Archives for November 2016


I’m still recovering from a fabulous roast-beef-and-Yorkshire-pudding dinner with a good pinot noir and two pies for dessert, so I’m just going to toss this out there and hope others think it’s as much fun as I do: 16th Century Book Can Be Read Six Different Ways.


Kaveh Waddell at The Atlantic writes about the development of an indigenous alphabet for the Fulani language by Abdoulaye Barry and his brother Ibrahima. The title, “The Alphabet That Will Save a People From Disappearing,” is idiotic — there are at least 20 million Fula, and they’re not going anywhere — but the story is fascinating:

“Why do Fulani people not have their own writing system?” Abdoulaye Barry remembers asking his father one day in elementary school. The variety of writing styles made it difficult for families and friends who lived in different countries to communicate easily. Abdoulaye’s father, who learned Arabic in Koranic schools, often helped friends and family in Nzérékoré—Guinea’s second-largest city—decipher letters they received, reading aloud the idiosyncratically modified Arabic scripts. As they grew older, Abdoulaye and his brother Ibrahima began to translate letters, too.

“Those letters were very difficult to read even if you were educated in Arabic,” Abdoulaye said. “You could hardly make out what was written.”

So, in 1990, the brothers started coming up with an alternative. Abdoulaye was 10 years old; Ibrahima was 14.

After school, they’d shut themselves in their rooms to draw, filling blank composition books they brought home from the classroom with the shapes that would make up their new alphabet. They’d take turns drawing letters, and together, assigned sounds to the shapes they came up with.

Six months later, they had a working script. Like Arabic, its 28 letters were written right to left. But unlike Arabic, whose short vowels are written as diacritical marks above and below letters, the script assigned its five vowels proper letters. It looked something like a cursive version of Ethiopic. Ibrahima and Abdoulaye’s parents started taking their project seriously, and invited one of their father’s relatives, who had an influential post in the local government, for a demonstration.

The visitor tested them: With Abdoulaye in the other room, Ibrahima would take dictation. When Abdoulaye returned, he read aloud what his brother had written. They switched and repeated the test. Over and over, the brothers consistently read out the right sounds, even those unique to Fulani. Crucially, they spelled the same complicated words in the same ways, independently of one another.

The visitor turned to their father. “Oh, yes, these kids are being serious,” he said. […]

During the decade after that first big test in the brothers’ house, their new alphabet—yet unnamed—spread at an astounding rate. Eventually, it would come to be called Adlam, after its first four letters: the equivalents of a, d, l, and m.

The brothers encountered a lot of obstacles in their efforts to gain official recognition for their alphabet, but it seems to be doing well, and people are spontaneously adopting it and achieving literacy with it (always a good sign, since invented writing systems are many and successes few). You can read more about it at The Randall M. Hasson Blog (first installment of a three part series).


As a distant and occasional fan of the UConn Huskies‎ women’s basketball team since the ’80s (I am otherwise not a basketball fan, and I don’t actually watch their games, but I take pleasure in their successes), I noticed the name of a freshman on their current team, Crystal Dangerfield, who scored 19 points last night. The only other association I had with the surname was the comedian Rodney Dangerfield, and during his heyday it never occurred to me to wonder about the origin of the surname, but today it did, and I quickly learned that it was originally D’Angerville, from a Norman toponym Angerville. No danger, no field.

The First Great Arabic Novel.

Unfortunately, Robyn Creswell’s NYRB review (from October of last year) of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg Over Leg is available in full only to subscribers, but I’ll quote a few salient bits here:

Published in Paris in 1855, Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg Over Leg is often called the first novel written in Arabic. […] Born to a Christian family in an Ottoman province of modern-day Lebanon, al-Shidyaq could not have published Leg Over Leg in his homeland, mostly because of what he had to say about religion. The Arabic word bid‘, or “innovation,” which he uses many times to describe his novel, means both “literary novelty” and “heresy.” Al-Shidyaq guessed what the reaction to his work would be. The novel’s first pages imagine its author caught in a crowd of howling priests, who accuse him of blasphemy and demand that the book be burned. In response, al-Shidyaq spends several pages listing euphemisms for “vagina,” taken from a medieval Arabic dictionary: “the sprayer,” “the gripper,” “the large floppy one,” etc. This is followed by lists for “penis” (“the falcon’s stand,” “the big spider,” “the little man”), the anus (“the toothless one,” “the catapult,” “the whistler”), and intercourse (“to stick the kohl-stick in her kohl pot”). […]

The Nahda, meaning “reawakening” or “renaissance,” was a nineteenth-century movement of reform and modernization throughout the Middle East. […] It was not just the influx of foreign models that set off the Arabic renaissance, but a rediscovery of native traditions. In this way, the Nahda resembles the modernism of Pound and Eliot and Yeats, which fused metaphysical poets with the Upanishads, Noh drama, and Gaelic revivals.

One of the Nahda’s most important revivals was that of the Arabic language itself, and here al-Shidyaq’s achievement was central. His fascination with Arabic was like that of an archaeologist who unearths a sophisticated alien culture—although in this case that culture was his own. The abundance and precision of old Arabic words, which al-Shidyaq found in classical dictionaries, suggested that there was nothing in the world that did not already have its place in what he called “our noble language.” For example, khafut, “the woman who is considered comely on her own but not among other women”; buldah, “freedom from hair of the space between the eyebrows”; bahsala, “to remove one’s clothes and gamble with them”; samut, “having legs so thick that her anklets make no sound”; or dihindih, “a children’s game, in which they gather and then say this word, and any who mispronounces it has to stand on one leg and hop seven times.” None of this advances the plot of his novel, but al-Shidyaq is openly impatient with narrative conventions. At one point he boasts that Leg Over Leg is “a repository for every idea that appealed to me, relevant or irrelevant.” […]

Al-Shidyaq’s novel […] hews closely to the life of its hero, and its digressions are, if I may put it this way, philological, that is, the detours pivot on a word or a phrase that calls for explanation. When the Fariyaq falls for the daughter of an emir, we get an essay on the eight stages of love and the names for each. Everything that happens in the novel becomes a pretext for interpretation, which must be interpreted in turn. Or, as al-Shidyaq writes, “Every commentary must have a super-commentary.” […]

What most enraged al-Shidyaq was his contemporaries’ illiteracy: the real illiteracy of the poorer classes, along with almost all women, and the literate classes’ ignorance of their own tongue. Everywhere the Fariyaq goes in his travels, he finds priests whose knowledge of Arabic is a disgrace. “All church books are full of horrible mistakes,” he writes, then proves his point by looking into an Arabic version of the New Testament. (One of al-Shidyaq’s jobs in Malta was to begin a translation of the Bible into Arabic; at the same time, he wrote but did not publish a critique of the gospels’ historical credibility.) The Fariyaq meets poets who parrot foreign phrases while mangling their own tongue, monks who do not know the difference between a dictionary (qamus) and a nightmare (kabus), and literary men whose language is full of lame metaphors and the flattery of powerful men.

Al-Shidyaq’s own writing is a rebuke to all this. It is acrobatic, cutting, and baroquely self-aware. It is the style of a virtuoso in flight from the orthodoxy of his place and time.

Doesn’t that sound interesting? Unfortunately, it’s in four volumes at $40.00 each — not unreasonable for a bilingual edition, but out of my price range. Maybe I can convince a local library to get it; at any rate, I’m glad to know about it. (Thanks, Eric!)

Some Principles for Language Names.

Martin Haspelmath has put online a paper (to appear in Language Documentation & Conservation 2017) that describes “some principles that one might use for taking decisions [concerning language names] when there are variant forms in use, or when one feels that none of the existing names is appropriate,” adding that the principles “arose from work on Glottolog, a English-language database of the world’s languages” (and how did I not know about Glottolog?). Here’s the abstract:

This paper discusses eleven principles of language naming, which may be relevant to language documenters in case a language does not have a stable name yet: (i) Language names (like city names) are loanwords, not code-switches; (ii) Names of non-major languages are not treated differently from names of major languages; (iii) Each language has a unique name; (iv) New language names are not introduced unless none of the existing names is acceptable for some reason; (v) Language names that many speakers object to should not be used; (vi) Language names in English are written with ordinary English letters, plus some other well-known letters; (vii) Highly unusual pronunciation values of English letters are not acceptable; (viii) Language names must be pronounceable for English speakers; (ix) Language names begin with a capital letter; (x) Language names may have a modifier-head structure; (xi) The usage of prominent authors is given substantial weight. Finally I note that it is not a principle that the English name needs to be close to the autoglottonym.

In general it’s quite sensible; it’s not always clear, however, whether he’s being descriptive (this is how we at Glottolog decided to do it) or prescriptive (this is how everybody should do it), and I got my back up at section 3 (“Each language has a unique name”):

Just as cities never have multiple names within the same language (and variation is exclusively handled by renaming, e.g. Leningrad > St. Petersburg, or Madras > Chennai), languages do not have multiple names (i.e. synonyms are not acceptable). Of course, sometimes multiple names are in current use, but this cannot be a general solution. When Madras was renamed to Chennai, the old form Madras was used for a while, but it became old-fashioned and is being used less and less. The situation is analogous with changes of language names; thus, when the language Papago was renamed to O’odham, there was never a period during which both names were acceptable to the community of linguists, or to speakers of American English. As soon as the new name was introduced, the old became obsolete. This does not necessarily imply that all members of the community obey the same norm and change their behaviour at the same time, of course, but the nature of the norm is that only one name is possible.

I do not see any way to read this, given the reference to “speakers of American English,” other than as a general, prescriptive statement: “There is One Right Way to refer to any language, and if you do not use it (after an appropriate transition period, during which you can be considered simply ill-informed) you are a Bad Person.” I reject this approach in toto and in the strongest terms; you can use whatever terms you like in your database, but don’t tell me how to use my own language. (Thanks for the very interesting link go to John Cowan.)


Last night Songdog and I went to see the new movie Arrival, which I had been very much looking forward to because it features a linguist as its hero and was rumored to do so pretty well. I’m here to tell you that it surpassed my expectations; it’s not only a wonderful movie from the cinematic point of view (I realized that was going to be the case at the very beginning, when the camera slides over/down a mysterious surface which turns out to be the ceiling of a room, leading to a spectacular view through tree branches to a body of water), it is that rare science fiction movie that had a similar effect on my brain to that produced by a good sf novel. (The gold standard in that regard is still 2001: A Space Odyssey; most sf movies are just westerns, adventure movies, or romances dressed up with spaceships and/or time travel.) That’s not to say it’s flawless; I agree with the reservations expressed by Anthony Lane in his New Yorker review about the blurred focus and the “rushed and scruffy subplot,” but I also second his enthusiasm:

The first forty minutes of “Arrival” consumed me utterly. I gave up taking notes and resorted to scrawling sketches in the dark, as one prodigious image followed another. So sure is the stride of the narrative, and so bracing the air of expectation, that you feel yourself, like Louise, beginning to spin, and barely able to catch your breath. […] It may be weaker in the resolution than in the setup, but that is an inbuilt hazard of science fiction, and what lingers, days after you leave the cinema, is neither the wizardry nor the climax but the zephyr of emotional intensity that blows through the film.

Amy Adams is convincing both as a woman who’s going through hard times and as a linguist; apparently she “studied as much as she could about how linguists do fieldwork, including watching documentaries about preserving endangered languages,” and she won me over early on by first telling someone the well-worn anecdote that kangaroo comes from an Aboriginal phrase meaning “I don’t understand,” then turning to another character and muttering exactly what I had been thinking: “That’s not true, but it’s a great story.” For more on the linguistic aspect, see Ben Zimmer at the Log; he avoids spoilers, but the thread below may well contain them if LH readers feel the urge to talk about the plot, so if you want to see the movie — and I hope you will — you might want to do that before joining the discussion. (Warning: Arrival gets loud at times and contains varying elements of anxiety and grief, all of which will keep my wife away, so if that sort of thing bothers you, now you know.)

Addendum. How I Wrote Arrival (and What I Learned Doing It): Screenwriter Eric Heisserer shares notes and extracts from early drafts as he breaks down how he adapted Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life.” Via MetaFilter, where you will find more people burbling with enthusiasm about the movie, as well as links to Ted Chiang’s stories.

Update. Jessica Coon provides a list of linguistics-related links about the movie.

History of Language for Kids?

Jamie Olson, proprietor of the excellent blog The Flaxen Wave, wrote me to say:

For Christmas this year, my eight-year-old daughter has asked for a “book on the history of language for kids.” A few quick searches haven’t really turned up much; have you got any suggestions? She reads at a 6th- or 7th-grade level, if that helps.

I responded that I wished I had something to recommend; it’s a great idea, and I’m hoping my readers might have suggestions.

The History of Canadian English.

Thomas Rogers writes for

The primary reason for Canadians’ hard-to-identify accent is, of course, historical. Canadian English was partly shaped by early immigrants from the UK and Ireland, but it was affected much more by the arrival of about 45,000 loyalists to the British crown during the American Revolutionary War. By the outbreak of the War of 1812 a few decades later, a significant part of the population of Ontario – which had about 100,000 inhabitants – were of US extraction. The result, especially west of Quebec, was an accent lightly shaped by British English, but much more so by 18th Century colonial American English. Since Ontarians were largely responsible for settling Western Canada in the following decades, their Americanised accent spread across the country and eventually became the de facto accent for the majority of Canadians.

There are a few exceptions: Newfoundland’s population was disproportionally shaped by immigrants from southwestern England and southeastern Ireland, and since the island is geographically isolated and only joined Canada in 1949, it has retained a way of speaking that is dramatically unlike the rest of the country. Other parts of Eastern Canada – including Cape Breton Island and in parts of Prince Edward Island – have also retained distinctive accents.

But if a person travels into western Canada – into Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia – the accent becomes more American-sounding and locally indistinguishable. “The West was a melting pot for settlers from many regions, so there was this leveling out of differences, not only in Canada, but in the US,” says Boberg. “The settlement depth in Western Canada goes into the 1890s, so it is about a century old. The time depth and the population density being very sparse, those encourage widespread leveling and homogeneity.” This makes it very difficult, even for Canadians, to tell the difference between someone from Winnipeg and someone from Vancouver – or from Seattle.

There’s an interesting change happening, which I hadn’t been aware of:

In recent years, academics have noticed that the Canadian accent is undergoing a curious change. Known as ‘the Canadian vowel shift’, the vowels among a wide variety of Canadian demographics are becoming higher and pronounced further back in the mouth – bagel is turning into ‘bahgel’, shoes into ‘shahs’. The reasons aren’t clear, and despite the name of the shift, Canadians are not alone in undergoing the change: something similar is happening in parts of the US, including California (some people are describing this process as the ‘Valley Girl-isation’ of the Canadian accent). Other parts of the US, including some northern regions, aren’t experiencing the shift, so it may end up amplifying differences between the two accents rather than muddling them.

Thanks, Paul!

Superseding “Supersede.”

Anne Curzan at Lingua Franca reports on a spelling challenge the graduate-student instructor for her introductory English linguistics course had given to students: Which irregular spellings are you willing to part with? One of the suggestions was supersede; Curzan is sold, and I find myself willing to accept the wildly popular (mis)spelling supercede. Sure, it’s historically unjustifiable (to supersede is, etymologically speaking, to sit on), but so what? Plenty of English words have opaque etymologies (to take one common example, the -h- in author has no justification other than 16th-century whimsy), and the model of words like intercede appears to be irresistibly attractive. So let people spell it that way if they like.

I also don’t mind indite for indict (particularly since the –ct is pronounced in interdict — it’s just too confusing). But vacume for vacuum? No, no, a thousand times no. Not only does it look stupid, there are still people who pronounce it with three syllables, including me when it isn’t part of the phrase vacuum cleaner (I picked up that particular bit of pedantry from the late Indo-Europeanist Warren Cowgill, who had the misfortune to try to supervise my wretched attempt at a dissertation four decades ago).

When Not to Translate.

Tim Parks has an essay for the NYRB blog that begins “We live in a time of retranslation.” I hoped perhaps he was going to ride my hobbyhorse — there are enough damn retranslations of classics, let’s translate some stuff that English-speaking readers are unfamiliar with! — but no, he accepts that each generation feels the need for “its” Homer or Dante; he’s worried about something else:

But are new translations always better, or always feasible, even? Some time ago I was asked to do a retranslation of the Decameron. Such a commission is an honor and a responsibility. And a huge investment of time. The Penguin Classics edition runs to more than one thousand pages. So before giving an answer I thought I’d try translating a couple of passages for myself.

The bulk of the essay consists of various translations of a passage from the fourth story of the first day (as well as the original); it makes for fascinating reading, and I agree with him that Florio’s 1620 version is the best (discovering it was what decided him not to accept the commission). His conclusion:

Reading this, I experienced exactly the pleasures I feel reading Boccaccio in Italian. Albeit nearly three hundred years after the original was written, Florio still moves in a world where the whole thing makes sense, doesn’t need to be quaint. And he is a supreme stylist too. He can find exactly the idiom in the English of his time. However good a translator might be today, I doubt whether the same level of conviction is possible. Certainly, I didn’t feel I could achieve it.

I think the emphasis should be on that last point; just because Parks isn’t the man for the job doesn’t mean Florio is the last word. But it’s very enjoyable reading, if you’re the sort who enjoys comparing translations.