in the work. It uses numerals 1 through 64 and employs various patterns or bandhas in a frame of 729 (27×27) squares to represent alphabets in nearly 18 scripts and over 700 languages.[2] Some of the patterns used include the Chakrabandha, Hamsabandha, Varapadmabandha, Sagarabandha, Sarasabandha, Kruanchabandha, Mayurabandha, Ramapadabandha, Nakhabandha, etc. As each of these patterns are identified and decoded, the contents can be read.

There is much, much more at the link; it clearly needs serious pruning and revision, if there is anyone with both the requisite knowledge and the inclination. The link was sent me by the estimable Conrad; I don’t know if “thanks” is exactly the right word, but he certainly gets the credit.

Spoken Sanskrit.

A post by Victor Mair at the Log discusses the phenomenon of Sanskrit as a spoken language. I was surprised that this “astonished” Mair, but I have an old friend who spent time in India learning the language that way, so I have long been aware that it has as widespread a spoken tradition as, say, Latin. At any rate, there are extraordinarily interesting contributions by David Shulman, Whitney Cox, Frederick Smith, Shenghai Li, and Devin Patel; I found Smith’s particularly enlightening:

H. V. Nagaraja Rao is one of the most versatile and literate Sanskrit pandits of the last half century. Practically no Sanskrit pandits speak as well as he does. Most of them do not resort to subtle or complex verb forms, but speak almost entirely in passive forms, with special emphasis on the past passive participle, for the simple reason that it’s an easy form in a complex language. It requires the agent to be in the instrumental, and the object to be the grammatical subject, thus in the nominative case. This is much easier than spinning out all sorts of complicated finite verbs. Much of the Sanskrit that I’ve heard spoken over the last 40+ years is either simplified in this and other ways, or just wrong. Often vocabulary is cut and pasted from Hindi or even Dravidian languages, modified with Sanskrit case endings. It’s definitely the case that Sanskrit is spoken in many situations among those so trained, including (a) classes at Sanskrit schools and universities; (b) formal debates among Sanskritists – usually pandits rather than scholars (although they do sometimes overlap), and generally in semi-religious contexts, such as debates between advocates of logic (nyāya, vaiśeṣika), Vedic exegesis (mīmāṃsā), and non-duality (Vedānta), or between adherents of various schools of Vedānta; or (c) within the context of Vedic sacrificial performances in which the priesthood consisting of individuals who have mastered different Vedic texts (Sāmaveda, Ṛgveda, Yajurveda) come from different parts of India. I have often been in the latter situation, where, for example, the Sāmaveda pandits come from Karnataka, the Ṛgvedins from Maharashtra, and the Yajurvedins from Andhra Pradesh or Tamilnadu. The only language they had in common was Sanskrit. I very much enjoyed those situations because what they discussed was crucial to what would happen in five minutes or the next day – it was not fixed or formal, nor was the quality of their Sanskrit evaluated by the others for its elegance – it was a real language of communication.

Sanskrit as a spoken language is still taught in Sanskrit colleges, such as the Maharaja’s Sanskrit College in Mysore, and a few places elsewhere. There has also been a rather soft movement to develop spoken Sanskrit by an organization in Bangalore called Samskrita Bharati, which has dedicated itself to the perpetuation of spoken Sanskrit across India and even among NRI’s (non-resident Indians) in the US, UK, and elsewhere. This is the highly simplified form of Sanskrit, and requires very little knowledge of grammar, and is conveniently taught to Indians because of a core vocabulary that’s familiar to them, and which they can then set into a few sentence paradigms (almost always in the passive). This is a rather stumbling movement, although this organization claims that they have taught everyone in one town (Mettur, in Shimoga district of Karnataka) to speak Sanskrit on a regular basis. I have visited this town and found that it’s a false claim. At best, some of the ordinary people can ask for a kilo of tomatoes or onions in Sanskrit. That’s about it.

I recommend the whole thing, and of course the comments are well worth reading as well.

Addendum.India’s Sanskrit speakers seek to revive ‘dead’ language” (thanks, Kobi!).

Style Manual Gang Violence!

From The Onion (America’s Finest News Source), “4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence“:

NEW YORK—Law enforcement officials confirmed Friday that four more copy editors were killed this week amid ongoing violence between two rival gangs divided by their loyalties to the The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual Of Style. “At this time we have reason to believe the killings were gang-related and carried out by adherents of both the AP and Chicago styles, part of a vicious, bloody feud to establish control over the grammar and usage guidelines governing American English,” said FBI spokesman Paul Holstein, showing reporters graffiti tags in which the word “anti-social” had been corrected to read “antisocial.” “The deadly territory dispute between these two organizations, as well as the notorious MLA Handbook gang, has claimed the lives of more than 63 publishing professionals this year alone.” Officials also stated that an innocent 35-year-old passerby who found himself caught up in a long-winded dispute over use of the serial, or Oxford, comma had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

This is why I had to leave New York; I have a family, and they don’t have this kind of thing in rural Hadley. But my heart is with my people. Chicago 4 lyfe! (Also, I note with regret that the carnage has left the ranks so depleted that even The Onion, America’s Finest News Source, finds itself publishing things like “the The Associated Press Stylebook.” I’m pouring out a growler of printer’s ink for my lost comrades.)

That Silent Inner Voice.

Keely Savoie reports on a phenomenon that’s always fascinated me:

That inner voice that enunciates the written words you read comes in many different forms. Some say it sounds like the spoken voice. Some say it sings. And others say it is someone else’s voice entirely. Whatever the voice sounds like, it performs an important function in interpreting the written word.

Mara Breen, assistant professor of psychology at Mount Holyoke College, studies the relationship between the inner voice and its musical rhythms—known as implicit prosody—and how we mentally process the written word. She recently received a grant from the James F. McDonald Foundation to study the role of the inner voice in reading fluency and comprehension.

“What we are specifically interested in is what is the experience of prosody when we are reading silently,” Breen said. “In other words, what is the little voice in your head doing while you are reading? How does implicit prosody support reading comprehension?”

Breen and colleagues at Haskins Laboratories and the University of Connecticut have completed research that demonstrates a relationship between prosodic fluency and reading comprehension in high school students, even when accounting for IQ differences.

There’s some very interesting stuff about reading limericks and “what happens when the written word violates the brain’s expectation”; I look forward to seeing more such results. (Thanks, Sven!)

Delay No More!

Victor Mair at the Log reports on what may be the best newspaper screwup I’ve ever seen (if it was indeed a screwup—or, as Mair puts it, “what happens when copy editors type what they’re feeling and then forget to take it out again before it goes online”—rather than a suicidal level of cheekiness), a South China Morning Post headline that begins “Delay no more.” So what, you ask?

As most Hongkongers know, “delay no more” is a homophone for “diu lei lo mo”*, which means “f*ck your mum”. The common and irreverent phrase has inspired a range of products and even a short-lived lifestyle shopping centre from Hong Kong retailer G.O.D., dubbed the Delay No Mall.

*[VHM: diu2 nei5 lou5mou5-2 屌你老母]

There are so many wonderful aspects to this I had to share it immediately. Also, I want to learn Cantonese.

Manchu Hangs On.

Well, sort of. The Manchu language is essentially dead in its homeland, Manchuria, but the Xibe of Xinjiang speak a variant of it, as Andrew Jacobs explains in a surprisingly good NY Times story (thanks, Eric!):

Two and a half centuries later, the roughly 30,000 people in this rural county who consider themselves Xibe have proved to be an ethnographic curiosity and a linguistic bonanza. As the last handful of Manchu speakers in northeast China have died, the Xibe have become the sole inheritors of what was once the official tongue of one of the world’s most powerful empires, a domain that stretched from India to Russia and formed the geographic foundation for modern China.

In the decades after the revolution in 1911 that drove the Qing from power after nearly 300 years, Mandarin Chinese vanquished the Manchu language, even in its former stronghold in the forested northeast. But the isolation of the Xibe in this parched, far-flung region near the Kazakh border helped keep the language alive, even if its existence was largely forgotten until the 1940s.

For scholars of Manchu, especially those eager to translate the mounds of Qing dynasty documents that fill archives across China, the discovery of so many living Manchu speakers has been a godsend. […]

The Xibe language has gradually evolved from Manchu as it absorbed vocabulary from the Uighurs, Kazakhs, Mongolians and even the Russians who passed through Xinjiang. Unlike Mandarin, which has few borrowed words, Xibe is flecked with adopted nouns like pomodoro (tomato), mashina (sewing machine) and alma (the Uighur word for apple). Scholars say that the phonetic diversity of Xibe, a language thought to be related to Turkish, Mongolian and Korean, allows speakers to easily produce the sounds of other tongues.

“We fought with the other groups, but there were so few of us here and no one else spoke our language, so we had to learn theirs to survive,” said Mr. Tong, an engineer at the county power company who is vice president of the Xibe Westward March Culture Study Association, a local group that promotes Xibe language and history. “That’s why we are so good at learning foreign languages.”

Those linguistic talents have long been an asset to China’s leaders. In the 1940s, young Xibe were sent north to study Russian, and they later served as interpreters for the newly victorious Communists. In recent years, the government has brought Xibe speakers to Beijing to help decipher the sprawling Qing archives, many of them of imperial correspondence that few scholars could read.

“If you know Xibe, it takes no time for you to crack the Qing documents,” said Zhao Zhiqiang, 58, one of six students from Qapqal County sent to the capital in 1975, and who now heads the Manchu study department at the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences. “It’s like a golden key that opens the door to the Qing dynasty.”

Manchu is a Tungusic language, and there’s a good section on them in S. Robert Ramsey’s invaluable The Languages of China; I’ll provide a few passages from it for background:

The Southern Tungus, represented most notably by the Manchus, live nearer to what was probably the original homeland of the Tungus. They are found dispersed throughout Manchuria and the adjacent coastal areas of the Soviet Union, along the lower course of the Amur River and on the island of Sakhalin, just off the northern tip of Japan. As late as the seventeenth century, tribes of Southern Tungus also lived deep in the northeastern part of the Korean peninsula. Because the Southern Tungus have remained close to the zone of contact with Mongols, Koreans, and Chinese, their languages have generally changed more than the relatively conservative languages of the Northern group. Manchu not only has a very large number of loanwords, but it also has a structure significantly affected by its contact with Chinese. Its relationship to Evenki, the prototypical Northern Tungus language, can be likened to the position that English occupies within the Germanic family, since English structure and vocabulary have also been altered through intense exposure to another culture, namely that of the Norman French. […]

The Xibo or (Sibo) are a Southern Tungus people. Most experts classify their language as a dialect of Manchu, but they have traditionally been considered a separate nationality, and that is how they are still classified today. They call themselves “Shivə,” not “Manju.” […]

The Manchu language is all but extinct. The only people who speak it on a day-to-day basis are the Xibo minority of Xinjiang […] The state of spoken Manchu in Manchuria may be compared to that of Gaelic in the British Isles, an idiom that is also nearing extinction.