Archives for September 2016

The Bookshelf: Miscellany X.

The review copies have been accumulating, so it’s time once again for a language book roundup!

1) Women Talk More Than Men … And Other Myths about Language, by Abby Kaplan. The author explains her approach on the second page:

First, it is about popular beliefs about language: the conventional wisdom on topics from linguistic sex differences to the effects of text messaging. Sometimes, of course, popular opinion has things more or less right –- but it’s more interesting to examine cases where ‘what everyone knows’ is wrong, and so we will put a special focus on debunking language myths. […]

Second, this is a book about how to study language — not in the sense that it will train you to do linguistic analysis for yourself, but in the sense that it provides a glimpse of the kinds of things linguists do.

The chapter titles are myths, like “A dialect is a collection of mistakes” and “Chimpanzees can talk to us,” and she does a splendid job of debunking; there are a lot of academic references and statistics, which may put off some people, but in a field chock-full of books with little beyond hand-waving and obiter dicta, it’s a welcome corrective. For a fuller discussion, see Stan Carey’s review. This is a fine book that I would recommend to anyone interested in language.

2) The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary, by John Simpson. The former chief editor of the OED describes his experiences with it and provides a great deal of intriguing lexical information along the way. In discussing the decision to have the full text keyed manually rather than being scanned, he says “it transpired that there was no company in Britain big enough and courageous enough to take on the job”; the bold indicates that the word will be treated separately, and on the next page there is a two-and-a-half-page discussion beginning “In the mid- to late eighteenth century, the verb to transpire caused no end of arguments between otherwise healthy individuals” and continuing with an exemplary and funny analysis of how the meaning shifted, including the parenthetical “(should you be the sort of person who finds things ‘wrong’ with language).” As you can tell from those quotes, the author is lively company, and anyone interested in the OED will want this book.

3) Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally), by John McWhorter. The aim of this compact, readable book is laid out in the introduction:

In the wake of conclusive discussions of these grammar rules, such as many of David Crystal’s publications and, most recently, Steven Pinker’s book The Sense of Style, there is little need to dwell on them further. This book will focus on something larger, in a way, than that compact collection of grammatical no-nos: the general sense that when English is morphing along in any way (new accents, new meanings) we are seeing not transformation but disruption. I want to propose a sunny (and, frankly, scientifically accurate) way of hearing the speech around us, as a substitute for a view of English as a collection of words embalmed between the covers of dictionaries.

If you’re in the market for books like this, you’re probably already familiar with the genial McWhorter and his pleasantly colloquial style; this has some good (if often familiar) examples and a healthy attitude toward language change and usage.

And finally, a couple of books on one of my favorite topics, bad language:

4) What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves, by Benjamin K. Bergen. The publisher’s blurb says:

In this groundbreaking yet ebullient romp through the linguistic muck, Bergen answers intriguing questions: How can patients left otherwise speechless after a stroke still shout Goddamn! when they get upset? When did a cock grow to be more than merely a rooster? Why is crap vulgar when poo is just childish? Do slurs make you treat people differently? Why is the first word that Samoan children say not mommy but eat shit? And why do we extend a middle finger to flip someone the bird?

And the book lives up to that description. It’s got charts showing unacceptability levels for bad words in New Zealand, England, and the US; one illustrating the fact that “People rate made-up words as more profane when they have more consonants, either at the beginning of the syllable or at the end” (“deeve” is felt to be worse than “dee” and “smurb” than “smurr”); an illustration showing one dog labeled “LUCK” and another labeled “FUCK”… oh, it’s a lot of fun, and scientifically sound too!

5) In Praise of Profanity, by Michael Adams. I’ve reviewed books by Adams before (Slang: The People’s Poetry in 2009 and From Elvish to Klingon in 2011), and I’ve come to find him a reliably interesting author; as I said in that first review, he thinks clearly and writes vividly. He quotes graffiti (“NoticeI will suck off 2 boys’ (over 16) cocks next Sunday”), Miss Manners, Jesse Sheidlower (another LH favorite), the poetry of William Dunbar and John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (“Whence rows of mandrakes tall did rise,/ Whose lewd tops fucked the very skies”), and the comedy of Sarah Silverman. He ends with a coda about the excellent word clusterfuck as discussed at a conference banquet at Pembroke College, Oxford: “We concluded that it’s just about a perfect word structurally; it’s perfect just in the aesthetics of its form.” If that sounds like the kind of thing you like, or someone you want to give a present to would like, you can’t go wrong with this delightful book.

How Did Latin Become A Dead Language?

Jules Suzdaltsev (“a big fancy journalist, editor, and host from Los Angeles, California”) has a three-minute video purporting to explain what happened to Latin. I post it not because I expect anyone here to learn anything from it (summary: Latin split into what we call the Romance languages) but because it manages to say such odd, silly, irrelevant, or just plain wrong things in such a short stretch of time. “Part of the reason that Latin passed out of common usage is because, as a language, it’s incredibly complex”: no, actually people can go on speaking incredibly complex languages indefinitely; visit the Caucasus sometime. At the start he seems to be saying that Latin spread throughout the Empire because it was the chosen language of the Catholic Church. His map shows Romanian as not being spoken within the Empire. He says the meaning of something said in Latin “is always clear, although difficult to parse in a sentence.” He gives the Italian, Spanish, and French descendants of Latin tres ‘three’ and says they’re “all similar, but culturally distinct.” Wha? I watched it twice just to make sure I had heard what I thought I heard. Anyway, this guy may be a fine fellow but I wouldn’t advise going to him for linguistic history. (Thanks, Trevor!)


I’ve been wandering about much of the day in a stuporous state brought on by the dank, muggy weather, and I’ve just learned the perfect word for it thanks to an article by Betty Kirkpatrick (former editor of the Chambers dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus) at The Caledonian Mercury:

Many Scots words are so fit for purpose, as they say in modern parlance, that it is difficult to find an adequate English translation for them. Such a word is dwam, usually to be found in the phrase “in a dwam”.

Dwam in this sense is often translated as daydream but this strikes me as a bit too poetic for dwam and not accurate enough. A daydream suggests, and is often defined as such, pleasant thoughts and fantasies indulged in while awake.

Dwam does not suggest anything so creative. […] When you are in a dwam you may be thinking about something, not necessarily something pleasant, other than the subject in hand. However, you are just as likely to be thinking about nothing at all.

The other translation frequently given for dwam is stupor, but this is often defined as a state of near-unconsciousness and a dwam in the sense I am thinking of is nowhere as deep-seated as that. Furthermore, dictionaries frequently indicate that a stupor is often brought on by drugs or alcohol. Not so dwam. It does not necessarily have any connection with illegal substances, although the odd dram-induced dwam is not unknown.

Dwam, with the alternative spellings dwalm and dwaum, when it first came into being, was used to refer to a physical condition. Germanic in origin, it has associations with Old English dwolma, a state of confusion. As a verb it meant to faint or swoon or to become suddenly ill. It also meant to decline in health. As a noun it meant a fainting fit or a sudden attack of illness. […] “In a state of abstraction” is quite apt but it is a bit of a mouthful. “Staring into space” and “lost in thought” both cover the situation quite well, but are not as concise nor as graphic as be in a dwam.

(I’ve added italics for clarity; there are none at the linked page.) Here‘s the DSL entry, for those who want more; there’s no OED entry, so it’s pure Scots it’s in the OED under dwalm (see below). Thanks, Eric!

Globalization of Latin American Writers.

Adam Critchley interviews Mexican author Álvaro Enrigue about “his conviction that translated work is finding a widening world audience,” and there’s plenty of interesting stuff, beginning with this:

I think there has been a change in perspective among readers, both in the US and the UK, regarding the notion of translation.

I think reading a work in translation used to be seen as reading a “false” book, but the new generation has modified that outlook, and this is not simply due to a renewal of readers but of editors. We’re seeing a new generation of editors, who now tend to be younger than writers. And many of these young editors are women, and that has introduced an aspect to the market reflected in seeing more translations read.

I’m glad to hear it! But the next paragraph showed me an abyss of ignorance in my own head that I had been unaware of:

There was also an impressive shift from the 20th to the 21st century in the quality of translations. I moved to the US in 1998 and in those days if you wanted to read Spanish-language writers in translation the only options were [the Spaniards] Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Marías. There was absolutely nothing else. But now a writer under the age of 30 who publishes a decent novel in Mexico or Peru, for example, can find a publisher in the US or the UK.

I still had the idea, left over from the ’60s and ’70s, that Latin American writing was a big thing in the US — el boom, ¿no? Turns out el boom was a long time ago… (Thanks, Trevor!)


Allan Metcalf has a Lingua Franca piece on the word equinox which is mildly amusing but which I wouldn’t bother posting here except for this bit: “So getting back to equinox: The first observation is that there are two exquinoxes (yes, that’s the plural) every year…” My first reaction was “No, that isn’t the plural, what the hell are you talking about?” But of course I’ve learned not to trust first reactions, so I looked it up and confirmed my sense of things: not only is there no mention of such a plural in my various dictionaries (though there is an alternative plural equinoctes), but an Advanced Search of the OED produces the unequivocal “No results found for ‘exquinoxes’.” In other words, this silly form does not occur anywhere in the text, citations, or etymologies of the most comprehensive dictionary of English. So I was about to write an indignant letter to Allan Metcalf saying “What the hell are you talking about?” … but I decided to make one last try and search Google Books, and to my amazement there were pages of results like “The Ouse, or Isis, as Sir Henry Spelman says is its proper name, ‘is remarkable for its extraordinary over-flowing’ at the two Exquinoxes” (1781), “Great atmospherical commotions also excite and exasperate them, and hence they are more obstreperous, and require more care at the period of the exquinoxes than at any other time” (1839), “The port of Tripoli is anything but a safe one, the rottenness of its bottom rendering the anchorage very unstable, especially during the tremendous gales that blow there during the exquinoxes” (1878), “that anyone should have mixed up three arbitrary methods of determining the exquinoxes of a planet” (1902), etc. They’re virtually all from the nineteenth or very early twentieth centuries, but there are recent outliers, e.g. “FE and HE are the group means for vernal and autumnal exquinoxes, respectively” (1973) and “The exact dates of the Vernal and Autumnal Exquinoxes may vary by a day or two” (2001). Does anybody have any idea what might be going on here? How was this misbegotten form invented, and how did people get the idea it was a good thing to keep using?

Update. After all that, it tunrs out that “exquinoxes” was in fact a typo as some commenters suggested, and Prof. Metcalf has asked his editors to correct it. Ah well, we all had fun guessing!

Evidence Rebuts Chomsky.

I had seen links to Paul Ibbotson and Michael Tomasello’s Scientific American piece “Evidence Rebuts Chomsky’s Theory of Language Learning,” but having recently posted yet another anti-Chomsky piece I thought I should probably let this one go by, much as the topic attracts me. However, reader elessorn sent it to me with this cover note:

Nothing in it will be new to you or most people on Languagehat, but I can’t recall seeing many articles like it before — lucid, anti-Chomskian without the ranting (not that I don’t like a good rant!), and with an upbeat outlook. The last one especially. All too often academic fights seem to involve a lot more “death to theory X” than “look what we can do now without theory X in the way.” This was a refreshing exception. Either way, I bet you’ll like the last paragraph.

He was absolutely correct about all of that, and I heartily recommend it. To give you a sample, after a good history of the dispute and the evidence against the Chomsky position, we get:

All of this leads ineluctably to the view that the notion of universal grammar is plain wrong. Of course, scientists never give up on their favorite theory, even in the face of contradictory evidence, until a reasonable alternative appears. Such an alternative, called usage-based linguistics, has now arrived. The theory, which takes a number of forms, proposes that grammatical structure is not in­­nate. Instead grammar is the product of history (the processes that shape how languages are passed from one generation to the next) and human psychology (the set of social and cognitive capacities that allow generations to learn a language in the first place). More important, this theory proposes that language recruits brain systems that may not have evolved specifically for that purpose and so is a different idea to Chomsky’s single-gene mutation for recursion.

In the new usage-based approach (which includes ideas from functional linguistics, cognitive linguistics and construction grammar), children are not born with a universal, dedicated tool for learning grammar. Instead they inherit the mental equivalent of a Swiss Army knife: a set of general-purpose tools—such as categorization, the reading of communicative intentions, and analogy making, with which children build grammatical categories and rules from the language they hear around them.

The new approach (which of course is discussed in greater detail) sounds sensible to me. And here’s that last paragraph:

Universal grammar appears to have reached a final impasse. In its place, research on usage-based linguistics can provide a path forward for empirical studies of learning, use and historical development of the world’s 6,000 languages.

The Encyclopedia Reader.

This piece by Daniel A. Gross in the New Yorker‘s Page-Turner series is a moving account of two men who have had a close, though largely epistolary, relationship ever since 2004, when Robin Woods sent Mark Stevens a letter beginning “I am writing to you at this time to advise you of a misprint…” (My thanks to Paul Ogden for sending me the link.)

Rosengrant on Malcolm on Schwartz.

Back in June I posted about Janet Malcolm’s NYRB review of various Tolstoy translations; the letters section of the latest issue includes a full page of responses (and I thank Trevor and Rick for alerting me to it). The longest and most interesting is by translator Judson Rosengrant; he quotes Malcolm’s passage attacking Schwartz’s rendition of образуется by “shapify,” and continues:

The word in question, obrazovat’sia, given to Matvey in a conjugated form (“Nichego, sudar’, obrazuetsia”), is not in fact a neologism at all, nor is it meant to be funny (the “good joke” refers to Stiva’s ponderous witticism about the German clock master who visits the Oblonsky home every Friday). There is, however, more at stake here than the accurate identification of a lexical category, or the intention of a phrase, and the issues deserve an extended analysis. In regard to the Russian word itself, there are two main aspects: the morphological and the semantic.

The morphological aspect is straightforward. The root obraz is very old, going back at least a millennium, and is found not only in Old Russian and Old Church Slavonic but also in other Slavic languages. The derivational suffix –ovat’, used to turn the root noun into a verb, is very well established, too, and so is the additional reflexive suffix –sia that makes the transitive verb an intransitive, passive one, as in the usage in question: obraz-ovat’-sia. Thus the structure of the word was not new, nor were any of its elements; it was and is a very standard Russian verb with a deep history and not a neologism either for Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, or for Goncharov in Oblomov in the 1850s, or for the critic Belinsky in the 1840s, or for Pushkin in the 1820s and 1830s in the several places that he used it.

This means that any translator wishing to render obrazovat’sia in English must respect the brute historical fact that, unlike the bizarre word “shapify” cited by Malcolm, it is not an unusual form at all but rather a very ordinary one that does not call attention to itself as such (something that would in any case have been quite uncharacteristic of Tolstoy, whose innovations were syntactic and in the sheer cognitive wealth, range, and precision of his vocabulary).

The semantic aspect is more complex. Because of its long history, the word has multiple meanings, some archaic or obsolete, some still active, some more colloquial, some less so, but all overlapping in their basic sense, and all—as with any usage—affected by the various ways in which the word has been employed. Briefly, the root obraz denotes an image, a representation, a picture, or an icon (it is commonly used that way in current Russian), and, by extension, a form, with the verb meaning, in modern Russian, to represent or depict (to produce an image of), to constitute, to give form or a form to, to result in, or even to educate (as in the formation of a mind).

Some of those meanings and others were latent, at least to some degree, in Matvey’s colloquial use of the word, but the one that is operative is the one that Stiva made so by selecting it, by eagerly seizing upon it and repeating it, thereby providing (as Tolstoy contrived it, for the issue here is the intricacy of his art) what will for the attentive reader have been a moment of rich thematic implication.

There’s considerably more, and I recommend reading the entire discussion (at the last link); it’s rare that a general-interest periodical sees such detailed analysis of Russian morphology and semantics!

Auris Non Oricla.

I was more than usually pleased to see Arika Okrent’s latest mental_floss post, 5 Annoying Latin Errors from an Ancient List That Predicted Latin’s Descendants, because for decades now I’ve been trying to remember or find out the source of my vague memory of a Late Latin peever’s list of incorrect words that were actually (in hindsight) proto-Romance, and this is it!

Sometime around the 7th century, a grammarian got fed up and started collecting all the annoying mistakes that people kept making in Latin. He wrote them up in the Appendix Probi, a straightforward list of the “say this, not that” variety. The most interesting thing about the Appendix Probi is not that it shows that people have always been making usage errors, but that the errors people made in Latin show the specific ways that Latin turned into its descendants, the Romance languages, including Spanish, French, and Italian.

The Appendix Probi, that’s the ticket! Arika quotes “Februarius non Febrarius,” “Auris non Oricla,” “Calida non Calda,” “Exequiae non Execiae,” and “Tabula non Tabla,” and you can see the whole magnificent list here. Another long-time dream fulfilled by the internet; thanks, 21st century!

Italian Chewed to Shreds.

I’ve gotten to the Sixth Promenade in The Gallery (see this post), in which the narrator finally gets to Naples after a spell in North Africa, and was delighted to come upon a passage of linguistic interest. After an extended “poetic” peroration on the standard language (“Italian is a language as natural as the human breath…”), he gets to the local dialect, and becomes more descriptive:

I remember also the dialect of the city of Naples, which is Italian chewed to shreds in the mouth of a hungry man. It varies even within the city. The fishermen in the bay talk differently from the rich in the Vomero. Every six blocks in the squashed-together city there’s a new dialect. It’s as raw as tenement living, as mercurial as a thief to your face, as tender as the flesh on the breast. Sometimes in one sentence it’s all three. The stateliness of Tuscan Italian is missing in Neapolitan. But there’s no false stateliness in Naples either, except in some alien fountain presented by a Duchess of Lombardy. Neapolitan dialect isn’t ornamental. Its endings have been amputated just as Neapolitan living pares to the heart and hardness of life. Wild sandwiches occur in the middle of words, doublings of z’s, cramming of m’s and n’s. When they say something, the Neapolitans scream and moan and stab and hug and vituperate. All at once. And O God, their gestures! The hand before the groin, the finger under the chin, the cluckings, the head-shakings. In each sentence they seem to recapitulate all the emotions that human beings know. They die and live and faint and desire and despair. I remember the dialect of Naples. It was the most moving language I ever listened to. […] Those tongues that spoke it were like lizards warm in the sun, jiggling their tails because they were alive.

There’s Hemingway-era manly poeticizing there, too, but you’ve got to love “Wild sandwiches occur in the middle of words.”

In an earlier chapter there’s an amusing portrait of a villain who “could never forgive the war for interrupting his doctor’s dissertation in Erse philology” and who “always carried with him Fowler’s Modern English Usage,” and when in the course of sucking up to the foolish and bigoted head of the censorship department (whom he calls “a modern Actaeon”) he uses the word “bigwigs” adds: “Pardon the vulgarism…” Beware a man brandishing Fowler!