More on Juhuri.

We discussed the Mountain Jews and their language, Juhuri (Judeo-Tat), back in 2010; now you can see glorious photos of the place where they speak it and read an account of meeting its speakers at Poemas del río Wang:

I met Mountain Jews for for the first time seven years ago, in a café of the Tabriz bazaar, where I was listening to the conversation of the waiters. The language was particularly familiar, some Iranian language, but not Persian, and not even Kurdish. “In what language do you speak?” I asked. “Be Juhuri, in Jewish”, they answered. “Come on”, I said, “I know two Jewish languages, but neither of them sounds like this.” “Well, this is then the third one. We, Mountain Jews speak in this language.” And they said that thousands of them live in the mountains of the “other”, northern, Azerbaijan, and farther north, in Dagestan, many more still.

Take the stuff about the Babylonian captivity with several spoonfuls of salt; as Etienne says in that 2010 post, “the notion that Judeo-Tat goes back to Persian acquired by Jews in the days of King Nebuchadnezzar is utter nonsense. From what little I know of Tat, it is clearly so similar to Modern Persian that it cannot have broken off from Persian at such an early date.” Otherwise, it’s an amazing account:

The most unusual fact about this shtetl is that it works. Anyone who has seen the deserted houses of the Galician shtetls and the Jewish streets of the Eastern European villages, the closed down synagogues or their empty places, and brought them to life again in the imagination with the characters of Sholem Aleichem, can see here how that world would look, had its inhabitants not disappeared. The traditional Jewish world of the Red Shtetl has only gradually modernized. The town center has been renovated, but they have also built a new mikve, a kosher butcher’s shop, and a community house called “The House of Happiness”, and the facades of the ostentatious palaces built in the places of the old wooden houses are still decorated with the motifs of traditional Jewish iconography.

And don’t miss this recent río Wang post on the same topic, with equally glorious photos of Lahıc (or Lahij).


It’s easy enough to find movie quotes via Google, but it’s even easier via QuoDB, which tells you exactly where in the movie it’s from. Via Paul Ogden, who says “Amazing. I gave it one line from a movie I was watching and it instantly found the book it came from, with details.”

Ants, Oats, Knees.

I’m halfway through Annihilation (thanks, bulbul!), and one of the pleasures of the book is discovering phrases hitherto unknown to me that are attractive as linguistic items and interesting as real-world phenomena; so far they’re all biological, because the narrator of the book is a biologist:

velvet ants

sea oats

cypress knees

Interestingly, a velvet ant is not an ant, a sea oat is not an oat, and a cypress knee is not a knee. Natural language is not transparent!

sugar glider

Birthday Loot 2015.

As is traditional at LH, I hereby list the books I received for my birthday yesterday (I’ll create an Addendum for any late arrivals):

Jabotinsky: A Life, by Hillel Halkin (review)

St Petersburg: Shadows of the Past, by Catriona Kelly (review)

Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928, by Stephen Kotkin (review)

Shadow & Claw: The First Half of ‘The Book of the New Sun’, by Gene Wolfe

Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer

Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, by Richard Brody (review)

(My brother gave me a DVD of Godard’s Goodbye to Language, which goes nicely with the Brody book.) My thanks to all the generous givers, and I’m excited about all of these books!

The Three-Volume Novel and How It Ended.

This wonderful essay by Richard Menke explains a great many things about Victorian England and its literature of which I had no conception; I had, of course, heard of the three-volume novel, but I had no idea how it tied into the circulating library system, or of the fact that books were priced so that most individuals couldn’t afford them (like scholarly books now, grr), or of Mudie’s and its primness, or… well, just read it. Here’s the abstract, if it will help whet your appetite:

In 1894, the great private circulating libraries announced that they were changing their terms for purchasing fiction, ultimately leading publishers to abandon the long-standard three-volume format for novels. This essay considers the three-volume novel system as part of an information empire and examines the collapse of that system both through the work of book historians and through the writing of Oscar Wilde, George Gissing, Ella Hepworth Dixon, Rudyard Kipling, and other writers of the 1890s.

Here‘s more about circulating libraries, and here‘s the MetaFilter post by Miriam Burstein from which I got those links—there are many more in the post. (And I just learned from her blog that some books cannot be searched via GoogleBooks at all; you have to use the regular Google search function. Why, Google, why?)


I saw a reference to Vyacheslav Ivanov‘s first collection of poetry, «Кормчие звезды», which was translated as “Lodestars,” and I had two reactions in quick succession: “Ah yes, кормчий is ‘helmsman’ (Stalin was the Великий кормчий, the Great Helmsman), and a lodestar is what you steer by, that makes sense!” and “Wait a minute, why is a lodestar called that?” So I went to the dictionary and found that (unsurprisingly) lodestar is lode + star, but (surprisingly) lode originally meant ‘way’ (it’s from from Old English lād ‘way’) and is an o-grade nominal form (*loit-ā‑) of the PIE root *leit- ‘to go forth,’ which gives us the verb lead (Old English lǣdan). A load was originally that which leads. Isn’t that neat? How it came to mean ‘a vein of ore’ I don’t know, and the OED doesn’t say.

Via Bulbul on Facebook.

A couple of items I found while scanning my FB feed this morning (I generally do so once a day, which my younger acquaintances find hilarious):

1) Malta’s own colourful 18th century expletives:

In the 17th and 18th century, people used to report their neighbours to the Inquisitor for any behaviour they deemed went against the Catholic religion. Blasphemy was among them. Witnesses would describe in detail any blasphemy they would have heard.

“It looks like back then blasphemies were not a mere short utterance but rather complex short stories. Even reading them today can make you wince, as they were really harsh,” he noted.

In 1797, there are records of a priest uttering: “laħrac ruħ il Caddis ta’ Liscof li ordnani” (may the soul of the saint of the bishop who ordained me burn in hell).

Blasphemies commonly featured the devil, the Catholic faith – including the Pope, saints, the Virgin Mary and God – as well as parents and relatives.

There are also examples of how people used to resort to euphemisms over the years instead of the actual word to avoid the tribunal. Sagrament (sacrament) became legremew; osjta (host) became ostra; qaddis (saint) became qattus; imniefaħ instead of imniegħel.

Very reminiscent of Quebec.

2) Can you identify these Near Eastern languages? I was more chuffed about my 10/10 score before I saw the brackets:

90-100% 855 people
80-89% 411 people
70-79% 483 people
60-69% 486 people
50-59% 342 people
0-49% 265 people

(Warning: There’s a ringer at the end.)

Comparative Siouan Dictionary.

This is another of those things that makes me remember why I got into historical linguistics; Lameen Souag posts about a wonderful resource that’s finally online:

A key document in Native American philology which has been circulating in samizdat form for decades is finally online and searchable: the multi-authored Comparative Siouan Dictionary (as noted by Guillaume Jacques). Named for the last of its speakers to resist colonization, the Sioux or Lakota, the Siouan family was spread over a vast section of North America, covering much of the Missouri and Mississippi valleys but with old outliers as far east as Tutelo in Virginia. The names of several Midwesternstates derive from Siouan languages, so they make a convenient starting point for exploring the database. Minnesota is from Dakota mni sota “cloudy water”,both elements of whose history you can trace back here to proto-Siouan: *waRé• “lake, water” and *(a)só•tE “hazy, bluish, cloudy”. *waRé• also yields Chiwere ñį, which in combination with the Chiwere reflex of *parás-ka “spread > flat (1)” yields the name of Nebraska. Dakota, from a name of the Sioux, has a less venerable history, being traceable only back to proto-Mississippi Valley Siouan *hkota/*hkoRa/*hkora “friend”, with unexplained internal variation and similar forms in other families suggesting the possibility of a loan. (The la- element might have something to do with fire; see John Koontz’s discussion.)

Just looking at those lists of cognates makes me want to start learning the languages!

Swearing in Quebec II.

We’ve discussed the topic before, but Chi Luu (“a computational linguist and NLP researcher who tinkers with tiny models and machines to uncover curious mysteries in human language”) has a good piece at JSTOR Daily that takes a historical approach; after describing the sacres (and providing a couple of delightful video clips to illustrate them, including Laurent Paquin’s “Chant sacré”: “Ostie d’câlisse de sacrament/Ciboire de saint Ostie…”) goes on to ask:

So how did this come to be? How do seemingly harmless words in languages around the world start to develop a second life as taboo words which connote emotional extremes and are then considered offensive or harmful? How do good words go bad?

She has lots of interesting links, and concludes:

The more these taboo words are used in novel ways, the more diluted their efficacy and power. Across the years, it is the tenuous balance of taboo speech use or prohibition that can turn formerly innocuous words into terms that are mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Talking in the Real World.

Lane Greene of The Economist has another good “Johnson” column; this time he’s focusing on the importance of register:

I began learning Portuguese from an old secondhand book that taught forms like comê-lo-ia, which I dutifully studied, grumbling “who on Earth says this?” If only someone had answered “nobody”. When I finally talked to Brazilians, their Portuguese resembled my textbook in roughly the way that a Picasso resembles its subject. Sadly, many traditional textbooks still teach Portuguese this way—including to native speakers in Brazil.

All languages change, but as they do, some language groups are more willing to update the formal grammar books than others. If the books don’t change, but the spoken language does—the typical case—the two forms gradually drift apart.

This is a shame for many native speakers, who arrive at school to learn that the way everyone speaks is “wrong”, and an ossified written form is “right”. [...]

Instead of a rigid right-wrong approach, with the written form always being taught as right, it would be better to teach the idea of register: that certain forms are used in casual speech, other forms in formal speech, others still in writing. Lingua Portuguesa also had an interview with Valéria Paz de Almeida, a linguist consultant to a news broadcaster, who lamented that newscasters feel the need to speak in an artificial register that resembles writing. They come to her with worried questions about rare and tricky grammatical forms. She in turn tries to get them to speak as they do with the cameras switched off: fluently and articulately, but naturally. She finds this make the journalists looser and happier, and the audience never complains.

What about foreign learners? It is distressing to show up in Paris and hear a mysterious mumble that sounds like j’sépa, over and over again, only later to discover that this is what your French teacher told you to say as je ne sais pas, “I don’t know.” Those silent s’s are a perfect example of the spoken language changing while the written remains the same. And a good textbook would explain that the negative particle ne is usually dropped in colloquial speech. But most books don’t trust learners to be able to master multiple registers. Mastering register is, to be sure, tricky. But it is not well solved by teaching only a register that will leave the learner bewildered by the first live contact with a human being.

He commends Routledge’s “Modern Grammar: A Practical Guide” series for doing it right, with “detailed, detached descriptions of the difference between speaking and writing, formal and informal, regional differences and the like.” I agree with him that that should be standard in language teaching.