Archives for April 2016

Dan Chaucer.

One of Edmund Spenser’s best-known lines is “Dan Chaucer, well of English undefiled” (or, if you prefer Ye Olde Spellynge, “vndefyled”). It’s a nice line, even if Chaucer’s English was as thoroughly defiled as any other (it’s ye olde rose-colored view of the past), but it never occurred to me to wonder about the “Dan” part until now — Chaucer’s given name was, after all, Geoffrey. It turns out Dan is an archaic title, equivalent to Master or Sir and descended (via Old French dan, nominative dans, danz) from Latin dominus ‘lord.’ There is, however, a problem: Dan, like Sir, was prefixed to the given name, not the surname; here are the first few citations from the OED entry (from 1894):

1303 R. Mannyng Handlyng Synne 73 Dane Phelyp was mayster þat tyme.
1340 Ayenbite 1 Þis boc is dan Michelis of Northgate.
c1386 Chaucer Monk’s Prol. 41 My lorde the Monk quod he.. Wher shal I calle yow my lord daun Iohn, Or daun Thomas, or elles daun Albon? Of what hous be ye?

So why not Dan Geoffrey? Fortunately, Thomas Pyles wrote a short article on this very subject, “Dan Chaucer” (Modern Language Notes 57.6 [June 1942]: 437-439), available through JSTOR; I’ll quote some salient bits. After pointing out that “later in the poem he does use what would seem to be the more orthodox form, i. e., ‘Dan Geffrey’ (vii, vii, 9),” he says:

It seems most likely that Spenser was using the title dan, already old-fashioned, to connote antiquity, dignity, learning, and respectful affection for his avowed literary idol, and that the usage which we should expect to find (by analogy with earlier non-academic and with present-day sir, as well as with earlier dan) was not fixed in his day. […]

There can be little doubt, then, not only that all subsequent “Dan Chaucers” are simply reflections of Spenser’s usage, as has been stated above, but also that all subsequent uses of dan with surname stem from his famous “blunder” (if it may be so called). In the 18th century, dan, though quite obsolete, was apparently well known, thanks to Spenser, and was bestowed by the poets upon their fellows in facetious and somewhat affected manner. Thus, Prior refers to “Dan Pope” (“Alma,” ii, 120), and Pope in turn refers to “our friend, Dan Prior” (Imitations of Horace, Bk. Ii, Sat. vi, line 153). The final stanza of the “Bouts Rimés on Signora Domitilla,” attributed to Swift and usually included among his poems, also contains a reference to “Dan Pope.”

In any event, it seems certain that Spenser’s use of the title, unorthodox though it may be, has established for “Dan Chaucer” a position of affectionate regard in the hierarchy of “dans” second only to that held by “Dan Cupid.” Surely Dan Chaucer (for the writer is quite willing to do his bit in perpetuating so worthy a solecism) would have desired no more exalted station.


No, not the English word, short for condominium, but the Latin verb: condō, condere, condidī, conditum. Many people are familiar with it from the phrase ab urbe condita ‘from the founding of the city’ (the founding of Rome is traditionally dated to 753 BCE), and I (a diligent but long-lapsed Latin student) thought of it as meaning ‘to found.’ Then, in the course of reading a very interesting analysis of the Octavia, a late-first-century play of unknown authorship about Nero’s murder of his wife Claudia Octavia (with his murder of his mother Agrippina as an important subplot), I was startled to see Agrippina’s last words, ordering Nero’s henchman to bury his sword in her womb (caedis moriens illa ministrum/ rogat infelix,/ utero dirum condat ut ensem), mentioned as a reminiscence of Vergil — not only is there the famous use of condere at the Aeneid’s beginning and end to describe the foundation of Rome, but Vergil was the first to use it in the sense of burying a sword into one’s enemy (Aen. 9.347-8: pectore in adverso totum cui comminus ensem/ condidit assurgenti). I looked the verb up in my beat-up old paperback New College Latin & English Dictionary and found the following farrago of senses:

to build, found; to write, compose (poetry); to establish (an institution); to store, treasure, hoard; to preserve, pickle; to bury; to conceal, hide, suppress; to shut (eyes); to sheathe (sword); to place (soldiers) in ambush; to plunge, bury (sword); to imprison; to memorize; to store up

I then went to my Oxford Latin Dictionary, which arranges the senses as follows (I’ve abbreviated ad libitum):

1 To put or insert (into); to put (a person in a given place); esp. to put (in prison, chains, etc.).
2 To store up for future use, put away; to preserve, store up (food, fodder, etc.); to bottle (wine, oil) for keeping; (transf.) to store up (in the mind, memory, etc.); to preserve, keep safe.
3 To restore (a thing) to its place, put away; to sheathe, put away (a sword or other weapon).
4 To inter, bury (a corpse); to lay to rest (a spirit); also, to cause the death of, bring to the grave.
5 To put away for concealment, secrete, hide.
6 To put away for protection, hide; (usu. refl. or pass.) to take refuge.
7 To put out of sight (without any intention of keeping secret), obstruct the view of; to plunge, bury (a weapon in an opponent’s body); to close (the eyes of a corpse, as part of the ritual of burial.
8 To cause to disappear (as an indirect result of one’s action); diem (etc.) ~ere, to see the day out.
9 To have hidden within, contain.
10 To found, establish (a city or state); to set up, establish (a temple, altar, etc.).
11 To originate, institute (a custom, law, reputation, etc.); to inaugurate.
12 To make by putting together, construct, compose.
13 lustrum ~ere, To conduct the ceremony of purification which concluded the census; to bring to a close, end.
14 To compose, write (a poem or other literary work); to describe in literature, record, write of.

Whew! The etymology is perfectly straightforward (con– ‘together’ + –do– ‘put’ < PIE *dhē-, cf. Greek tithēmi); it’s amazing what a variety of senses spring from such a simple source.

The Word ronce.

Back in 2009 I posted about a good translation (by Emily Grosholz) of Yves Bonnefoy’s poem “Tu me dis que tu aimes le mot ronce,” from his book Ce qui fut sans lumière (translated by John Naughton, with original en face, as In the Shadow’s Light); just now, perusing wood s lot, I came across Naughton’s translation of a poem from a few pages later in the same book that focuses on the same word, ronce ‘brambles; blackberry bush,’ and I like both the poem and translation so much I’ll reproduce them here. Bonnefoy:

Le mot ronce, dis-tu ? Je me souviens
De ces barques échouées dans le varech
Que traînent les enfants les matins d’été
Avec des cris de joie dans les flaques noires

Car il en est, vois-tu, où demeure la trace
D’un feu qui y brûla à l’avant du monde
— Et sur le bois noirci, où le temps dépose
Le sel qui semble un signe mais s’efface,
Tu aimeras toi aussi l’eau qui brille.

Du feu qui va en mer la flamme est brève,
Mais quand elle s’éteint contre la vague,
Il y a des irisations dans la fumée.
Le mot ronce est semblable à ce bois qui sombre.

Et poésie, si ce mot est dicible,
N’est-ce pas de savoir, là où l’étoile
Parut conduire mais pour rien sinon la mort,

Aimer cette lumière encore ? Aimer ouvrir
L’amande de l’absence dans la parole ?


The word brambles, you say? Then I think of
Those boats stranded in sea-weed
That children drag on summer mornings
With cries of joy through dark pools of water.

Because in some, you see, there are traces
Of a fire that burned there at the prow of the world
–And on the blackened wood where time has left
The salt that seems a sign but vanishes,
You too shall love the shimmering water.

Brief is the flame that goes out to sea,
But when it is quenched against the wave,
The smoke is filled with iridescence.
–The word brambles is like this sinking wood.

And poetry, if we can use this word,
Is it not still, there where the star
Seemed to beckon, but only toward death,

Knowing how to love this light? To love
To open the kernel of absence in words?

A linguistic note: the striking French word varech ‘seaweed,’ pronounced /varek/, is from Old Norse *wrec (cf. Norwegian and Icelandic rek) and was actually borrowed into English as varec (s.v. in OED) or varech (1873 R. Browning Red Cotton Night-cap Country i. 3 “Then, dry and moist, the varech limit-line”; 1889 Guernsey News 1 Feb. “The gathering of varech in Herm commences to-morrow”); it’s a doublet of English wreck.

Pronouncing an Igbo Name.

Nkem Ifejika’s BBC News piece “Why I stopped mispronouncing my Igbo name” is excellent, I might even say exemplary. It not only explains why he grew up not speaking his family’s native Igbo and not even able to pronounce his own name correctly, it includes an audio clip in which he says both the short and long forms, as well as the word “Igbo” itself — and tells us why he prefers to use “Ibo” in English. (Amusingly, it’s hard to tell the difference between the two unless your ear is attuned to the combined gb phoneme.) He also explains why Igbo is described as “endangered” even though the population is actually growing, and gives a brief history of the tragic attempt of the Igbos to leave Nigeria half a century ago (I well remember the Biafra War from that time, as a result of which Igbo was one of the first African languages whose name I knew). He ends:

While growing up, I didn’t care that I couldn’t speak Igbo, but in adulthood, especially since becoming a father, it’s something I want to fix. I find myself wanting to bequeath Igbo to my son, Anyikamba (the name means “we are greater than a nation”), as an invaluable inheritance.

I don’t yet know as much as I should about my ancestors, or enough about Igbo history, so I can’t pass these on to him. But language as an embodiment of that living, breathing, history, I (and especially my wife) can give.

My identity is fairly cosmopolitan and outward looking, and I’m very adaptable. I’ve never been anywhere where I felt, “there’s no way I can live here”.

The global languages I speak are probably more in keeping with my outlook, so why would I want to speak a language which restricts me to 41,000 sq km in the southeast Nigeria?

I think it’s because the modern world is so fluid, and multiple identities are more possible than ever before, that I want something rooted and preserved in time.

And for me, that’s Igbo.

Highly recommended.

Animal Sounds.

Via Victor Mair at the Log:

Here is what claims to be “the world’s biggest multilingual list” of sounds that animals make. It has 58 animal sounds as made in 17 languages. Some of the animals are recorded as making separate sounds for different meanings (e.g., there are 10 different sounds listed for dogs) and some are distinguished between the sounds made by the male and the female of the species (e.g., the turkey). Needless to say, there are lots of gaps.

It’s unfortunate that Derek Abbott, who created the page, only gives transliterations and doesn’t provide terms in the original alphabets, and doubly unfortunate that some of them are simply wrong (Russian pigs grunt хрю [khryu], not “hrgu”), but it’s a great idea and I hope someone will do it better (or Abbott will improve his page).

On Reading Japanese.

In a long and interesting TLS review (not paywalled) of Minae Mizumura’s The Fall of Language in the Age of English, Jay Rubin, a professor of Japanese Literature at Harvard and translator of Haruki Murakami, says this:

Even now, after some seventy post-war years of attempts to simplify and rationalize the Japanese writing system, its “appalling” mixture of Chinese characters and two supplementary phonetic scripts remains the single greatest stumbling block to foreigners who wish to become literate users of the language (to become literate in a language, you have to know its literature). Not even those few of us who survived boot camp and went on to read a good part of Japan’s literary canon in the original have it easy. As Minae Mizumura accurately (if somewhat ungraciously) observes in The Fall of Language in the Age of English, “Foreigners, even those who teach Japanese literature at a university, cannot read novels written in Japanese with any ease”.

Is that really true?

Website Posts News in Lakota.

Regina Garcia Cano has an AP story on a promising development from South Dakota:

A new website created with a primarily Native American audience in mind is posting news, features, sports and weather entirely in Lakota — the first of its kind to do so — in an attempt to help preserve a language that after forced assimilation policies is now spoken by fewer than 2,000 people.

The site was developed by partners who have been involved in several initiatives to embed the Lakota language in various aspects of life. Their goal with — which translates to “dream” — is to get the language out of the classroom.

“Nowadays, everyone spends much of their daily life online; visiting websites, reading news, checking the weather, browsing social media, or any number of other activities,” said Matthew Rama, one of the creators. “But until now, there has never been a site with as much content strictly in Lakota. So in that respect, we are bringing the language to the people in a brand-new way.”

Other media outlets provide news of interest to the community, but in English.’s local news content comes from two area weeklies that mostly focus on Native American issues. The site has an agreement with those weeklies to translate stories into Lakota, with links back to the original articles. And in recognition that many people who speak the language well do not read it easily, news stories include audio clips in Lakota.

“A lot of fluent speakers are not necessarily accustomed to reading 1,500-word articles on arcane subjects,” said Peter Hill, another of the website’s creators. “So having the audio version and having the article read to you is going to make it a lot more accessible to a lot more people.”

This is the kind of thing that’s needed if minority languages are to have a chance to survive. Thanks, Trevor!

Requiem Shark.

I’m rereading Moby Dick after a lapse of decades, and in the famous chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale” I was stopped by this passage:

As for the white shark, the white gliding ghostliness of repose in that creature, when beheld in his ordinary moods, strangely tallies with the same quality in the Polar quadruped. This peculiarity is most vividly hit by the French in the name they bestow upon that fish. The Romish mass for the dead begins with ‘Requiem eternam’ (eternal rest), whence Requiem denominating the mass itself, and any other funereal music. Now, in allusion to the white, silent stillness of death in this shark, and the mild deadliness of his habits, the French call him Requin.

Needless to say, I found the suggested etymology more than dubious, and went to investigate. Imagine my surprise when I discovered the following entry (updated March 2010) in the OED:

requiem, n.2

Etymology: A borrowing from French. Etymons: French requin, requien, requiem.
< French requin (1539 in Middle French), requien (1578), requiem (1658 in the passage translated in quot. 1666), of uncertain origin; it has been suggested that the second element may show French regional (northern) quin, variant of chien dog (compare chien de mer dogfish n.), but this explanation poses difficulties. The form requiem probably results from folk-etymological association with requiem requiem n.1, a person taken by the shark being taken to be as good as dead. Compare Portuguese requeime (of uncertain date and origin).

A large or dangerous shark; (Zool.) (more fully requiem shark) a member of the family Carcharhinidae, which includes many of the typical large and medium-sized sharks (as the tiger, bull, blue, and reef sharks) and the hammerheads.
1666 J. Davies tr. C. de Rochefort Hist. Caribby-Islands i. xvii. 102 The Requiem, otherwise called the Shark-Fish, is a kind of Sea-Dog or Sea-Wolf.
1666 J. Davies tr. C. de Rochefort Hist. Caribby-Islands i. xvii. 103 The French and Portuguez commonly call it Requiem, that is to say Rest, haply, because he is wont to appear in fair weather.
1705 tr. W. Bosman New Descr. Coast of Guinea xv. 281 Hayes or Requiens, by some (though utterly wrong) named Sea-Dogs;..are very thick as well as very long, some of them betwixt twenty and thirty foot.
1896 D. S. Jordan & B. W. Evermann Fishes N. & Middle Amer. I. 27 [Family] Galeidae. (The Requiem Sharks)… Sharks with 2 dorsal fins, the first short and high, entirely before the ventrals.
1973 ‘P. Buchanan’ Requiem of Sharks xiii. 136 Any man-eater is called a requiem.
2000 C. Tudge Variety of Life ii. xiv. 362 The Carcharinidae [sic] (13 genera, 15 species) contain the somewhat chillingly but aptly termed ‘requiem sharks’; they range from medium-sized to extremely large.

So the etymology is indeed dubious, but what a great word!

Acquisition of Grammatical Categories through Qur’anic Memorization.

Arika Okrent reports on a fascinating study about how much grammar people can deduce without explicit instruction:

The answer is: quite a bit. People, even as babies, are good at pulling out grammatical structure from patterned data. But the artificial learning experiments are necessarily small and limited, so it’s unclear how much they can tell us about language learning in the real world.

As it turns out, there has been a large-scale natural test of statistical learning out there all along in the practice of Qur’anic memorization. There are Muslims all over the world who do not speak Arabic (in Indonesia, Pakistan, and Turkey, for example), but who as part of religious practice memorize the Qur’an for recitation, often starting as children and continuing memorization training for years. That training is often unaccompanied by any explicit Arabic instruction or direct translation of the memorized text. They get the statistics of the pattern without the meaning.

A recent paper in Cognition by Fathima Manaar Zuhurudeen and Yi Ting Huang takes advantage of this “natural experiment” to test whether simple exposure to the patterned properties of the Classical Arabic in the Qur’an results in implicit grammatical knowledge. They compared four groups: memorizers who also had classroom Arabic lessons, memorizers with no classroom exposure, non-memorizers with classroom exposure, and a group with no Arabic exposure of any kind.

The groups that had classroom experience had explicitly learned things like what the first person pronoun “I” looks like and how it attaches to verbs, or what the second person possessive pronoun “your” like looks like and how it attaches to nouns. The group without classroom experience but with memorization training had never had these things explained. Had they absorbed the rules of how they worked simply by hearing and repeating them in memorized text?

Yes. The memorizers without classroom Arabic did better than any of the other groups at demonstrating knowledge of the rules. This knowledge was not explicit; they could not explain how pronouns, verbs, and nouns worked, but they could judge whether a sentence they had not heard before was correct or not with accuracy.

Surprisingly, the memorizers with no classroom Arabic did better than those who had had lessons, suggesting that a “top-down approach” that explains the rules of language “may negatively impact learners’ sensitivity to the bottom-up statistics of a language.”

I welcome this as another nail in the coffin of the Chomskyite dogma that grammar must be innate because we couldn’t possibly learn it from simply hearing a language spoken.

Pasternak the Untranslatable.

Back in December I posted about the wild-and-woolly early poetry of Pasternak; I’ve continued reading him in order, and having finished the masterpiece My Sister, Life (1922), I want to focus on the last two stanzas of the last poem in that amazing book, “Конец,” “The End” — of both the book and the love affair it recounts, that blazed up in the summer of 1917 and fizzled out in the fall. (Not that the first stanza is any easier; how do you translate “разгуливать,” in the very first line?) Here is the original:

Познакомь меня с кем-нибудь из вскормленных,
Как они, страдой южных нив,
Пустырей и ржи.

Но с оскоминой, но с оцепененьем, с комьями
В горле, но с тоской стольких слов
Устаешь дружить!

Here’s a transliteration, with stress marked only when it’s not on the penult:

Poznakóm’ menyá s kém-nibud’ iz vskórmlennykh,
Kak oní, stradói yuzhnykh niv,
Pustyréi i rzhi.

No s oskóminoi, no s otsepenen’em, s kóm’yami
V gorle, no s toskói stol’kikh slov
Ustayósh druzhít’!

Note the complex pattern of assonances: -KOM menya, s KEM-nibud’, -sKORMlennykh, -KOMinoi, s KOM’yami; straDOI, pustyREI, s tosKOI, STOL’kikh… Here’s a literal translation:

Introduce me to someone from those raised,
Like them, on the harvest labor of southern fields,
Wastelands and rye.

But with the bitter taste, but with the stupor, with the lumps
In the throat, but with the pangs of so many words,
You get tired of being on friendly terms.

That doesn’t sound like poetry, and it’s not meant to; the only poetic translation I’ve been able to find, by James E. Falen, renders those stanzas:

Acquaint me with one who was nurtured, as they,
By the labors of southern fields,
Of wastelands and rye.

But this bitter taste, this stupefied heart, these lumps
In the throat, the anguish of words. . . .
One longs for an end.

That rolls along more mellifluously, but it’s still not really poetry, to my taste, and the last line is just ridiculous, corresponding to nothing in the Russian. Here’s a couple of English stanzas that, while having nothing to do with the original semantically, attempt to give some idea of the sound play:

It’s as common as camping, or as cormorants,
Like a knee that straddles your knees,
It’s a ray of the sea.

Not as communist, not as some paynim, as companies
Quarterly, not as coy stalks; as love
You stay all too sweet.

I can knock that doggerel off in a few minutes, but I couldn’t English the poem in a million years. Pasternak boils down the resources of Russian too idiosyncratically and completely; there’s not enough that can be carried over in the leaky bucket of translation.