Archives for January 2018


The Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History has put out a press release summarized in the subhead thus: “DNA analysis of present-day populations in the Chachapoyas region of Peru indicates that the original inhabitants were not uprooted en masse by the Inca Empire’s expansion into this area hundreds of years ago.” As you can see, its primary focus is genetics, but it winds up discussing language:

Paul Heggarty, a linguist and senior author of the study, also of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, was first motivated to launch this project after unexpected results from a linguistic fieldwork trip to Chachapoyas. He was able to find a few remaining elderly speakers of an indigenous language that most assumed was already extinct in this region. “Quechua is one of our most direct living links to the people of the New World before Columbus. It still has millions of speakers, more than any other language family of the Americas – but not in Chachapoyas anymore. There are only a dozen or so fluent speakers now, in a few remote villages, so we need to act fast if we’re to work out its real origins here.”

The Chachapoyas form of Quechua has usually been classified as most closely related to the Quechua spoken in Ecuador, but the new DNA results show no close connections between the Quechua-speakers in these two areas. “Linguists need to rethink their traditional view of the family tree of Quechua languages, and the history of how they spread through the Andes,” notes Heggarty. “It seems that Quechua reached Chachapoyas without any big movement of people. This also doesn’t fit with the idea that the Incas forced out the Chachapoyas population wholesale.”

Jairo Valqui, another linguist co-author from the National University of San Marcos in Lima, adds a further perspective on an even earlier language layer. “Once Quechua and Spanish arrived, the local Chachapoyas languages died out. Recovering anything from them is a real puzzle and a challenge for linguists. They left very few traces, but there are some characteristic combinations of sounds, for example, that still survive in people’s surnames and in local placenames, like Kuelap itself.”

Valqui, himself a Chachapoyano, also makes a point of taking these genetic results back to the local population. “For Peruvian society today, this matters. There’s long been an appreciation of the Incas, but often at the cost of sidelining everything else in the archaeological record across Peru, and the diversity in our linguistic and genetic heritage too. As these latest findings remind us: Peru is not just Machu Picchu, and its indigenous people were not just the Incas.”

Thanks, Trevor!

Notes from Underground.

I must have read Dostoevsky’s novella Notes from Underground in college (in English), since bits of it seemed familiar as I was reading it in Russian, but I’d essentially forgotten it, and god knows what I might have made of it back then, with my ignorance of Russian literature (not to mention of life itself). I’m sure I was told that it was “existentialist,” and I retained a sense that it was a protest against rationality, but of course it’s much more than that. It apparently originated in plans to revise The Double (see this LH post), and a pleasing remnant of that is that the boss of the Underground Man, Anton Setochkin, was Golyadkin’s boss in the earlier book; more immediately, it was a response to Chernyshevsky (see this post). William J. Leatherbarrow, an excellent Dostoevsky scholar (with an excellent name), summed that aspect up in his little Twayne book on the author:

It is perhaps the greatest critique of narrow intellectualism and overrefined consciousness ever written, as well as a disturbing rejection of the ideals of the Enlightenment. Yet, as was always the case with Dostoevsky’s mature work, the universal philosophical significance of Notes from Underground required the impetus of immediate polemic to give it form. It was intended as a refutation of the ideas of Nikolay Chernyshevsky (1828-89), a leading materialist philosopher, whose works — including the essay The Anthropological Principle in Philosophy (1860) and the novel What Is to Be Done? (1863) — had generated considerable interest by their assertion that the apparent complexity of human behavior could be explained on the basis of scientifically determinable principles. A disciple of Bentham and Mill, Chernyshevsky held that self-interest was a primary impulse in human nature, but that through the exercise of reason it could be made to coincide with the interests of society as a whole. He used the image of the Crystal Palace, built in London to house the 1851 World Exhibition, as a symbol of the future rational, technological utopia. Chernyshevsky’s faith in rational self-interest, so clearly derived from Enlightenment ideals, offended Dostoevsky by stripping man of his mystery, by defining his behavior as the inevitable outcome of scientific law, and by depriving him of a soul and moral freedom, the two aspects of his being which, according to Christianity, could alone bring him to salvation. The hero of Notes from Underground was conceived as the rotten apple in Chernyshevsky’s barrel, an exaggerated incarnation of the perversity which is in all men, and which dissolves the foundations of all rational utopianism.

[Read more…]

Apostrophe Catastrophe in Kazakhstan.

Andrew Higgins reports for the NY Times on a linguistic development currently roiling Kazakhstan:

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — In his 26 years as Kazakhstan’s first and only president, Nursultan A. Nazarbayev has managed to keep a resurgent Russia at bay and navigate the treacherous geopolitical waters around Moscow, Beijing and Washington, keeping on good terms with all three capitals.

The authoritarian leader’s talent for balancing divergent interests, however, suddenly seems to have deserted him over an issue that, at first glance, involves neither great power rivalry nor weighty matters of state: the role of the humble apostrophe in writing down Kazakh words. […]

The shift to the Latin alphabet, to be completed by 2025, has been widely cheered as a long overdue assertion of the country’s full independence from Russia — and its determination to join the wider world. The main objections have come from the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow and ethnic Russians living in Kazakhstan.

Far less popular, however, has been a decision by the president in October to ignore the advice of specialists and announce a system that uses apostrophes to designate Kazakh sounds that don’t exist in other languages written in the standard Latin script.

The Republic of Kazakhstan, for example, will be written in Kazakh as Qazaqstan Respy’bli’kasy.

In a country where almost nobody challenges the president publicly, Mr. Nazarbayev has found his policy on apostrophes assailed from all sides.

It’s now being discussed at the Log, where Mark Liberman says:

Mr. Higgins also seems to be in the dark about such arcana — he refers to characters (or maybe diacritics) as “markers”, for some reason, and apparently thinks that the Latin alphabet is nothing but good old US ASCII, with none of those furrin umlauts and accents and cedillas and such.

(A few commenters are defending the apostrophes, which just goes to show you can’t assume people will agree about anything, even the ugliness of spellings like “Ay’yl s’ary’as’ylyg’y.”) Thanks, Sven!

Appalled and Aghast.

David Crystal writes for the Guardian about a phenomenon he’s noticed (and has written a new book about):

When I used to present programmes on English usage on Radio 4, people would write in and complain about the pronunciations they didn’t like. In their hundreds. (Nobody ever wrote in to praise the pronunciations they did like.) It was the extreme nature of the language that always struck me. Listeners didn’t just say they “disliked” something. They used the most emotive words they could think of. They were “horrified”, “appalled”, “dumbfounded”, “aghast”, “outraged”, when they heard something they didn’t like.

Why do people get especially passionate about pronunciation, using language that we might think more appropriate as a reaction to a terrorist attack than to an intruded “r” (as in “law(r) and order”)? One reason is that pronunciation isn’t like the other areas of speech which generate complaints, such as vocabulary and grammar. You may not like the way people use a particular word, such as disinterested, but you’re not going to meet that problem frequently. Similarly, if you don’t like split infinitives, you won’t hear one very often. But every word has to be pronounced, so if you don’t like the sound of an accent, or the way someone drops consonants, stresses words, or intones a sentence with a rising inflection, there’s no escape. Pronunciation is always there, in your ears. […]

My BBC critics were not usually suggesting listeners couldn’t understand what speakers were saying; they were complaining about the way they were saying it. Some criticisms were aesthetic: a pronunciation might be called “ugly” or “sloppy”. Some expressed dislike of an accent. Indeed there was the occasional comment about unintelligibility, such as when presenters emphasised a word ambiguously or dropped their voice at a critical moment. But typically, when people talked about unacceptable pronunciation, they weren’t thinking of the content but the delivery.

I usually think of peevery in connection with grammar and word usage, but it stands to reason that people get just as wrought up about pronunciation. I continue to be bemused by the emotional investment people have in how other people use language, and the topic never ceases to interest me. Thanks, Eric!

Uwe Bläsing, the Scholar.

Stefan Georg’s “Uwe Bläsing, the Scholar” (Iran and the Caucasus 19 [2015] 3-7) describes a remarkable man; the first paragraph nearly made me run around the house cackling with joy:

Uwe Bläsing’s scholarly work can easily be described as spanning more academic fields than most of us are following as regular readers, let alone are able to contribute to. First of all, he is, of course, an Altaicist, in the best (and true) sense of this word ― a scholar who is perfectly at home in all three traditional branches of this grouping, Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic (and, which does not go without saying these days, a scholar who actually learned the profession from scratch). Being a true Altaicist, he has always been and continues to be doing, what Altaicists actually should be doing ― reading original texts, from all geographical corners of the vast territory occupied by these languages, and from all periods of their written attestation. Turning the pages of dictionaries alone, and basing far-reaching hypotheses on the possible pre-historic connections of these languages on lengthy lists of (cognate or simply similar looking) words, is something he would certainly refer to as putting the horse be-fore the cart. After all, he knows too well, how much work remains to be done in this field, before the comparative study of Altaic (be it a language family or not) may be regarded as a mature field. This does, of course, not mean that Uwe Bläsing is not interested in questions of (Lautgesetz-based) comparative linguistics ― he most positively is, but he certainly prefers the, often tedious, work on the intricate semantic history of words, including loan-words, the investigation of which not only fosters a better understanding of the history of the languages they are parts of, but also, what is (much) more, of the cultures these languages have been shaping (and were shaped by) throughout the history of their usage by real human beings.

Not only is that my ideal of what linguistic scholarship should be like, it’s delightfully written, and continues so: “And, of course, he is a Tungusologist as well, as if he could not be (whose favourite language from this realm is, if I may reveal this here, Nanai)!” Oh, all right, just one more paragraph:

Does it have to be mentioned that he is a true polyglot (the original meaning of the word linguist)? You bet he is: he reads all languages, which might be remotely relevant for his work (including Georgian, Armenian, Arabic, Persian, Kurdish, all Turkic languages, and so on and on), and speaks some of them; he is also admired for his beautiful command of spoken Turkish (which is also one of his publishing languages), and, of course, he is thoroughly on top of all the older written languages he needs to consult in the search for the answers to his etymological questions ― as a reader of texts, not only, as so many of us, as a user of dictionaries (and, as he would say on more than one occasion: if you don’t read texts in a language, you know nothing about it).

And one more parenthetical obiter dictum: “(there is no reason, why any wall, in any lived-in room, which is not absolutely needed for something else [say, a door], should not be covered with books from floor to ceiling, at least two rows deep ― I have no doubts that Uwe would be more than willing to subscribe to this statement).” Has he seen my office, I wonder?

And for those of you who were interested in this recent LH post, here‘s an ugly-ass (but readable) copy of Georg’s “Japanese, the Altaic Theory, and the Limits of Language Classification,” which John Cowan, in sending both links to me, called “a delightful paper on the history of the Altaic theory.” Thanks, JC!

Losing Patuá.

Matthew Keegan writes for the Guardian about a language used in Macau, and its dwindling number of speakers:

‘Nowadays, nobody speaks much Patuá. Only the old people speak Patuá,” declares 102-year-old Aida de Jesus as she sits across the table from her daughter inside Riquexo, the small Macanese restaurant that remarkably, despite her grand age, she runs to this day.

Patuá is the name of De Jesus’ mother tongue, and she is one of its last surviving custodians. Known to those who speak it as “Maquista”, Patuá is a creole language that developed in Malacca, Portugal’s main base in south-east Asia, during the first half of the 16th century, and made its way to Macau when the Portuguese settled there. It blends Portuguese with Cantonese and Malay, plus traces of other languages from stop-offs on the Portuguese trading route.

Patuá developed to eventually become the language of Macau’s indigenous Eurasian community: the Macanese. They first arose from intermarriages between Portuguese colonisers and the Chinese – mostly Portuguese men marrying and starting families with Chinese women.

However, as of the second quarter of the 19th century, the strengthening of public education in Portuguese and the socioeconomic advantages associated with the language led to the stigmatisation of Patuá. It was shunned as “broken Portuguese” and became a language confined mostly to the home.

In 2009, Unesco classified Patuá as a “critically endangered” language. As of the year 2000, there were estimated to be just 50 Patuá speakers worldwide. […]

Elisabela Larrea, a part-time PhD student and author of a blog that introduces Patuá dialect flashcards to English and Chinese readers, learned of the challenges her ancestors faced speaking the language. She is now part of a small community in Macau that wants to help preserve it as a medium of Macanese culture.

Its a sadly common story, of course, but every such situation is unique, and this article comes with gorgeous photos as well as a video clip in which Ms. Larrea shares some phrases in the language. Thanks, Trevor!

The Turk.

From this Wordorigins thread I learned of a great bit of sports jargon I had not been familiar with: in football, to get a visit from the Turk is to be let go, “because the Turk is the guy who gets sent to tell a player he has been cut from the team, usually quietly/privately to avoid a scene.” A later commenter links to this Tampa Bay Times story by Roger Mooney, which provides the following backstory:

The Pro Football Hall of Fame website credits former L.A. Rams linebacker Don Paul for coining the phrase “the Turk.”

Clark Shaughnessy, who coached the Rams in the late 1940s, cut his players in the middle of the night. He reasoned the bad news would be easier to stomach when the player was still trying to wake up. Shaughnessy would send someone to his dorm room to wake him and tell him to pack his bags and report to Shaughnessy’s office. The player’s absence would be noticed when the team gathered in the dining hall for breakfast.

“The Turk strikes at night,” Paul would yell.

Vox populi comes up with some fine phrases.

New New York Times.

Simple but brilliant: this Twitter feed automatically posts any word that the NY Times uses for the first time. Latest entry: kilimologist (if you click on the word, you get the context, in this case “Batki is a self-proclaimed kilimologist, an expert in old weavin…”). You also get the occasional typo (“attacthed”), which is fun as well. Thanks, Trevor!

The Rise of Doggo.

Andrea Valdez has a nice write-up for Wired about a modish word that makes people smile:

The only way to explain the reaction to Merriam-Webster’s year-end announcement that “doggo” was one of the dictionary’s “Words We’re Watching” is to use another colloquialism: Twitter lost its damn mind.

It wasn’t the first time Merriam, the hippest dictionary that ever was (sorry, Oxford), incorporated internet-beloved words into its corpus; it recently added definitions for the terms “troll,” “woke,” and “hashtag.” Nor was it the first time social media reacted strongly to such a move (see: the Great “Shade” Elation of 2017). But for the prestigious lexical arbiter to acknowledge doggo’s place and popularity was a win for practitioners of “DoggoSpeak,” a specialized vernacular used primarily in memes extolling the cuteness of dogs. (DoggoSpeak includes fun-to-say made-up words like doggo, pupper, flufferino, and doge. You probably don’t have to be fluent to translate, though NPR did a thorough deep-dive on the vocabulary.)

The announcement was also a recognition by Merriam that its original entry for “doggo”—defined as “in hiding—used chiefly in the phrase to lie doggo”—was out of step with its more current incarnation. “The nature of lexicography in general is that it always lags behind language, and that’s the case with doggo,” says Merriam-Webster associate editor Kory Stamper. “The real swell of the modern doggo wave came in 2016 and 2017 with the popularization of the WeRateDogs Twitter account.”

She explains that “there’s a strong case to be made that the word originated in Australia”:

To start, doggo first gained traction on a Facebook group called Dogspotting, a 10-year-old community that became quite popular in Australia, says internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch.

“Australian English has this tendency to make cute pet-names, what’s known in the literature as hypocoristics,” McCulloch says. “Like ‘afternoon’ becomes ‘arvo,’ or ‘avocado’ becomes ‘avo,’ or John becomes ‘John-o’.”

She gives a timeline for the modern use, some reasonable hypotheses as to why it became so popular, and the news (sad but inevitable) that there’s been “a fall in the term’s popularity”; it’s a good piece of popular linguistic journalism, and I for one approve.

Making Sense of Urban Dictionary.

I presume we’ve all used Urban Dictionary from time to time and been both enlightened (so that’s how the kids are talking today!) and amused (beer: “Possibly the best thing ever to be invented ever. I MEAN IT.”). I always vaguely wondered how useful it was from a scientific point of view, and now I have Dong Nguyen, Barbara McGillivray, and Taha Yasseri’s paper “Emo, Love, and God: Making Sense of Urban Dictionary, a Crowd-Sourced Online Dictionary” to tell me. Here’s the abstract:

The Internet facilitates large-scale collaborative projects. The emergence of Web~2.0 platforms, where producers and consumers of content unify, has drastically changed the information market. On the one hand, the promise of the “wisdom of the crowd” has inspired successful projects such as Wikipedia, which has become the primary source of crowd-based information in many languages. On the other hand, the decentralized and often un-monitored environment of such projects may make them susceptible to systematic malfunction and misbehavior. In this work, we focus on Urban Dictionary, a crowd-sourced online dictionary. We combine computational methods with qualitative annotation and shed light on the overall features of Urban Dictionary in terms of growth, coverage and types of content. We measure a high presence of opinion-focused entries, as opposed to the meaning-focused entries that we expect from traditional dictionaries. Furthermore, Urban Dictionary covers many informal, unfamiliar words as well as proper nouns. There is also a high presence of offensive content, but highly offensive content tends to receive lower scores through the voting system. Our study highlights that Urban Dictionary has a higher content heterogeneity than found in traditional dictionaries, which poses challenges in terms in processing but also offers opportunities to analyze and track language innovation.

There’s a discussion of the article at “The Anatomy of the Urban Dictionary,” by Emerging Technology from the arXiv (do their friends call them Em or ET?):

The team also compare the lexical coverage of Urban Dictionary and Wiktionary. It turns out that the overlap is surprisingly small—72 percent of the words on Urban Dictionary are not recorded on Wiktionary.

However, the team note that many words on Urban Dictionary are relevant to only a small subset of users. Many are nicknames or proper names such as Dan Taylor, defined as “A very wonderful man that cooks the best beef stew in the whole wide world.” These usually have only one meaning. […]

The work provides a unique window into a website that has come to play an important role in popular culture. That should set the scene for other studies. In particular, an interesting question is whether online dictionaries not only record linguistic change but actually drive it, as some linguists suggest.

Via MetaFilter.