Two Etymologies.

1) Posted by aldiboronti at, quoting the OED (“This took me by surprise, I had no idea of the connection”):

chance, n., adj. and adv.

Etymology: Middle English chea(u)nce, < Old French cheance (= Provençal cazensa, Italian cadenza) < late Latin cadentia falling, < cadent– falling, present participle of cadĕre to fall: compare cadence n.

As I responded in that thread: I must have seen that before, probably more than once, but I’d forgotten it.

2) And while I was looking up chance in AHD, it fell to my lot to notice another interesting connection:

A conglomerate of businesses, usually owned by a single family, especially in Korea.
[Korean chaebeol (formed on the model of Japanese zaibatsu, zaibatsu, by using the Korean pronunciation of the two Chinese characters with which the Japanese word is written) : chae, wealth (from Early Middle Chinese, dzəj; see ZAIBATSU) + beol, powerful family (from Early Middle Chinese buat; see ZAIBATSU).]

Again, if I knew chaebol was etymologically identical to zaibatsu, I’d forgotten. (The Mandarin equivalent would be cáifá; I don’t know if that’s used for both or if they’ve been borrowed back in other forms.)


Helen DeWitt at paperpools posts a quote from Pharaoh’s Land and Beyond, ed. Pearce Paul Creasman and Richard H. Wilkinson (Oxford University Press, 2017) posted in turn by Rolf Degen (@DegenRolf) on Twitter (where he “performed various arcane manipulations to come up with a quotation that blithely bypasses the 140-character limit”). I can’t copy and paste from the image at her site, so I’ll post as much as I can be bothered to get by trawling Google Books and hope you’re intrigued enough to click the link for more:

The high iconicity of the hieroglyphic script again played a key role on the stage of intellectual history at another crossroad of Egyptian and Levantine cultures. […] Unlike the case of the Minoan and Anatolian scripts, the invention of the alphabet was not born in the environment of erudite scribes, but was apparently created as a non-institutional cultural product by illiterate Canaanite miners. Though they were experts in their professional field of mining, the inventors of the alphabet were far removed from the circles of professional writing in cuneiform and Egyptian. It is precisely this naïveté that allowed them to invent something completely new, as they were unencumbered by the scripts of their day. […] Like the inventors of the Cretan and Anatolian hieroglyphs, the Canaanites borrowed the Egyptian idea of turning pictures into script. Yet, not being professional scribes and not working in the service of any official ideology or institution, they did not bother to invent a whole set of new icons. They adopted roughly two dozen icons from the hieroglyphs around them […]

I like the emphasis on non-institutional and non-professional inventors. (DeWitt says: “If you are not following @Rolfdegen on Twitter, you should, and if you are not on Twitter you could do worse than sign up and follow only the incomparable @DegenRolf.”)

Graphing the Distribution of English Letters.

David Taylor at (“data hacking and sundry curiosities”) posted back in 2014 a very nice graph titled “Distribution of English letters toward beginning, middle and end of words.” He adds:

I’ve had many “oh, yeah” moments looking over the graphs. For example, words almost never begin with “x”, but it’s quite common as the second letter. There’s a little hump near the beginning of “u” that’s caused by its proximity to “q”, which is most common at the beginning of a word. When you remove “q” from the dataset, the hump disappears. “F” occurs toward the extremes, especially in prepositions (“for”, “from”, “of”, “off”) but rarely just before the middle.

A final thought: the most common word in the English language is “the”, which makes up about 6% of most corpuses (sorry, corpora). But according to these graphs, the most representative word is “toe”.

What fun!

Rivers and Stones.

Still reading Weinberger’s The Ghosts of Birds; I’m on the essay “A Calendar of Stones,” section 14 of which begins:

Pseudo-Plutarch is the author of works attributed to Plutarch that are not by Plutarch; he may be one or more writers. His essay “On Rivers” is a minimalist compendium of nomenclature, violence, illicit sex, botany, and geology. In it, he cites works by Agatharchides, Archelaus, Aristobulus, Dercyllus, Dorotheus the Chaldean, Heracleitus, and Nicias of Mallus, all titled “On Stones.” Doubt has been cast as to whether these texts, all lost, actually existed.

Needless to say, I was intrigued, and googling turned up the English translation at Perseus, which begins here, and a parallel Greek/Roman text, which begins here. Sure enough, these river chapters are obsessed with stones with weird histories and qualities; I leave you to explore them, and provide the very last paragraph (from XXV. INDUS) without comment:

Γεννᾶται δὲ ἐν αὐτῷ λίθος κλειτορὶς ὀνομαζόμενος· ἔστι δὲ λίαν μελάγχρους· ὃν κόσμου χάριν οἱ ἐγχώριοι φοροῦσιν ἐν τοῖς ὠταρίοις, καθὼς ἱστορεῖ Ἀριστοτέλης ἐν δʹ περὶ Ποταμῶν.

Nascitur in eo lapis clitoris dictus, qui est nigerrimus et ornatus gratia ab indigenis gestari solet in auriculis, ut docet Aristoteles libro quarto De fluviis.

In this mountain a stone is found which is called clitoris, of a very black color, which the natives wear for ornament’s sake in their ears;—as Aristotle witnesses in his Fourth Book of Rivers.

Agop Dilaçar.

Uzay Bulut has an interesting account of a surprising participant in Turkey’s language reform (for which see this 2012 post):

Hagop Martayan, or Agop Dilaçar, was the first Secretary General and head specialist of the state-funded Turkish Language Institution (Türk Dil Kurumu, TDK) founded in 1932 in Ankara. He worked as a professor of Turkish at Ankara University between 1936 and 1951. He also was the head adviser of the Turkish Encyclopedia between 1942 and 1960. He wrote books and articles on the Turkish language. Beside his mother tongue, Armenian, he knew English, Ottoman, Azeri, Uighur, Latin, Greek, German, Russian, and Bulgarian. […]

In an article about Martayan’s life (“The Good Child of the Republic: Hagop Martayan or A. Dilaçar”), Levent Özata, a journalist with the newspaper Agos, writes that Martayan was sent to the Caucasian front to fight as an Ottoman soldier during WWI. After the war, Martayan held various positions, including principal of an Armenian school in Beirut, Lebanon, and then a lecturer of Turkish and Uighur in Sofia, Bulgaria. But when the newly formed Turkish state decided to invent a new language in the 1930s, Martayan’s life changed course.

With his articles on the Turkish language, Martayan had attracted the attention of the authorities. But he had been denationalized, stripped of citizenship; he was wandering around with a certificate documenting his statelessness. He was allowed to enter Turkey as “a special guest of Mustafa Kemal, the first president of Turkey, to develop the Turkish language. […] And it was Mustafa Kemal who suggested Martayan’s surname, Dilaçar [literally, “one who opens up the tongue (or language)”; perhaps better translated as “language-giver”] because of his contributions to Turkish after the promulgation of the Law of Family Names.

Thanks, Trevor!

Natufian Origin for Afroasiatic?

Greg Pandatshang sent me this post by Razib Khan arguing for a Levantine (Natufian) origin for the Afroasiatic phylum on genetic grounds. Khan himself asks “Why would I have any particular insight?” and I’m inherently suspicious of attempts to link language and genetics, but it’s an interesting topic; Greg says he’d be curious to know what LH readers would make of it, and so am I. The conclusion:

The hypothesis I present is that after the descendants of the Natufians made the transition to farming, some immediately pushed into areas of Africa suitable for farming and/or pastoralism. They quick diversified into the various Berber and Cushitic languages. The adoption of Nilo-Saharan languages, and later Khoisan ones, was simply the process of successive and serial admixture into local populations as these paternal lineages introduced their lifestyle. In the Near East many distinct Semitic languages persisted across the Fertile Crescent, and for whatever reason the various non-Semitic languages faded and Semitic ones flourished.

Any and all thoughts are, as always, welcome.

The Potent Prince o’ Ballatrie.

I’ve always had a weakness for Scots poetry (one of my favorite poets is Hugh MacDiarmid, about whom I’ve done a number of posts: 2002, 2011, 2013), and Patrick Crotty’s TLS appreciation of the Scottish poet Sydney Goodsir Smith has made me add Smith’s Collected Poems to my wishlist. According to Crotty, Smith’s masterpiece is the 1948 collection Under the Eildon Tree (the title is from the Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer: “Syne he has kisst her rosie lips/ All underneath the Eildon Tree”), which he says “can fairly be described as the most polished extended exercise in Scots verse since Burns’s ‘Tam o’ Shanter’, and the most ambitious since MacDiarmid’s A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926)”; I found a section of it online (thanks, Scottish Poetry Library!), and thought I’d share it:

XII. Orpheus


Wi sang aa birds and beasts could I owrecome,
    Aa men and wemen o’ the mapamound subdue;
    The flouers o’ the fields,
Rocks and trees, boued doun to hear my leid;
Gurlie waters rase upon the land to mak
    A throwgang for my feet.
I was the potent prince o’ ballatrie,
My lyre opened portes whareer I thocht to gang,
    My fleean sangs mair ramsh nor wine
At Beltane, Yule or Hogmanay
    Made wud the clans o’ men –
There wasna my maik upon the yerth
    (Why should I no admit the fack?)
A hero, demi-god, my kingrik was the hert,
    The passions and the saul –
        Sic was my pouer.
   – Anerlie my ain sel I couldna bend.
    “He was his ain worst enemie,”
    As the auld untentit bodachs say –
    My hert, a leopard, ruthless, breme,
    Gilravaged far and near
Seekan sensatiouns, passions that wad wauken
    My Muse whan she was lollish.
No seenil the hert was kinnelt like a forest-bleeze …
I was nae maister o’ my ain but thirlit
    Serf til his ramskeerie wants
   – And yet I hained but ane in the hert’s deepest hert.

    She, maist leefou, leesome leddy
   – Ochone, ochone, Euridicie –
Was aye the queen of Orpheus’ hert, as I kent weill,
    And wantan her my life was feckless drinkin,
        Weirdless, thieveless dancin,
            Singin, gangrellin.

– And nou she’s gane.

Leid is ‘language,’ as we discussed here; mapamound is ‘globe,’ gurlie is ‘stormy; gurgling,’ wud (or wuid) is ‘mad, crazy, impetuous, uncontrolled’ (archaic English wood), ramsh (or rammish) is ‘mad, insane,’ anerlie (variant of anely) is ‘only,’ bodach is ‘old man,’ breme (or breem) is ‘furious, fierce, violent,’ seenil (usually seendil, sendle, sinnle) is ‘seldom,’ thirlit is ‘bound in thirlage = bondage,’ hain is ‘enclose (by a hedge or fence),’ leefou is ‘kind-hearted, compassionate,’ thieveless is ‘ineffective,’ and gangrellin is ‘wandering’; hopefully the rest of the Scots words are clear enough from context with a little squinting. I particularly like kingrik ‘kingdom,’ from OE kyningríce.

By the way, the Scottish Poetry Library has a superb 404 page.


Bathrobe sent me a link to a decade-old paper by David Damrosch, “Scriptworlds: Writing Systems and the Formation of World Literature,” and it looks so interesting I’m going to post it immediately. Here’s the start:

Through most of recorded history, literature has not been written within an integrated global system. “World literature” has meant different things in different parts of the globe, and only a very few writers have truly had a worldwide audience. At least through the eighteenth century, most literary works have circulated within fairly discrete fields, whether framed in regional terms (the East Asian world), in political terms (the Roman Empire), or in linguistic terms (the Germanic and Romance traditions). My purpose in this essay is to explore a term missing from most discussions of regional and global literatures: the crucial role of global scripts. Often thought of only in relation to their original language or language family, scripts that achieve a global reach extend far beyond their linguistic base, with profound consequences for literature and for cultural in general. Alphabets and other scripts continue to this day to serve as key indices of cultural identity, often as battlegrounds of independence or interdependence. A global script forms the basis of a broad literary system — what we might call a “scriptworld” — in which works that use that script are composed.

And here’s a passage near the end:

Observing the interplay of language and script in earlier periods can also give us a better understanding of the origins of modern national literatures. When he was formulating the concept of Weltliteratur in the 1820s, during the heyday of European nationalism, Goethe spoke of world literature naturally as based on the interactions of established national literatures, after which world literature was a secondary or even future formation. “The epoch of world literature is at hand,” he announced to his young disciple Eckermann, “and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.” The spread of scripts in earlier periods shows instead that literatures tend to develop in just the opposite direction: within — and often against — an existing regional or global world literature.

In between there’s discussion of Gilgamesh, Job, Cyril and Methodius, Milorad Pavić (“In this way Pavić’s Cyrillic Хазарски Речник became his Romanized Hazarski Rečnik, almost every word of it identical to the original but almost every letter changed”), Iceland (“The Norse sagas are not part of Latin literature, yet they are very much part of the Latin scriptworld”), the Codex Wormianus (with its First, Second, Third, and Fourth Grammatical Treatises), sixteenth-century Mexico and Guatemala (“where Mayan and Mexica writers within a generation of the conquest began to use the Roman alphabet to write down their old stories and poems in their native languages”), and much else. Thanks, Bathrobe!


Immediately after the passage quoted from Kivelson in yesterday’s post comes an even more interesting one dealing with the term translated there as “uninhabited field.” In my innocence, I thought that was relatively straightforward, but no:

The vast majority of properties mentioned in seventeenth-century sources were pustoshi, uninhabited but plowed, or formerly plowed and settled, plots. Their evocative name, pustosh’, derived from the linguistic root meaning “empty,” “empty spaces.” They evoke the perpetual shortages of labor encountered by Muscovite landlords as they attempted to eke a living out of their meager estates, and the ever-harsher efforts of the state to bind fleeting taxpayers to predictable locations. “In the village there are old sites of houses, now empty, in the pustosh’ that was the village Savelovskoe, also called Bulgakova.” In other circumstances, on other maps, colonizing powers deliberately presented empty lands, devoid of human settlement. […] In the Russian context, however, emptiness was a problem, not a solution. This dilemma is evident in a map from Uglich that lists “field and unplowed woods of the pustosh’ Nikola, which borders the village of Tolpygino which belongs to the Nikitskii Monastery. The wood and hay field and swamp of Tolpygino border the hay fields and woods of the pustosh’ Nikola, but the woods are held jointly by Nikola and Tolpygino. And between the pustosh’ Nikola and the village Tolpygino there are a spring and a ravine, but no boundary markers at all.” […]

Not all empty land qualified as pustoshi. Pustoshi were recognizable by particular priznaki, signs or indicators known to members of this agrarian society. A proper pustosh’, like one described on a map from Kaluga Province, was formerly a point of settlement: “Pustosh’ Fedosovo of the Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery. This was formerly a village.” Distinguishing carefully between a “pustosh’” and empty land that was not a pustosh’, peasant witnesses in Moscow Province testified that “pustosh’ Shchadra is on the River Shchadra at the end of the field of the village Zhdanovskoe. But in the second spot there are no signs of settlement.” […]

In another case, this distinction becomes more explicit. One of the litigants protested the dishonest and inaccurate map that the local town clerk had sketched of his holding. Having interviewed only biased witnesses, the Vladimir town clerk “drew the map according to their testimony, as if there were a pasture for livestock reaching from that pustosh’ to the River Ialma. But on that so-called pustosh’ up to this day there is no trace of settlement whatever and no hamlets belonging to anyone along the Ialma near that pustosh’, and there is no one at all to drive livestock from the pustosh’ [to the pasture]. And thus the criminality of those witnesses and the clerk became clear.” The claim advanced in the map was patently preposterous. A pustosh’ was a field that had once been inhabited and worked but was no longer. A place with no signs of habitation was something else altogether: a meadow, a field, or swamp. […]

Seventeenth-century vocabulary abounded in terms for emptiness. An astonishingly rich array of terms conveys a sense of the extent of the depletion or echoing emptiness and openness of even central Muscovy. Pustoshi adjoined porrozzhie zemli, unclaimed land. Pomest’e land was carved out of dikie polia, wild fields. Primernye zemli, distant fields assigned to one or another settlement, add to the sense of distance. A pozhnia was a wet, low-lying field, suitable for use only as hay fields or pastures, marginally useful but nonetheless passionately contested.

Another family of terms refers to fields and pastures recently won back from the forest or the open steppe, land reclaimed from the marsh, clearings, and wetlands. This vocabulary communicates powerfully the give-and-take between cultivated and uncultivated, claimed and unclaimed land. A wealth of terms refers to swamps, marshes, bogs, gullies, and ravines, which also were fiercely claimed and contested.

It turns out there’s another word, осёлок [osyolok], presumably derived from село [selo] ‘village,’ that’s synonymous with pustosh’. Perhaps the cliché about Eskimo words for snow could be replaced by Muscovite words for empty land.

Addendum. R Devraj on Forty Names of Clouds, about the language of the Thar (“The act of naming — chhinto for a drizzle of rain or ghuTyo for the asphyxiating stillness of un-raining clouds — is a way of paying homage, recognizing worth, according importance of these events that are vital to their survival”).

Not That Prokudinskoe, the Other One.

Valerie Kivelson’s Cartographies of Tsardom: The Land and Its Meanings in Seventeenth-Century Russia is a wonderful examination of (among other things) the complicated relationship between the supposedly all-powerful Kremlin and the Russian provinces in the Muscovite period, as exemplified by the many maps produced to support one side or the other in the endless lawsuits about land (often lasting many years and using up hundreds of pages of very expensive paper). Here’s a passage describing one problem I hadn’t given much thought to:

Names and descriptions of pieces of land were subject to both inadvertent confusion and deliberate manipulation. Duplication of names surfaces as a common ploy, or honest point of confusion, in many of the cases. Completely different names might be applied to a single plot of land. Duly checking the official books and records, state investigators would establish that no one held title to a village by a certain name, only to discover later that someone indeed already held the same bit of village, defined within the same boundaries, but called by a different name. A case of this kind took place in Suzdal in 1679, when Vasilii Alekseev protested that Danilo Oshanin had cheated him out of his field, Prokudinskoe, by calling it Sidorovskoe. Oshanin’s supporters defended him, saying: “That is his field Prokudinskoe, and previous pomeshchiki held it separately, calling them [the two fields] by one and the same name. But this field didn’t abut that other field, Sidorovskoe, at all. And that other field Prokudinskoe was held by Vasilii Alekseev according to the cadastral books.” In simpler language, Oshanin was protesting that he was not claiming that Prokudinskoe; his claim was to the other Prokudinskoe. A case in Vladimir similarly ground to a halt over competing claims to one or possibly two fields, purportedly called either Kuzmino or Kuzminskoe. Authorities had to determine whether in fact there were two separate (osobye) plots by the same name or not: “Ask local people . . . whether they are one or different.”

[…] When Iurii Skrypitsyn contested the Nikitskii Monastery’s appropriation of what he considered his uninhabited plot, Nikola Field, one of the issues around which the case revolved was wither the field pertained to the village of Tolpygin […]. To complicate matters to a comical degree, each of these fields bore a series of nicknames: “The uninhabited field Batogi used to be the hamlet Karpova, also called Boktovo, and the uninhabited field Zabolote is known as the uninhabited field Pavlova, Stashkovo also. But there is [also] a separate uninhabited field Strashkovo.” Pavlova was also known as Ostroshkovo.

To add to the comedy, it is not clear to me whether the two last-mentioned uninhabited fields are actually named Stashkovo and Strashkovo, or whether one is a typo for the other. You’d have to visit the Rossiikii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv drevnikh aktov (RGADA) to be sure.