Archives for February 2017

Dictionaries Are Hot Again.

Katherine Rosman has a piece for the New York Times on the current popularity of dictionaries:

At a time when many are questioning the definition of common words they thought they understood, after years of the English language being degraded by text messages and hashtags, dictionaries have made a surprising comeback in the United States.

On dictionary apps and websites, “lookups” (which, according to Merriam-Webster, is one word) of words or phrases related to news events have precipitously increased. Bibliophiles are becoming social media stars. Sales of print dictionaries remain brisk and are a profit center for some publishers.

“Dictionaries are not regarded as sexy or interesting, but what dictionaries are known for is telling the truth,” said Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer and past president of the American Dialect Society. “Right now there are a lot of questions about what is true. We want clear statements about what things are, and dictionaries provide that.”

The most commonly used dictionaries, whether in print or digital, reflect what is known as “descriptive lexicography,” meaning that editors study the way people use words and determine their meaning based on that evidence.

Social media has been revolutionary in changing the access lexicographers have to the evolution of how words are used. Yet the process of evaluating evidence and writing definitions in a clear and unbiased manner remains the objective, said Katherine Connor Martin, head of American dictionaries at Oxford University Press.

And there’s a great quote from Sheidlower at the end: “In times of stress, people will go to things that will provide answers. The Bible, the dictionary or alcohol.”

Triplex Confinium.

I’m in the middle of reading The Struggle for the Eurasian Borderlands: From the Rise of Early Modern Empires to the End of the First World War, by Alfred J. Rieber; it’s very dense and very informative, and I’m learning all sorts of things I didn’t know. Herewith a few of LH interest:

1) Triplex Confinium is one of the best toponyms I’ve ever seen; it’s an early modern term for the region where Romania, Hungary and Serbia come together [actually the Venetian Republic, the Ottoman Empire, and the Habsburg Monarchy, as J.W. Brewer points out in the comments], and it means ‘triple border’ in Latin.

2) We all know about the Vlachs (I posted about them in the very early days of LH), but I did not know that the Venetians called them Morlacchi (per Wikipedia, Morlachs) and that “the Catholic Vlachs were called Bunjevichi” (p. 304).

3) I knew the Ionian Islands were not part of independent Greece until 1864, but I did not know that from 1800 to 1807 they were under joint Russian and Ottoman rule as the Septinsular Republic! (Rieber calls it the Republic of the Seven Islands, perhaps for poetic effect.) The idea of the Romanov and Ottoman empires, which fought wars every couple of decades for centuries, joining in even so short-lived a venture is astonishing to me. And from a footnote in that part of the book I learned about Avgusta Stanislavskaya’s Русско-английские отношения и проблемы Средиземноморья (1798-1807), which Rieber thinks very highly of and which it turns out is available as a pdf download here, in case anyone else is interested.

Norwottuck II.

A decade ago I posted about the local place name Norwottuck (“Or something like that”); now I’ve come across what seems to be a knowledgeable discussion in Alice Nash’s “Quanquan’s Mortgage of 1663” in Marla R. Miller (ed.), Cultivating a Past: Essays on the History of Hadley, Massachusetts. On p. 29 Nash says it’s properly Nolwottog, with the accent on the second syllable, and on p. 31 she writes:

Nolwottog is also known in the literature as Norwottock and Nonotuck, with orthographic variations on the three names. The 1653 deed calls the place Nonotuck. This is not a misspelling. The Algonkian languages spoken by indigenous peoples in New England have three major forms, or reflexes. The most obvious difference to the nonspecialist is that one uses n where the others use l or r. John Eliot, the Protestant missionary, wrote, “We in [eastern] Massachusetts pronounce the N; the Nipmuck Indians pronounce L; and the Northern Indians pronounce R.” Similarly, the endings –ogg or –og, –ock, and –uck are all variants of a locative ending, indicating the word refers to a place. When documents were written by Englishmen who knew the land and its people well, such as John Pynchon and the fur traders who worked for him, they wrote Nolwottogg, because that was what they heard. Nonotuck, the n form used in the 1653 deed, is an historical remnant, reflecting a kind of internal colonialism. When Englishmen such as John Pynchon and his father, William, first began to buy inland tracts in the Connecticut River Valley, they often hired the services of Native men from eastern Massachusetts as interpreters and to aid in the negotiations. The earliest interpreter, a Wampanoag man named William Ahhaton, understood the dialect spoken by the people of Nolwottog, but he pronounced their name as Nonotuck. The name was written as Ahhaton pronounced it. Although John Pynchon later recorded the name as Nolwottog, the alternate spelling persists to this day. Ironically, the Nolwottog have been better known by what others called them than by what they called themselves.

We discussed “Wampanoag” in 2005.

Russian Neologisms.

Since I’m in the middle of reading Bengt Jangfeldt’s Mayakovsky bio (and, of course, Mayakovsky’s poetry to go with it), it seemed like a good time to haul out my copy of Assya Humesky’s 1964 Majakovskij and His Neologisms, and I thought this passage from the introduction was interesting enough to share:

In the history of Russian literature certain periods are marked by intensive word-coining activity. One such literary epoch when neologisms were fashionable was the time of the so-called “Second South Slavic Influence” (Fourteenth — Fifteenth centuries). The literary men of the Slavic East, imitating their southern brethren, created neologisms for the sake of stylistic ornamentation. Word compounds (or composita) became an especially popular type of neologism under the influence of the Trnov school. Cf. Epifanij Premudrejšij: Skytat’sja po goram, goroplennym i volkoxiščnym byti;*[Footnote: Neologisms within quotations are given in roman letters, single neologisms are italicized.] nevestokrasitelju moj i pesnokrasitelju.

The ornamental style (“pletenie sloves”) appeared again in the Seventeenth century, strengthened by a new influence, that of the Baroque. Literature of this period was also rich in composita, cf. Simeon Polockij: volkoubijstvennyj, vodorodnye oblaka (i.e. “water-producing”), mjagkopostel’niki, mnogokonniki.

Two centuries later it was the Romantics of the Golden Age of Russian poetry who picked up this fascinating tradition. Thus we find in Boratynskij lelejatel’, naxod, burnopogodnyj, bratstvovat’; in Jazykov — bezdiplomnyj (cf. the recent sovietizm svobodnodiplomnik), prixvostnica (fem. of prixvosten′), delano-zanjatoj, in Tjutčev — vsedrobjaščeju strueju, dymno-legko, mglisto-lilejno, po tëmno-bryzžuščim kovram. Neologisms were scattered throughout the poems of Benediktov, Vjazemskij, and others.

Following this Golden Age, a long period of sometimes unintentional, sometimes deliberate neglect of poetic form had set in (the few “formalists” of that period were an exception rather than a rule). Only at the end of the Nineteenth century is there a renewal of interest in matters connected with literary style and form. Such writers as Remizov and the Symbolists Bal’mont, Andrej Belyj, and others interspersed their works with neologisms. Especially prominent among words coined by the Symbolists were abstract nouns (feminine gender with the suffix –ost’), plural forms of words which ordinarily are used only in the singular, and multi-rooted composite adjectives. Here, for example, are a few of Bal’mont’s neologisms: zmejnost’, voskresnost’, ručjistost’, rascvety, sgoran’ja, vozdušno-laskovyj, vozvyšenno-košmarnyj, mnogo-lavinnyj. […]

What compels authors to create new words? Sometimes it is the desire to designate a new cultural concept — such are many of Karamzin’s neologisms and those of the “philosophical poets” of the Nineteenth century. Or it may be part of a puristic fight against foreign borrowings — many of the neologisms created by Eighteenth century writers were of this nature (cf. Tred’jakovskij’s debr’ smesi for “chaos,” členovoe sostavlenie for “organization,” vsenarodnyj for “epidemic,” razvrat for “party”), as were also the neologisms created by the “archaists” at the beginning of the Nineteenth century. Finally, the cause may be of a psychological or aesthetic nature.

Incidentally, the book appeared under the imprint of Rausen Publishers, an occasional variant of Rausen Bros., a printing house run by two brothers that published a lot of Russian books between around 1949 (the earliest I’ve found) and the mid-1960s; it made a brief appearance in wider literary history when it prepared the reproductions of Doctor Zhivago for the CIA (see The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book, p. 134). You can get a bunch of their publications by putting “Rausen Bros.” into the Google Books search box; they also published my nice little 1966 edition of Abram Tertz’s Mysli vrasplokh.


CoCoON (COllections de COrpus Oraux Numériques) is a platform for oral resources; it’s got Atlas Linguistique des Côtes de l’Atlantique et de la Manche, Atlas linguistique d’Haïti, AuCo: corpus audio de langues du Vietnam et des pays voisins, lots of good stuff. I got the link through the good offices of the ever-alert bulbul, who says “I discovered it only yesterday and got a total kick out of the collection of texts in Slavomolisano (e.g. Bonifacio en Amérique, NB the final sentence).” Slavomolisano, to someone who knows a different Slavic language, sounds both weird and familiar. Enjoy!

Mark Woods, RIP.

I am very sorry to have to pass on the news that Mark’s brother Rod shared here:

It is with regret that I have to let folks know that my brother, Mark, lost a lengthy, difficult battle with cancer on February 9, 2017. I appreciate seeing the value that his work / obsession / joy brought to so many. Thank you for supporting him over all the years.

I don’t know anything about Mark’s life except that he devoted a substantial part of it to producing one of the best sites on the internet, wood s lot, and updating it daily for as long as he could. As I wrote earlier: “He somehow finds the time and energy to put together a collection of images, links, and quotes that make my mind and soul feel a little better stocked.” He was a constant inspiration to me in my own efforts, and I will miss him more than I can say. I hope he and my old friend Mike are sharing thoughts, stories, and outrage somewhere on the other side.

What Is the Best Way to Learn Latin?

Eidolon (“an online journal for scholarly writing about Classics that isn’t formal scholarship”) presents a conversation between Eleanor Dickey, author of Learning Latin the Ancient Way: Latin Textbooks from the Ancient World, and Daniel Gallagher, who studied with Reginald Foster, author of Ossa Latinitatis Sola/The Mere Bones of Latin, “a Latin textbook using the legendary Vatican Latinist’s teaching methods.” The conversation is led by Michael Fontaine, Associate Professor of Classics at Cornell University. I have to say, Foster’s insistence on “total philological mastery” sounds off-putting to me, and I agree with Dickey when she says:

Reginald’s whole method is clearly a big-picture one when it comes to the range of texts used, and he’s emphatically against picking out easy stuff. The first reading sheet in his book is from Horace, an author so hard that I don’t think I’m up to reading him after 35 years of studying and teaching Latin. In this respect, Reginald’s method is certainly different from that of the ancients, who believed in starting beginners off with something nice and simple that they could master easily.

Much as I admire Reginald, in that respect the ancient method makes more sense to me. Realistically, students learn not from what teachers say, but from what they do themselves: it is the direct encounter between student’s brain and Latin text that really causes learning, and all we teachers can do is facilitate that encounter. If you give students a task that is just challenging enough to be fun but not so challenging as to be discouraging — for example, a text that they can actually read by putting in some (but not too much) work — they enjoy it and learn from it. If you give them something too hard, they either do only a small amount or not even that, and they learn less.

But the whole discussion is thoughtful and interesting. Thanks, Trevor!

Quints or Semitenths.

My wife and I are reading Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds at night, and we’ve gotten to Volume 2, Chapter 55, which is called “Quints Or Semitenths.” This refers to Plantagenet Palliser’s cherished scheme to create a five-farthing penny (which, I now discover, was an actual proposal); I thought this passage near the start of the chapter was linguistically enjoyable enough to share:

The five-farthing bill had been laid upon the table on a Tuesday, and was to be read the first time on the following Monday week. On the Wednesday Lady Glencora had written to the duke, and had called in Hertford Street. On the following Sunday she was at Matching, looking after the duke;–but she returned to London on the Tuesday, and on the Wednesday there was a little dinner at Mr. Palliser’s house, given avowedly with the object of further friendly discussion respecting the new Palliser penny. The prime minister was to be there, and Mr. Bonteen, and Barrington Erle, and those special members of the Government who would be available for giving special help to the financial Hercules of the day. A question, perhaps of no great practical importance, had occurred to Mr. Palliser,–but one which, if overlooked, might be fatal to the ultimate success of the measure. There is so much in a name,–and then an ounce of ridicule is often more potent than a hundredweight of argument. By what denomination should the fifth part of a penny be hereafter known? Some one had, ill-naturedly, whispered to Mr. Palliser that a farthing meant a fourth, and at once there arose a new trouble, which for a time bore very heavily on him. Should he boldly disregard the original meaning of the useful old word; or should he venture on the dangers of new nomenclature? October, as he said to himself, is still the tenth month of the year, November the eleventh, and so on, though by these names they are so plainly called the eighth and ninth. All France tried to rid itself of this absurdity, and failed. Should he stick by the farthing; or should he call it a fifthing, a quint, or a semitenth? “There’s the ‘Fortnightly Review’ comes out but once a month,” he said to his friend Mr. Bonteen, “and I’m told that it does very well.” Mr. Bonteen, who was a rational man, thought the “Review” would do better if it were called by a more rational name, and was very much in favour of “a quint.” Mr. Gresham had expressed an opinion, somewhat off-hand, that English people would never be got to talk about quints, and so there was a difficulty. A little dinner was therefore arranged, and Mr. Palliser, as was his custom in such matters, put the affair of the dinner into his wife’s hands. When he was told that she had included Lord Fawn among the guests he opened his eyes. Lord Fawn, who might be good enough at the India Office, knew literally nothing about the penny. “He’ll take it as the greatest compliment in the world,” said Lady Glencora. “I don’t want to pay Lord Fawn a compliment,” said Mr. Palliser. “But I do,” said Lady Glencora. And so the matter was arranged.

It was a very nice little dinner. Mrs. Gresham and Mrs. Bonteen were there, and the great question of the day was settled in two minutes, before the guests went out of the drawing-room. “Stick to your farthing,” said Mr. Gresham.

“I think so,” said Mr. Palliser.

“Quint’s a very easy word,” said Mr. Bonteen.

“But squint is an easier,” said Mr. Gresham, with all a prime minister’s jocose authority.

“They’d certainly be called cock-eyes,” said Barrington Erle.

“There’s nothing of the sound of a quarter in farthing,” said Mr. Palliser.

“Stick to the old word,” said Mr. Gresham. And so the matter was decided […]

I think we all know “rational men” like Mr. Bonteen.

‘Fog’, where ‘Fog’ means Fog.

Via the Facebook feed of Squiffy-Marie von Bladet, I bring you Michael Frayn’s “Fog-like Sensations.” It begins:

(According to some sympathisers, the reason why drivers on the motorways failed to slow down in thick fog recently, and so crashed into each other in multiple collisions of up to thirty vehicles, was simply because the authorities had failed to provide illuminated signs explaining that the fog was fog. This is a situation on which Wittgenstein made one or two helpful remarks in a previously unpublished section of Philosophical Investigations.)

694. Someone says, with every sign of bewilderment (wrinkled forehead, widened eyes, an anxious set to the mouth): “I do not know there is fog on the road unless it is accompanied by an illuminated sign saying ‘fog’.”

When we hear this, we feel dizzy. We experience the sort of sensations that go with meeting an old friend one believed was dead. I want to say: “But this is the man philosophers are always telling us about! This is the man who does not understand—the man who goes on asking for explanations after everything has been explained!”

(A sort of Socratic Oliver Twist. Compare the feelings one would have on meeting Oliver Twist in the flesh. “And now I want you to meet Oliver Twist.”—“But…!”)

695. Now I feel a different sort of excitement. I see in a flash a thought forming as it were before my mind’s eye—“This is at last the sort of situation which philosophers have always waited for—the sort of situation in which one as a philosopher can offer practical help!”

It becomes ever more baroque and funny. At the end, Steve Petersen (who posted it at his site) says “Also see Jerry Fodor’s spoof, inspired by Frayn.” The word “spoof” ordinarily suggests humor, but Fodor did not get even a smile out of me. That’s the difference between a writer and a philosopher, I guess.

The Mystery of Fillers.

Back in 2009 we had a lengthy discussion of “Filler words in different languages”; now Dan Nosowitz reports for Atlas Obscura on the linguistics of the subject:

Until about 20 years ago, few linguists paid filled pauses much attention. They were seen as not very interesting, a mere expulsion of sound to take up space while the speaker figures out what to say next. (In Russian, filled pauses are called “parasite sounds,” which is kind of rude.) But since then, interest in filled pauses has exploded. There are conferences about them. Researchers around the globe, in dozens of different languages, dedicate themselves to studying them. And yet they still remain poorly understood, especially as new forms of discourse begin popping up. […]

Though some researchers have insisted that filled pauses are individual words in their own right, with distinct meanings, many believe that there’s something more fundamental about them. With a few exceptions, filled pauses exist in every language, and are weirdly similar. In English, it’s “uh” or “um,” in Mandarin it’s “en,” in French it’s “euh,” in Hindi it’s “hoonm,” in Swedish “ohm.”

These are all very similar; essentially, they’re a centered vowel which may or may not be followed by a nasal consonant. […]

There are very few elements of language that are consistent amongst English, Mandarin, French, Hindi, and Swedish. And yet this one is pretty much the same.

We don’t really know where filled pauses came from, partly because, Twitter aside for the moment, they are oral sounds, and very unlikely to be found in historical written records. (Scholars have the same problem with swear words.) “Despite the lack of records about historical filler usage, it’s probably safe to assume that fillers have always been a part of human language,” says Katharine Hilton, a linguist at Stanford University who studies (among other things) filled pauses. “The reason for this is because they’re very useful words and communicate a lot of information to the listener.” The very earliest recordings of the human voice show that Thomas Edison was an avid user of “uh” and “um.” That’s about as far back as our data goes, but it seems fair to assume they go back further than that. These non-words, these mistakes, these errors: these are basic building blocks of language.

There’s interesting stuff about Japanese (where the most common fillers are ano and eto) and about second-language learning (Ralph Rose, a professor at Waseda University, “believes that filled pauses should be a significant part of language classes”). Thanks, Trevor!