The Language of Wakanda.

Songdog and I saw Black Panther last night, and it was just as spectacular and well-acted as I expected but considerably more ideologically sophisticated (who expects ideological sophistication from a superhero movie?); as I said to Songdog afterwards, the chief bone of contention between the main antagonists could be seen as an update of the Stalin-Trotsky debate, with Stalin’s “socialism in one country” being substituted by “vibranium in one country.” But that’s not relevant to LH; what is is the NY Times article by John Eligon my brother sent me almost a month ago and I’m finally able to read and post, “Wakanda Is a Fake Country, but the African Language in ‘Black Panther’ Is Real”:

The kingdom’s official language, however, is anything but fantasy. isiXhosa, which you will hear at several points throughout the movie, is a language that more than eight million South Africans — about 15 percent of the population — claim as their mother tongue.

“To have our language incorporated in a story that big would be phenomenal,” said Namhla Mbawuli, a musician and native isiXhosa speaker who lives in Johannesburg. “It reinforces the importance of our culture, accepting our language and having pride in being Xhosa.”

Now, you might ask why is a kingdom shown as being somewhere in east central Africa, somewhere in the Great Lakes region, speaking a language from much farther south, in the Eastern Cape? There’s no in-story answer to that (although of course one could come up with a migration theory if needed), but the article provides the real-world answer:

One of the products of the Eastern Cape was the actor John Kani, who plays T’Chaka, the father of T’Challa, in “Black Panther.” Mr. Kani’s character made brief appearances in the 2016 movie “Captain America: Civil War,” and when he was on set for that film, he suggested to the directors that they incorporate some isiXhosa into the dialogue. He spoke a little bit of it, and they were sold, said Nate Moore, an executive producer of “Black Panther.”

So Mr. Kani taught some lines to Chadwick Boseman, who plays T’Challa, and they had a brief, intimate interaction speaking isiXhosa in “Civil War.” […]

When they got to work on “Black Panther,” Mr. Moore said, the director, Ryan Coogler, “wanted to make it a priority to use Xhosa as much as possible.”

That was not always easy: It is one of the more difficult South African languages to master. So the crew tried to make sure the cast members had their lines as early as possible to practice. Dialect coaches were provided, including Mr. Kani and his son, Atandwa, who plays a young T’Chaka in the film. Mr. Boseman had another dialect coach, whom he talked to via Skype.

Of course, as Eligon writes, “the success of the use of isiXhosa in the film will best be judged by native speakers”; Mbawuli said “not bad, but could be better.” At any rate, it certainly sounds impressive!

Baffling Language.

I’ve just started Jeffrey Brooks’ Thank You, Comrade Stalin!: Soviet Public Culture from Revolution to Cold War, and I thought this passage (about the press in the first decade or so of the Soviet Union) was of LH interest:

Ordinary readers, however, often found the language and concepts of even mass newspapers baffling. […] Literate peasants found much of what was published for them in the 1920s “not for us,” as one reader put it, and written “not in Russian but in political language.” The misunderstandings could be surprising. Grigorii Zinoviev. the Leningrad Party leader who had initially joined Stalin against Trotsky, confused peasant readers with his pamphlet Lenin: Genius, Teacher, Leader, and Man by juxtaposing the names Lenin and Ilich, according to one local observer. “The peasants do not understand this, and if they understood, they think it funny,” he explained. “‘The funeral of Lenin and the Legacy of Ilich.’ How can we understand that? Does it mean that Lenin and Ilich are two different people?” A thirty-five-year-old rural Communist explained to an investigator early in the NEP that among the words in the newspaper he did not know were “element” (used in such phrases as reactionary element) and the abbreviation for the Ukrainian Republic.

Propagandists compiled lists of words that were unfamiliar to common readers at trial readings, often in Moscow, or from letters to the press. The lists hardly overlap, suggesting that the words belong to a larger pool of equally unintelligible expressions and usages. Readers did not understand terms central to the Bolsheviks’ message, such as democracy, imperialism, dialectic, class enemy, and socialism. Listeners were baffled by syndicate, blockade, USSR, budget, deficit, and balance. They were puzzled by scientific words such as nitrogen and microbe and abbreviations for even familiar organizations such as Komsomol and KSM (for Komunisticheskii soiuz molodezhi). The journalists’ determination to use difficult words and constructions despite the havoc this caused seems inexplicable except as an unconscious desire to create an insiders’ language. In this way, Bolsheviks perhaps unwittingly raised the price of entry into the body politic and made a certain level of understanding and accommodation to a new language a condition of membership.

Of course, as the decades rolled on most of those terms became familiar to the point of cliché; whether the average reader could define them, however, is a different matter. (The Russian word for ‘nitrogen,’ azot, is hard for me to remember, because it’s so different from the English; of course, it’s straight from French azote, but that’s hard for me to remember too — I guess I didn’t have many dealings with the table of elements when studying French. And German Stickstoff just sounds silly.)

You’re Ironing My Head!

Jennifer Manoukian’s “You’re Ironing My Head: Shared Western Armenian and Turkish Idioms” discusses a phenomenon that once you learn about it is an obvious result of shared history, but that you don’t hear about for reasons she explains:

While Armenian and Turkish belong to distinct language families, their similarities today should come as no surprise. Western Armenian—the language spoken by Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and their descendants around the world—rubbed shoulders with Turkish for more than four centuries. This enduring contact had varying effects on Armenians in the empire. Some shifted fully to Turkish, speaking it as their mother tongue; others adopted diglossic bilingualism, using Turkish in certain realms of life and Armenian in others; and others still spoke a variety of Western Armenian that was peppered with Turkish loan words and calques (i.e., literal translations). It is this third outcome that survived the fall of the Ottoman Empire and persists—often unbeknownst to Armenians themselves—in Western Armenian today.

As other examples of language contact show, language change within imperial contexts is often largely unidirectional with the language of the conquered changing more radically than the language of the conqueror. This pattern also holds for Turkish and Western Armenian. Beyond words that hint at shared origins (e.g., թոռ [tor] & torun; էշ [esh] & eşek) and the great many direct borrowings from Turkish (e.g., արապա [araba] & araba; պօշ [bosh] & boş; իշտէ [ishdé] & işte), calques—or literal translations—from Turkish abound in both colloquial and standard Western Armenian. At times these instances are obvious to the naked eye (e.g., վազ անցնիլ [vaz antsnil] & vaz geçmek; թաք թուք [tak touk] & tek tük), while others can only be detected by those with a knowledge of the structure of both languages (e.g. նորէն [noren] & yeniden; մնաք բարով [mnak parov] & hoşçakalın; ողջ ըլլաս [voghch ëllas] & sağ ol).

Forms of reduplication can also be seen in the colloquial forms of both languages: echo reduplication (e.g. գիրք միրք [kirk mirk] & kitap mitap), emphatic reduplication (e.g. կաս կարմիր [gas garmir] & kıpkırmızı) and doubling (կամաց-կամաց [gamats-gamats] & yavaş yavaş) all bring smiles to the faces of Armenian students of Turkish and Turkish students of Armenian.

Despite the near inevitability of language change in a case of such long-term contact, the imprint of Turkish on Western Armenian is rarely discussed in Armenian circles and is essentially unknown to Turkish speakers. This reticence on the part of Armenians to acknowledge the lingering traces of their Ottoman past are tied, I have argued elsewhere, to the politics of Armenian Genocide recognition and the comfort many Armenians still take in nurturing prejudice against a people they are set on branding enemies to the exclusion of all else.

She exemplifies the phenomenon with reproductions from a 1962 book by “the celebrated Egyptian Armenian cartoonist Alexander Saroukhan (1898-1977) […] a collection of sketches entitled Տե՛ս խօսքերդ (Look at What You’re Saying!). […] What Saroukhan does not mention is that many of his idioms also exist—often word-for-word—in Turkish.” The examples are convincing and enjoyable. Thanks, Trevor!

The Poltroon Husband.

The fiction in last week’s New Yorker is “The Poltroon Husband,” by Joseph O’Neill. I wasn’t crazy about the story — the narrative voice is annoying (deliberately so, of course, but still annoying) — but I was delighted with the following bits:

I looked up “abode.” It refers to a habitual residence, of course, but it derives from an Old English verb meaning “to wait.” The expression “abide with me” can be traced back to the same source.
A “poltroon,” I read, is an “utter coward,” which I knew; I didn’t know that the word probably descends from the Old Italian poltrire, to laze around in bed, from poltro, bed. Interesting, I guess.

Not only is all that information absolutely correct, but the “probably” warmed the cockles of my heart. Etymology is a specialty, and you can look up the results as decided by specialists rather than guessing or picking up some glittering falsehood on the internet, and not all the results are certain! Joseph O’Neill gets the LH Good Linguistics in Fiction Award for the week (and probably, given the level of competition, for the year).

Vygotsky, Mandelstam, and tainopis.

Mark Willis of Blind Flaneur has an essay called A Word is the Search for It: Vygotsky, Mandelstam, and the Renewal of Motive which sucked me in with its focus on Mandelstam and intrigued me by combining him with the psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who I’ve never read (though I have one of his books) but who’s always sounded interesting. The essay begins with the fatal “Stalin Epigram” (see this LH post) and moves on to Vygotsky’s daring use of an epigram from a Mandelstam poem:

The lines come from “The Swallow,” a poem composed in 1920. In it Mandelstam evoked the fluttering of a blind swallow with amputated wings to suggest the restless movement of thoughts that do not become fully realized in words. In Thought and Language Vygotsky tried to elucidate the same process in psychological terms.

Mandelstam turned to the swallow several times in his poems. It represented more than an image of fitful, darting motion. As swallows appeared with the spring in northern Russia, their image in Mandelstam’s poetry also signaled regeneration and return to life. The swallow is a haunting metaphor, too, for the life of the mind shared by poet and psychologist in the shadow of Stalin’s Terror. That life of the mind continues to resonate back and forth in the writing of Osip Mandelstam and Lev Vygotsky. This essay is a search to recover something of that life, to understand how it remains both elusive and resilient.

There’s all sorts of interesting stuff about “inner speech” and other aspects of language development, but let me get to a section on what he calls tainopis (таинопись, defined by the Oxford dictionary as “cryptographic writing”):

By including the words of proscribed writers in his text, Vygotsky employed a literary device known in Russian as tainopis or “secret writing.” More than an allusion, tainopis is an oblique but conscious citation of a writer who cannot be named directly for political reasons. Akhmatova biographer Roberta Reeder described the device as “enforced subtlety” (158). Mandelstam signaled its necessity in The Noise of Time when he hinted at an “interlinear translation” of the 1905 revolution (103). Akhmatova used tainopis extensively in poems written after 1925, including her epic “Poem without a Hero.” In a critical essay written in the 1930s, itself a kind of secret writing, Akhmatova described how Pushkin used tainopis in the nineteenth century (Reeder 226). The long tradition of speaking obliquely about injustice and oppression may be as old as the Russian language itself.

I’ll ask my Russian readers: is this an accurate description of how the word is used in Russian? Then there’s a discussion of one of my favorite Mandelstam essays, “On the Nature of the Word”:

At the heart of Mandelstam’s essay is an expression of Russian nominalism, a belief in the reality of the living word. Gumilev’s poem traces this nominalism to the Bible, but its origin should be understood more accurately as the Greek language into which the Bible was translated. Mandelstam considered Russian to be a Hellenic language in its sense of the word incarnate as flesh and action. The language’s boundless, primal energy could not be proscribed by the state’s or the church’s linguistic forms. “The life of the Russian language in Russian historical reality outweighs all other facts in the abundance of its properties, in the abundance of its being,” Mandelstam wrote. “Such abundance appears to all the other phenomena of Russian life as but an inaccessible outer limit” (75). Throughout the final chapter of Thought and Language, Vygotsky emphasizes the same living, active nature of the word. “It is not merely the content of a word that changes, but the way in which reality is generalized and reflected in a word” (213). “Thought is not merely expressed in words; it comes into existence through them” (218). By quoting Gumilev and Mandelstam, Vygotsky invoked a similar Russian nominalism, although he framed it in psychological rather than Christian or Hellenic terms. “The relation between thought and word is a living process; thought is born through words. A word devoid of thought is a dead thing” (255).

Mandelstam believed that the Russian language “is not merely a door into history, but is history itself” (76). The language preserved a continuity stretching from the oldest Russian folk epics to the Futurist experiments (left) of Velemir Khlebnikov. For Mandelstam, Khlebnikov’s burrowing into the soil of Russian word roots, “into an etymological night,” renewed the life of word and language (75).

I’ve just scratched the surface, so if this sounds intriguing to anyone, I recommend the entire essay. Thanks, Trevor!


Mark Liberman at the Log reports on a phenomenon of spoken French I hadn’t been aware of, the addition of a final nasal syllable to words that end in a consonant — hence “bonjourin” for bonjour. I was, of course, well aware of the addition of an added [ə] (“bonjour-euh”), which was omnipresent when I was in Paris in the ’80s, but I don’t remember noticing the nasal variant. Mark links to a delightful video in which David Castello-Lopes (auteur of the “Depuis Quand” program) gives examples and interviews Anita Berit Hansen, a linguist who has studied the phenomenon (Mark links to several papers by her, e.g., “The Covariation of [ə] with Style in Parisian French: An Empirical Study of ‘E Caduc’ and Pre-Pausal [ə]“). The executive summary is that it’s first attested in 1972 (and presumably existed for some unknown prior period) and nobody knows why it arose or spread (except that presumably it sounded “cool” to a lot of people), but the video’s fun and short enough (three minutes) it might be worth watching even if you don’t know French.

Dr. Seuss In Hebrew.

Translation of children’s books is a subset of translation that has its own demands; Lior Zaltzman discusses a particularly interesting example for Kveller:

How do you translate Green Eggs and Ham into Hebrew? It’s an extremely difficult feat. Dr. Seuss’s wonderful, rhyming children’s books are, in every possible way, an ode to the English language.

Green Eggs and Ham, for example, is the perfect book for beginning language learners. It contains a mere 50 different word — 49 of which have only one or two consonants (i.e., Sam, Am; Box, Fox). It’s the pithiness of language, along with its consistent tone of playful joy, that have made it one of the top-selling English-language children’s books of all time.

Translating that rhyming exuberance into any language other than English is a tough job. But it’s especially challenging for someone who wants to publish the book in Hebrew, for the only Jewish nation in the world. After all, in a country where pork products aren’t readily available, what’s the kosher version of Green Eggs and Ham?

That’s where the incredible Leah Naor comes in. The 83-year-old playwright, songwriter, author, translator, and mom of three is the talent who has translated Seuss’ children’s books to Hebrew. (Her latest translation, of The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories, came out in 2012.)

When the Hebrew version of Green Eggs and Ham was published in 1982, she changed the title to Lo Raev, Lo Ohev — which means, roughly, “Not Hungry, Don’t Love It.” Throughout the entire story, the name of the disliked dish is never mentioned. The book is so fun, and so fantastical, no kid ever stops to wonder, “Wait, what is that meat?” Really, it’s brilliant!

The piece ends with a recording of the Hebrew version being read which is worth the price of admission all by itself. Thanks, Trevor!

Two French Words.

1) These images of a snowy owl caught by a Montreal traffic camera have been making the rounds, and they’re spectacular, but what struck me in my Hattic capacity was the quote from the Quebec Transport Minister, Robert Poetin: “Magnifique harfang des neiges capté par les caméras de surveillance du réseau routier sur l’A-40 dans l’ouest de MTL.” I looked up the word harfang, which was unfamiliar to me, and it was defined in my trusty Collins dictionary as “snowy owl.” Then I decided to check my huge Larousse French-English English-French Dictionary: Unabridged Edition (over a thousant pages, weighs over seven pounds), and it wasn’t there! Oddly, if you look up “snowy owl” in the English-French section, it says “chouette blanche, harfang,” so its omission in the other half must be an error. Anyway, the Trésor de la langue française informatisé has it (“ORNITH. Grande chouette blanche des régions septentrionales, scientifiquement appelée nyctea“) and says it’s borrowed from Swedish harfång ; anybody know the etymology of that?

2) Thomas Meaney’s TLS review of Vanessa Ogle’s The Global Transformation of Time: 1870-1950 begins:

In the early 1960s, E. P. Thompson started scouring anthropological reports and ­journals for examples of peoples around the world with a less calculating sense of the passage of time. He was looking for temporal measures that were still deeply embedded in human action. In Madagascar, there was a word that designated “the time it takes to cook rice” and another for the moment it took to “roast a locust”. In Burma, there were monks who started the day “when there is light enough to see the veins in the hand”. In the English language, Thompson found linguistic markers closer to home: there were once such things as a “a pater noster wyle”, “a misère whyle”, and there had survived a rarefied measurement known as “a pissing while”.

Interesting stuff, but “a misère whyle” caught my eye: what could it possibly mean, and why would Early Modern Englishmen who wrote “whyle” have been putting an accent grave on “misère”? Then a horrid thought struck me: surely the companion phrase to “a pater noster wyle” should be “a miserere whyle” — the time it takes to say a Miserere. And sure enough, googling “miserere whyle” got me examples like “al the bellys schal be ronge ii peles be first iiii 2 miserere while be secounde on miserere whyle” and ” And after the space a3ene of another miserere whyle” (as well as a bunch of modern books repeating the same set of examples: “here are examples in old English usage: ‘pater noster whyle’ and ‘miserere whyle’ […] and ‘pissing whyle … a somewhat arbitrary measurement”). So somebody, via haplogy, left out one “re” to produce “misere,” and somebody else, with just enough learning to be dangerous, said “Aha, that French word is missing its accent!” and behold, “a misère whyle” was born.

The Psychological Toll of Etymological Research.

Christopher Culver had a recent post that intrigued me enough to share it here; there may not be many actual etymologists in the crowd who can actually answer his question, but the odds are certainly better than at most sites, and in any event his thoughts will probably be of interest to others. He says:

I’m not sure that etymological work is an entirely healthy field to be involved in psychologically. I have repeatedly found myself experiencing the following:

• I will wake up in the morning having dreamed that I solved some puzzle or another, but alas! it fades from memory too quickly for me to grasp exactly, making for a dour start to the day.
• Inversely, I find myself unable to fall asleep at night as my brain works obsessively on some word. After having lost track of certain insights because I fell asleep and then had forgotten them when I woke up, now I either keep a notepad besides the bed or even jump up and run to the computer at some unreasonable hour. (This is also hard on a spouse.)
• When I am searching for cognates of a given Mari item across other languages, and I open a dictionary of some language to search for an expected word form, there is a big risk that I am distracted by some other word on that dictionary page that might relate to another Mari item I am investigating. Ultimately I end up going on tangent after tangent, and I lose sight of whatever word I was originally working on. This might be blamed on the common inability to focus in our modern internet era, but I’m sure I would have suffered the same thing back in the era of when etymologists just kept everything on note cards.

I would be curious to know how many other linguists experience these same frustrations.

The New Language of Mathematics.

As a quondam math major (though quondam was a long damn time ago), I can’t help but take an interest in Daniel S. Silver’s American Scientist account of what’s going on, linguistically, in that field. It starts by discussing a quote from Josiah Willard Gibbs, a 19th-century professor of mathematical physics at Yale: during a meeting about replacing mathematics requirements for a degree with foreign language courses, Gibbs declared: “Gentlemen, mathematics is a language”:

If mathematics is a language, then just as any ordinary language, such as French or Russian, does not rely on another one to be understood, so mathematics should be independent of ordinary languages. The idea does not seem so far-fetched when we consider musical notation, which is readable by trained musicians everywhere. If mathematics is a language, then we should be able to understand its ideas without the use of words.

He turns to Claude Shannon’s choice (prompted by John von Neumann) of the word entropy to describe his 1948 “beautiful and useful algebraic expression for a measure of average uncertainty in an information source”:
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