Taboo Deformation and the Bear.

Dan Nosowitz has an Atlas Obscura piece on what linguists call taboo deformation; he starts and ends with “dagnabbit,” along the way discussing the idea that “if someone finds out your true name […] that person will have all sorts of power over you,” the Jewish name of God, and “mother-in-law languages,” but the bit Trevor excerpted, quite understandably, when he sent me the link is this:

“Bear” is not the true name of the bear. That name, which I am free to use because the only bear near where I live is the decidedly unthreatening American black bear, is h₂ŕ̥tḱos. Or at least it was in Proto-Indo-European, the hypothesized base language for languages including English, French, Hindi, and Russian. The bear, along with the wolf, was the scariest and most dangerous animal in the northern areas where Proto-Indo-European was spoken. “Because bears were so bad, you didn’t want to talk about them directly, so you referred to them in an oblique way,” says Byrd.

H₂ŕ̥tḱos, which is pronounced with a lot of guttural noises, became the basis for a bunch of other words. “Arctic,” for example, which probably means something like “land of the bear.” Same with Arthur, a name probably constructed to snag some of the bear’s power. But in Germanic languages, the bear is called…bear. Or something similar. (In German, it’s Bär.) The predominant theory is that this name came from a simple description, meaning “the brown one.”

In Slavic languages, the descriptions got even better: the Russian word for bear is medved, which means “honey eater.” These names weren’t done to be cute; they were created out of fear.

It’s worth noting that not everyone was that scared of bears. Some languages allowed the true name of the bear to evolve in a normal fashion with minor changes; the Greek name was arktos, the Latin ursos. Still the true name. Today in French, it’s ours, and in Spanish it’s oso. The bear simply wasn’t that big of a threat in the warmer climes of Romance language speakers, so they didn’t bother being scared of its true name.

Of course, the idea of a “true name” of the bear or anything else is untenable (and the PIE word itself may have been a taboo deformation or euphemism), and the hypothesis that “the bear simply wasn’t that big of a threat in the warmer climes of Romance language speakers, so they didn’t bother being scared of its true name” shouldn’t be presented as settled fact, but hey, it’s just a blog post, and it’s a fun roundup. Thanks, Trevor!

Getting Basics Wrong (and Page 112).

David Adger’s TLS review (paywalled, sorry) of a book by Daniel Cloud begins:

The Domestication of Language offers a proposal about the general principles that lead to words having the meanings that they do. These principles, which Daniel Cloud takes to be akin to those that underlie the domestication of crops or livestock, involve speakers engaging in a more or less rational and deliberate process that prunes away certain terms for certain concepts over time. Just as farmers might choose to propagate plants with the best yield, or hunters might breed the most loyal dogs, communities of speakers choose to use and teach words which best support their culture.

You probably have your doubts already, and they will only be reinforced when I tell you that Cloud is a philosopher with no background in linguistics. That in itself wouldn’t be worth reporting — the world is full of bad books about language written by people with no background in linguistics — but what leads me to post about it is the fact that the reviewer is an actual linguist, who does a polite but thorough demolition job:

Cloud simply doesn’t draw, in his arguments, on any of the vast amount of linguistic work on language structure and language change, choosing instead to use analogies with the evolution of species. In his references I counted maybe four pieces that could charitably be called works in linguistics, and these serve to back up passing comment in the book, rather than to provide evidence for a proposal. I’m not just cavilling here because I’m a theoretical linguist. The lack of discussion of language, in a book ostensibly about language, matters. It has an impact on both the novelty and the consistency of the argument.

Much of the book’s discussion of the social shaping of language is old hat. Traditional and modern studies in historical linguistics and sociolinguistics have proposed principles that govern how word meanings change, and these principles explain a huge range of actual facts. […] Just as perplexing, especially since this is the focus of the book, is the absence of discussion of work on word meanings (what linguists call lexical semantics). […] Things are just as bad when we turn to language acquisition. […] On top of this, when Cloud does discuss language, he gets many basics wrong.

My hat is off to the TLS for assigning the review to someone qualified to do the job, and I am allowing myself to hope that their example will be more widely followed.
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General Dankness.

This Quartzy piece by Annaliese Griffin is basically clickbait, but it’s another reminder of how out of touch with the current state of my language I am; apparently the word dank has developed all sorts of trendy uses:

[Marijuana:] Weed is dank’s breakout moment from stolid adjective to countercultural buzzword—and a wholesale flip from an indication of mild unpleasantness to utmost excellence. A dank basement is not a good thing; dank bud is highly desirable. […]

[Beer:] Though Heineken should definitely be described as skunky, no craft beer fan would call Heineken dank. Very hoppy, cloudy IPAs are dank, which seems to be both a reference to their generally high alcohol content and their funky, green resinous flavors. This style has become known as a New England IPA, though it is produced all over the country, and there appears to be a cottage industry in finding ways to incorporate “dank” when naming such a beer. […]

[General dankness:] In certain circles (read: young bros), calling something “dank” is just the newest way to say it’s cool. This is a subtle shift from calling high quality weed dank—you’re not differentiating a good product from a bad here, you’re just saying that something rules. If this doesn’t roll off the tongue naturally, best to just let this one pass you by. In a profile of Jonah Reider “the dorm-room chef” he reportedly texts a buddy to let him know that the bone marrow they had been discussing turned out to be, “so dank.” Enough said?

She winds up with “dank memes,” and I will sign on to her parting remark: “I’m not even going to wade in here because truly, a dank meme is in the eye of the beholder.” Are you familiar with this mot of the moment? (Thanks, Martin!)

Leskov’s Nekuda.

I remember those halcyon days (was it really only a few weeks ago?) when I picked up Leskov’s first novel, Некуда [Nekuda, conventionally translated No Way Out, although the novel itself has never been translated; the Russian word is rather ‘nowhere (to go),’ but you can’t make a good title out of that]. I knew it had been highly controversial when it was published in 1864, and its 700 pages were theoretically somewhat daunting, but I’d liked everything of Leskov’s I’d read, and I was eager to give it a go.

Then I started it, and within a couple of chapters I was bowled over and expecting great things. I had the vague idea it was about radical politics, but Leskov immediately introduces the reader to two young women, Lizaveta (Liza) Bákhareva and Evgenia (Zhenni) Glovátskaya, who have been best friends at boarding school and are now returning to their home town, a provincial city in the Black Earth region, doubtless not all that far from Leskov’s own Oryol Gubernia. Zhenni is a tall, raven-haired beauty of a quiet, peaceable disposition; Liza is shorter and fierier, eager to read, learn, and think for herself. On the way home they stop at the convent where Liza’s aunt is abbess; as Anna Bakhareva she had been a famous beauty who had once danced with Emperor Alexander I, but she had plighted her troth to a young man who was exiled to Siberia (implicitly in connection with the Decembrist revolt) and sent her a note asking her to forget him, upon which she joined the convent and became Mother Agnia. While capable of stern piety and aristocratic hauteur, she is good-hearted and supportive at every turn of Liza’s independence. At night, the girls have a talk with young Sister Feoktista, who tells them how she became a nun: she had made a love match and was happily pregnant when she had a craving for a kind of fish stew and insisted her husband bring her some, whereupon he fell through the ice on the river and drowned, his family (who’d never liked her) threw her out, and she took the veil. When they get to their respective homes, the girls settle into their family lives again, Zhenni easily and Liza unhappily — her family loves her but doesn’t understand her, and her mother uses fainting spells to get her way. Eventually they try to marry her off to an oaf in uniform, whereupon she flees to Zhenni, and after the intervention of Mother Agnia her father agrees to let her be and to order her all the magazines and books she wants.
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Gesar and Fulin.

Victor Mair has a Log post focusing on a trivial example of misspeaking (or misreading) by Xi Jinping, but what interested me was a section on the etymology of the name “Gesar” (quoted from the same Wikipedia article recently mentioned at LH by David Eddyshaw):

It has been proposed on the basis of phonetic similarities that the name Gesar reflects the Roman title Caesar, and that the intermediary for the transmission of this imperial title from Rome to Tibet may have been a Turkic language, since kaiser (emperor) entered Turkish through contact with the Byzantine Empire, where Caesar (Καῖσαρ) was an imperial title. Some think the medium for this transmission may have been via Mongolian Kesar. The Mongols were allied with the Byzantines, whose emperor still used the title. Numismatic evidence and some accounts speak of a Bactrian ruler Phrom-kesar, specifically the Kabul Shahi of Gandhara, which was ruled by a Turkish From Kesar (“Caesar of Rome”), who was father-in-law of the king of the Kingdom of Khotan around the middle of the 8th century CE. In early Bon sources, From Kesar is always a place name, and never refers, as it does later, to a ruler. In some Tibetan versions of the epic, a king named Phrom Ge-sar or Khrom Ge-sar figures as one of the kings of the four directions – the name is attested in the 10th century and this Phrom/Khrom preserves an Iranian form (*frōm-hrōm) for Rūm/Rome. This eastern Iranian word lies behind the Middle Chinese word for (Eastern) Rome (拂菻:Fúlǐn), namely Byzantium (phrōm-from<*phywət-lyəm).

In the comment thread, martin schwartz says (I’ve made minor fixes to spelling and punctuation for readability):

For all it matters, one may be more precise as to “Iranian” Frôm: It starts with West Middle Iranian–Middle Persian and Parthian, where Hrôm represents the Greek (early Byzantine) form for Rome, with the obligatory pre-aspirated initial R- (usually quasi-transcribed as Rh-). Within colloquial Parthian, fr- was frequently pronounced as hr-, e.g. hraman alongside framân ‘command’. By hypercorrection, other Parthian forms in hr- which are not from *fr, such as the hero-namr Hrêdôn, whose Old Iranian antecedent began with theta followed by r, then became fr- (thus Frêdôn, reflected in Classical Persian as Firêdôn). So too Hrôm became Frôm (for both the Eastern and Western Roman Empires), > Sogdian Frôm and eastward.

And Peter Golden adds:

On 拂菻 Fulin (phrōm-from< *phywət-lyəm>), cf. Old Turkic purum (Kül Tegin Inscription East,4, Bilge Qağan Inscription, East, 5) denoting Byzantium/Constantinople and/or Rome. I am sure that others will have more to say on this.

I find all this extremely interesting, and wonder if Hatters have more to say about it.

Why Toty Sa’Med Writes Songs in Kimbundu.

BBC News has a nice piece in which Angolan singer Toty Sa’Med explains why he writes songs in a language he barely knows:

My great-grandmother was the last person I knew personally who spoke only Kimbundu. She died 15 years ago. It’s a local language in Angola, spoken in the area surrounding the capital Luanda. That’s where I was born and brought up but, even so, I can only speak a few words. […]

When I was a teenager my headmaster decided to put Kimbundu in our timetable at school. This was unusual – it wasn’t on the curriculum in Luanda but I went to a private school. As a 13-year-old I didn’t realise that it was important – it was the lesson we used to chat through and disrupt.

I had some prejudices about Kimbundu. We were taught by society that the language wasn’t beautiful or civilised. We dismissed it because we thought it was a language for savages. When the Portuguese colonised Angola, they tried to diminish the value of Kimbundu and other local languages. Suppressing the culture made it easier to colonise us. […]

I decided that I can do my bit to keep the language alive by writing songs in the language. The problem is that I can’t construct a sentence. So I asked my friend to help. I wrote the lyrics in Portuguese and she translated them. […]

The next stage for me is to learn how to construct sentences for myself so I’ve enrolled at Kimbundu school. I’ve already persuaded my girlfriend to go to the classes with me and I want some of my friends to register as well so we can speak the language together. If we start now, maybe 60 years from now we will speak Kimbundu, with a few words of Portuguese, rather than the other way round.

Sure, it may be a quixotic attempt, but it’s a noble one, and I hope he gets others to go along with him. (Thanks, Eric!)

Monument to Cyrillic Alphabet in Antarctica.

J. B. S. Haldane said that “the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose”; further proof, if needed, is provided by Katie Davies at the Calvert Journal:

Bulgarian scientists have erected a new national monument to the Cyrillic alphabet on a remote island in Antarctica.

The joint Bulgarian-Mongolian project on Livingston Island — close to Bulgaria’s Antarctic base — was unveiled to mark Bulgaria’s Independence Day on 3 March.

Standing at 2.5 metres tall, the sculpture comprises four stacked blocks, each side decorated with Cyrillic lettering. Sealed boxes of soil from the Bulgarian cities of Varna, Pliska, Preslav, Veliko Tarnovo, Sofia were also left at the base of the sculpture, which is attached to the ground using two steel bolts.

The monument will stand alongside Antarctica’s first Orthodox church, the St Ivan Rilski chapel, which was erected close to the base in 2001. The outpost also has its own museum of early scientific instruments, and was named an official branch of the National Museum of History in Sofia in October 2012.

More information is available at this Transitions Online post. Thanks, Bathrobe!

Flawed Approximation.

Elisa Wouk Almino describes a fascinating installation:

In 2015, Asuka Goto began translating her father’s novel, Elizabeth, from Japanese to English. Over the course of three years, Goto annotated the book’s 200-plus pages and translated the words by hand. Rather than complete a separate manuscript, she left her rendition alongside her father’s, revealing the thought and labor that goes into a translation. These pages are now spread from floor to ceiling at Tiger Strikes Asteroid in Bushwick, the walls vibrating with so much writing. As a translator myself, I found the project profoundly satisfying and at times anxiety-inducing.

Any translator will likely identify with Goto’s torrent of notes: the repeated question marks next to words; the multiple phrasings to express the same thing (“to reach; to amount to; to befall; to happen to; to extend”); the flying lines across the page. A translator’s annotations are like that of an obsessive, deep reader. That is, after all, what we are doing.

Among literary translators, there are two main camps: those who wish to revise a canonical text and those who want to introduce something entirely new. Goto, however, happens to be the kind of translator I identify with the most: one who translates to gain a deeper understanding of the language spoken at home.

Goto has titled her project lost in translation and calls it a “flawed approximation” of her father’s novel. As we shuttle between the Japanese and English words, connected by asterisks, arrows, and circles, we begin to grasp how bewildered, uncertain, and insecure Goto was while translating. There is this sense she will never be content with her rendition, that there is no exact equivalent to the original Japanese words.

The images are striking, and if I were still in NYC I’d definitely have a look. If you’re in the vicinity, you’ve got a week before it closes. Thanks, Trevor!

(While we’re on the topic of translation, I can’t resist mentioning that Google Translate renders “Почки и сережки дерев” [‘Buds and catkins of trees’] as “Kidneys and earrings of trees.”)


Helen Davidson reports for the Guardian on a new study of Australian languages:

Most Indigenous languages in Australia likely originated from a remote spot in far north Queensland as recently as 4,000 years ago, before slowly spreading across the country, a new study has claimed.

The paper, published in the journal Nature on Tuesday, mapped the origins of the Pama-Nyungan family of languages, which encompasses about 90% of the continent. It traced the dominant family of languages back to an area near an isolated place known today as Burketown.

“All the languages from the Torres Strait to Bunbury, from the Pilbara to the Grampians, are descended from a single ancestor language that spread across the continent to all but the Kimberley and the Top End,” wrote co-author Claire Bowern, professor of linguistics at Yale University. “Where this language came from, how old it is, and how it spread, has been something of a puzzle.” […]

The researchers used an adapted computer model originally designed to map the spread of viruses, and built a family tree of “cognates” – identical or similar words across multiple languages. Pama-Nyungan is one of 28 Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language families. In contrast, Europe had four such families.

The results traced Pama-Nyungan back to a site south of the Gulf of Carpentaria, and indicate it emerged in the mid-Holocene period 4,000 to 6,000 years ago and rapidly replacing the existing languages.

It also aligned with archaeological discoveries in the region, including tool technologies which could explain the expansion across the continent, as could changes in ceremonies or marriage customs, the paper said. […]

“We’ve got a clearer picture now of when and where things started expanding, but there remains this question about exactly what drove it,” co-author Prof Quentin Atkinson of Auckland University’s school of psychology told Guardian Australia.

“What could possibly have happened to allow this group – initially one language – to spread across 90% of Australia and replace everyone else?”

Bowern discusses the study here, with a couple of useful maps; the paper itself, “The origin and expansion of Pama–Nyungan languages across Australia,” by Remco R. Bouckaert, Claire Bowern, and Quentin D. Atkinson, is behind a paywall. Thanks, Trevor!


I haven’t rolled my eyes at the very thought of artificial languages since I had the pleasure of reading Arika Okrent on the topic (see this 2009 LH post), but sometimes they’re just too weird for me, and Babm is such a case. To quote the Wikipedia article:

Babm (pronounced [bɔˈɑːbɔmu]) is an international auxiliary language created by the Japanese philosopher Rikichi [Fuishiki] Okamoto (1885–1963). Okamoto first published the language in his 1962 book, The Simplest Universal Auxiliary Language Babm, but the language has not caught on even within the constructed language community, and does not have any known current speakers.The language uses the Latin script as a syllabary, and possesses no articles or auxiliary verbs. Each letter marks an entire syllable rather than a single phoneme. Babm follows a sound-based rule set, which Okamoto outlines in his book. He states “Nouns are coined from three consonants and one vowel, verbs from one or two vowels between two consonants at the beginning and at the end. Adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, numerals, and propositions have respectively their own peculiar form.”

The language has in common with some 17th-century artificial languages an over-riding concern with taxonomy, and providing a universally consistent set of names for chemicals, etc.; the author’s “scientific” preoccupation is a contrast to the socio-political mandate of Esperanto, although the 1962 book is certainly not lacking in statements about world peace. Okamoto hopes this “simple” language would become universally useful.

The Phonology section tells us that “Every consonant in Babm must be followed by a particular short vowel, with the exception of /k/ which can be followed by any vowel. Vowels that are attached to nouns are short vowels by default, and those not attached to nouns are long, but vowel length can be modified.” The “Consonant Inventory” table shows the inherent vowels: [bo], [co], [de], etc. Oh, and c and k are both /k/, for added fun. I’m sympathetic to the desire to create what one imagines is the ideal language, but I simply can’t grasp the mentality that would think this was a plausible language at all, let alone one that “would become universally useful.”