Archives for March 2017


Tessa Wong reports for BBC News on Kristang, a creole spoken by a community of people of mixed Portuguese and Asian ancestry in Malacca and Singapore:

Until two years ago, university student Kevin Martens Wong had never even heard of his ancestral tongue, let alone spoken it.

The Singaporean linguist was researching endangered languages when he stumbled upon Kristang in a book. As he dug deeper, he realised it was the language of his maternal grandparents. […]

A unique creole of Portuguese and Malay, with elements of Chinese languages such as Mandarin and Hokkien, it was spoken by at least 2,000 people across the Malayan archipelago at its peak in the 19th Century, according to Mr Wong.

But today there may be as few as 50 fluent speakers left, along with more in Malaysia where the language is also in decline.

The main reason for its decline is that its own community has come to see it as economically irrelevant. […]

But Mr Wong and a group of language enthusiasts hope to change things.

Their group, called Kodrah Kristang – “Awaken Kristang” – holds weekly free language classes. They aim to build a critical mass of fluent Kristang speakers who can pass it on to future generations. […]

But reviving a dying language is not easy. One main challenge is that Kristang is mostly a spoken language and has rarely been recorded.

There is no standardised spelling or pronunciation system […]

Kristang does not have words for basic concepts such as apple, nurse, station or camera. “But we do have several words for genitalia,” deadpans Mr Wong.

To solve this problem, his group invented new words with mash-ups of Kristang’s root languages. […]

Some of these linguistic inventions can take on a poetic bent – a camera is “pintalumezi” or “light-painting machine”, while grammar is “osulingu”, or “bones of language”.

The group has also organised visits to the Portuguese Settlement in Malacca, started work on a dictionary and textbook, created free online audio courses, and even done YouTube covers of pop songs in Kristang. […]

“One day we would like to see Kristang be recognised by the wider community,” says Mr Wong.

“There are no economic reasons for it to come back. But it’s part of our shared historical fabric and heritage.”

Good for them! And to head off the usual complaints about pointlessness, nobody is forcing these people to pointlessly try to revive their economically pointless language, but I don’t see that their efforts in that direction are any worse than, say, taking up needlepoint or canasta. Thanks for the link, Paul and Trevor!

A New Daodejing.

Longtime LH commenter John Emerson writes:

For about 40 years I have been studying the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching, Laozi, Lao Tzu) and am now writing a book about it. Eventually it will include a translation and commentaries, but right now I only have a reedited Chinese text. Please tell any of your Classical-Chinese-reading friends about it!

So here‘s his Haqelebac post with the text (“My editing might be called aggressive”); if you have any interest, go over and check it out, and if you are knowledgeable, JE will be glad of your input.

Six Polish Books that Should Be Translated.

I’m a big fan of pointing out good books that haven’t been translated, and Antonia Lloyd-Jones has a list of six that should whet translators’ appetites. I’m particularly struck by the first one, whose description makes me wish I read Polish:

1. A meticulously researched, epic historical novel set in Italy: Maciej Hen, Solfatara (WAB Foksal, 2015)

Solfatara is a dormant volcano just outside Naples. This is a historical novel, set in July 1647 in the Kingdom of Naples, over the eleven days of a popular revolt ‒ a real historical event ‒ when a new tax on fruit and other food was the final straw for the local populace, who rose up against the hated Spanish viceroy and his men. Led by a fisherman called Masaniello, it turned into a ten-day rampage of violence against the aristocracy. Of course he came to a sticky end, when his head was parted from his body.

The language is simple but sophisticated. This is Polish of the highest quality, lovely and rich. Solfatara not only pulsates with literary force, but also with the energy of the Neapolitan street.

The book has been meticulously researched, but the result is a rapidly moving adventure novel full of fabulous stories and colourful characters. It has 900 pages, and when I first saw it, I had doubts, but it kept me up until 03.00, eager for more. It’s not just the immediate time scale, describing the riots, that is vivid and thrilling, but Fortunato’s past too, his amorous misadventures as a musician among the upper echelons in Rome and Paris, and his discovery of his own dramatic origins as the son of a woman who was killed for a horrific but inevitable crime of passion.

Thanks, Trevor!

Dictionary of Canadianisms Online.

A decade ago I posted about the project to revise the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, whose first edition appeared in 1967. The revised second edition is now online here, free for anyone to access. As Dave Wilton says at (where I learned about it):

The new edition not only includes words that have appeared since 1967, the editors have also cleaned up questionable entries for older words—for example, the DCHP-1 had separate entries for toque and tuque, which are now combined into one. As well, many entries have full color, photo illustrations and charts showing the term’s use across the provinces or through time. […]

Users of the DHCP must be aware, however, that the dictionary only includes citations from Canadian sources. So when a term is older in other dialects, the older citations will not appear. This editorial choice, while a valid and justifiable one, means that users cannot rely on the DHCP alone, but must use it conjunction with more comprehensive sources like the OED. Still, this isn’t going to be a serious limitation to most users.

Hurray, say I!

The Oxford Comma and the Law.

I wasn’t going to post about this, but everybody and their brother (and my brother, for that matter) sent me links about it, so I guess I have to. Fortunately, Dave Wilton of has done an excellent post on the topic that begins:

The Oxford comma was in the news recently when a federal court interpreted a Maine statute regarding overtime pay for dairy truck drivers. In the case of O’Connor, et al. v. Oakhurst Dairy, the lack of a comma, or so the news stories would have it, resulted in a victory for workers’ rights. […]

The problem with the news reporting on this case is that the ambiguity does not rest solely with the lack of a comma. And, more importantly, the decision of the circuit court did not rest on the punctuation but rather relied on other methods to interpret the statute in question.

It ends:

To my knowledge, O’Connor, et al. v. Oakhurst Dairy is the first legal case that involves this particular use of the comma, and the courts ruled here that the punctuation is not dispositive. In other words, the Oxford comma cannot, at least in and of itself, be taken as determinative of meaning. In this, the news reports have been getting it wrong—whether or not one uses the Oxford comma just doesn’t matter all that much, in law or anywhere else.

And in between are all the details you could want, unless you want enough details to go to the decision itself (the third link — the second is to the NY Times story). Much as I would like to see a victory for the Oxford comma (in the same way I like to see the Mets or Huskies win), this is not such a victory. It’s just another labor dispute. (Insert your own joke about truckin’ or spilt milk.)

Two Words.

1) In a text I was editing there was a reference to “rhopalic verse.” Having no idea what “rhopalic” meant, I looked it up and discovered it meant “having each succeeding unit in a prosodic series larger or longer than the preceding one” (e.g., each line in a poem being a syllable longer than the preceding line). So far, so recondite, but it was the etymology that got me to post about it: it’s from Greek rhopalikos ‘like a rhopalon [ῥόπαλον],’ a club thicker toward the end. As Pound said, the natural object is always the adequate symbol.

2) I have long known the word exarch ‘a bishop lower in rank than a patriarch’ or ‘a governor of a distant province under the Byzantine emperors’; it’s pronounced /ˈɛksɑrk/, like a good Greek derivative (it’s from Greek ἔξαρχος). But looking for something else in my dictionary I discovered the homograph exarch ‘(of a xylem strand) having the first-formed xylem external to that formed later.’ I can only hope that’s pronounced /ˈɛksɑrk/ as well, because otherwise it would be excessively annoying; my dictionary doesn’t give a pronunciation.

A Sonic Atlas of English.

A Sonic Atlas of English Language is a 131-page book the bulk of which consists of a list (to quote the title page) of “8000 English words, organized by the relative audio frequency of each word, from the highest to the lowest pitched: A potential reference for spatial acoustics and sound design, the study of hearing loss and speech, musical and lyrical composition, sound art and poetics.” You can download the pdf here; Trevor, who sent it to me, added the following quote from I know not what source:

Those interested in the musical or “phonographic” qualities of language will find the Atlas useful. All language has a frequency, and the relative frequencies of English words can be organized to follow musical concepts: For example, and as pointed out by author Shane Butler, the following words will tend to be spoken from high to low sound frequencies: beat, bit, bet, bat, and bought, something confirmed by the calculations in the Atlas. The Atlas also enables other, almost endless combinations of words to be organized by their relative sound frequencies. In addition, the Sonic Atlas also enables authors to assemble work out of particular phonemic patterns. For example, the Austrian poet Ernst Jandl, developed a German sound poem almost entirely composed of words with the “sch” and “f ” (/ʃ/ and /f/) sounds, while American poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s poetic work “No. 111” focuses on the “er” (/ɜr/) sounds in American English words. These are just a few of many examples of writing that the Atlas might cultivate. (p. 84)

It’s not anything I’m likely to use, but I’m sure there are those who will be eager to download and play with it. Thanks, Trevor!

Why Some Hate “Frisco.”

I am, of course, aware of the loathing expressed by some denizens of San Francisco for the abbreviation “Frisco,” but I always wondered about it; now, thanks to Vinnee Tong’s KQED piece on the topic, I know. The nickname itself originated in the late 19th century, and: “Not long after people started using it, other people started hating it. They said only out-of-towners used it.” But the mass campaign against it apparently started with Herb Caen, “the revered columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle,” whose book Don’t Call It Frisco came out in 1953. Charles Fracchia, the founder of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, says: “Caen’s book ruined the nickname for a lot of people. People wanted to seem proper, and cultured, so they listened to Caen and shunned it.”

But then Tong quotes people who have nothing against it, like Joey Wilson, co-owner of Frisco Tattoo in the Mission: “My parents always called it that. They were blue-collar workers. It was just something that was instilled in me as a kid.”

And now Joey Wilson wants to know why Caen’s opinion should matter more than his. After all, Caen was born in Sacramento.

“So that’s the question — why does it upset you to call it Frisco?” he says. “Give us a reason. And who are you to tell us what we can and can’t do? I’m from here. I’m born and raised here, so I think I got rights to call it whatever I want.”

Working on this story one day, I grabbed a Lyft and got to talking with the driver, a guy named Lorenzo Beasley.

“I grew up on the bottom of the city, a small neighborhood called Visitacion Valley,” Beasley says. “I think more of the urban community, like blacks or Hispanics in the city, those people always grew up using that word.”

Beasley says you hear it in Hunters Point, Lakeview, the Fillmore, Potrero Hill and especially the Mission.

I asked him who doesn’t like Frisco.

“It’s like a higher class of people, I guess,” Beasley says. “People who stay in Nob Hill and stuff. They look at it like slang, so they’re not really with it. It’s definitely a bit of snob thing involved.”

For Beasley, whether you use Frisco says what neighborhood you’re from.

Stanford linguist Teresa Pratt echoes that. She says that when you’re talking about language and word choice, like nicknames, you’re virtually always talking about money and power.

“Institutions or people who have power have an interest in maintaining that the way they speak is the right way to speak,” Pratt says. “Because it helps them. Because it’s coupled with this ideology that’s really widespread, that there’s a right way to speak, that there’s a way to speak that gets you ahead.”

Pratt says word choice is like a signal.

“Language as cultural capital, right?” she says. “It’s something like knowing exactly where to put your forks at the end of a meal.”

That’s an exemplary way to handle the story: present both sides, but give added weight to the opinion of someone who deals with this stuff professionally, a linguist. And “knowing exactly where to put your forks at the end of a meal” is a perfect comparison: nothing wrong with that if that’s important to you, but not a moral imperative. Thanks, Eric!

A Tsvetaeva Question.

In my reading of Tsvetaeva, I’ve gotten to the first poem she wrote to Pasternak after rapturously devouring his 1922 masterpiece My Sister, Life (see this LH post, in which the word ржи [rzhi], the oblique form of рожь [rozh’] ‘rye,’ also features), and I’ve run into a simultaneous crisis of semantics and textual criticism. It’s a magnificent poem, the best she’d written in a long time (Pasternak was obviously good for her); the first two stanzas are:

Неподражаемо лжет жизнь:
Сверх ожидания, сверх лжи…
Но по дрожанию всех жил
Можешь узнать: жизнь!

Словно во ржи лежишь: звон, синь…
(Что ж, что во лжи лежишь!) — жар, вал…
Бормот — сквозь жимолость — ста жил…
Радуйся же! — Звал!

Inimitably life tells lies:
Beyond expectation, beyond the lie…
But by the trembling of all your veins
You can recognize it: life!

As though you’re lying in rye: ringing, blue…
(So what if you’re lying in a lie!) — heat, berm…
The murmur — through honeysuckle — of a hundred veins…
Rejoice! — He called!

I have ста жил “of a hundred veins,” but when I googled тишизн, the genitive plural of a nonce word тишизна ‘quietness’ (which occurs in the last stanza of this poem, in one other Tsvetaeva poem, and apparently nowhere else in Russian literature — the normal word is тишина), I wound up in Alyssa W. Dinega’s A Russian Psyche: The Poetic Mind of Marina Tsvetaeva, where on p. 97 we find it given as “sta zhal” and translated as “of a hundred bee stings.” What was going on? A Google Books search on “Бормот — сквозь жимолость — ста” (the start of the line) reveals that about half the books have жил ‘of veins’ and half жал ‘of stings.’ This is troubling.

Now, I’m reasonably sure жил is the correct reading, because it better fits the rhyme scheme of the poem and makes more sense to me, but I’d like not to have to depend on my own judgment. Is there a critical edition of Tsvetaeva’s poems that can be trusted for such things?

Sounds and Meanings Revisited.

David Shariatmadari has another interesting linguistics-related piece in the Guardian that begins:

Scientists have just published a startling analysis of commonly used words in 4298 languages (62% of all those spoken). They wanted to find out if there were associations between particular sounds and meanings that couldn’t be put down to the fact that the languages were related, are used close to one another, or to chance.

As it turned out, they detected strong correlations between sounds and meanings that were independent of genetic relationship, borrowing or coincidence. For example, words for “small” often contained high front vowels (roughly, “ee” as in “peak” or “see”); words for “round” and “red” were linked to “r” sounds; words for “star” to “z” and words for “full” to bilabial consonants (“p” and “b”). Associations were found for body parts: “tongue” was correlated with “l” and “nose” with “n”. Remember, these similarities were found in languages as distant from one another as English and Tagalog, Yoruba and Mandarin.

Why does this matter? One of the first things a student of linguistics learns is that the relationship between the signifier (the sound of a word) and the signified (the concept it represents) is arbitrary. We use the word “tree” to signify a plant with a trunk and leaves, but there’s nothing particularly tree-like about the combination “t-r-e-e”. If a law was passed saying we had to call it “frave” instead, that word would gradually become normal, just like “ki” is for Japanese speakers and “umthi” for Xhosa. […]

Damian Blasi and his colleagues focussed on 30 fundamental concepts – none of which represent loud or distinctive noises, often fertile ground for onomatopoeia. These came from the famous “Swadesh list” of 100 basic words, and included “bite”, “drink”, “ear”, “leaf”, “we”, “tooth”, “skin”, “one” and “stone”. Incredibly, as well as positive links, they uncovered sets of sounds these words seem to “avoid” – ones that appear much less often than you would expect if it were down to chance. “Water” (strangely enough for English speakers) seems to avoid the “t” sound. Words for “tooth” avoid “b” and “m”. The “a” “h” and “r” sounds are found less commonly in words for “breasts”.

The study builds on earlier research which hinted at non-arbitrary relationships between sound and meaning. For example, people have been able to successfully pair up words that have opposite meanings in languages they don’t know. One study showed that English speakers could make better-than-chance guesses at the concreteness of unfamiliar foreign words – that’s to say, whether a word might mean something like “car” versus something like “happiness”. Intimations, if you like, of a universal language of sound.

I don’t know how seriously to take any of this, but it’s certainly food for thought. Thanks, Trevor!