Node Test.

LinguisticsNetwork is “an interactive online resource for linguistics and language-related studies”; it’s a for-profit thing, and I’m not pushing it here, but Bathrobe sent me an e-mail saying:

They have a number of free exercises where you can test your knowledge of linguistics. It starts with this real beauty about nodes. Having done the exercise, I now know that I know NOTHING about linguistics. Perhaps the readership of LH might find the same (although I’m willing to swallow my pride and admit that I’m wrong).

I can reassure him that plenty of linguists don’t bother with the details of this particular theoretical approach, but it’s always fun to take tests; they’ve got them for phonology and phonemic symbols as well. Enjoy!


A couple of comments in this thread have drawn my attention to two of the most magnificent star names ever created, Zubeneschamali and Zubenelgenubi. The former, the brightest star in the constellation Libra, is nonetheless called beta (β) Librae; its name is from Arabic الزُّبَانَى الشَّمَالِيّ‎ (az-zubānā š-šamāliyy), ‘the Northern Claw.’ The latter, symmetrically enough, is الزُّبَانَى الْجَنُوبِيّ‎ (az-zubānā l-janūbiyy), ‘the Southern Claw,’ and despite being called α Librae is the second-brightest star in the constellation. As to why a scale has claws, you can get the backstory in this Star Gazers video (if you’re in a rush [spoiler!]: they used to be part of Scorpius, the scorpion).

Ladino in Sarajevo.

Susanna Zaraysky writes for BBC Travel (which tends to do a surprisingly good job with language stories) about the traditional language of Bosnian Jews (and, of course, many others):

When the Jews left Spain, they took their language with them. Over the last 500 years, the language has maintained the structure of medieval Spanish and sounds more similar to some forms of Latin American Spanish than European Spanish. “We could not have contact with Spain and the Spanish language, and therefore we have a special language that we speak,” Kamhi said.

Today, the language is known by a number of different names: Ladino, Judeo-Spanish, Judezmo, Spanyolit, Djidió (in Bosnia and Herzegovina) and Haketia (in North Africa). And, according to Unesco, it is one of the world’s 6,000 languages that are at risk of extinction.

Before World War Two, Sarajevo’s Jewish population numbered around 12,000, and the people even printed their own newspaper in Ladino. After the Holocaust, only about 2,500 Jews returned to Sarajevo, with many of them restricting their use of Ladino to the home so as not to stand out. Since the post-World War Two Jewish community in Sarajevo was so small, the Sephardic Jews had to share a synagogue – the one where Kamhi led services until 2017 – with the Ashkenazi Jewish community, whose ancestors had relocated to Slavic countries from Germany and France following the Crusades. Because the Ashkenazi Jews primarily spoke Yiddish, the blended community relied on the Serbo-Croatian language to communicate, limiting the use of Ladino even further.

There are some excellent stories (“‘Ladino saved my life in World War Two,’ Albahari, a Bosnian Holocaust survivor, told us as we sat together in the Sarajevo Synagogue”) and an inevitably depressing conclusion (“‘The new generation doesn’t speak Ladino, they speak modern Spanish,’ Albahari said”); read the whole thing. Thanks, Trevor, and get well soon!


John Schwartz reports for the NY Times on an interesting bit of linguistic trivia concerning the history of space exploration:

So which is it? How do you pronounce Gemini? In “First Man,” the new film about the Neil Armstrong and the moon landing, astronauts and NASA officials say “GEM-uh-knee.” But the first pronunciation in the Webster’s New World College Dictionary Fifth Edition, the standard work used by The New York Times to settle such matters, the first pronunciation is GEM-uh-neye,” which is the way many of us say it. Or, to use the precise dictionary typography, jem′ə nī΄ versus jem′ənē΄. […]

On Tuesday, Bob Jacobs, a spokesman for NASA, said that the “knee” pronunciation is part of the agency’s culture, and serves almost as an insider’s shibboleth — a word whose proper delivery identifies you as someone in the know. “If you get it right,” he said, “you’re part of the space club.” He likened it to the Nashville street Demonbreun, which is pronounced Da-MUN-bree-un, and not like what some have characterized as “demon pickle juice.” Mr. Jacobs also suggested that the pronunciation could have to do with the early space program’s Southernness, in the way that “every pilot speaks like Chuck Yeager.”

And yet it wasn’t always so clear, said Bill Barry, the space agency’s chief historian. Back in the time of the Gemini program, “it kind of depended who you were talking to, and what day of the week it was,” and even varied from NASA locations, he said. […]

As for the filmmakers, Dr. Barry said that he suggested to them that for the sake of clarity, they pick one pronunciation and stick with it. “From my perspective, from 50 years later, whichever you want to use is fine.”

Yes! They’re both fine! Use whichever you prefer! I’m glad this invaluable message — applicable in many other contexts — is being spread. (For what it’s worth, I use the neye version.)

On Partially Read Books.

Kevin Mims begins a NY Times Book Review essay by citing Jessica Stillman (a personal library too big to get through in a lifetime “isn’t a sign of failure or ignorance,” but rather “a badge of honor”) and Nassim Nicholas Taleb (it is the things we don’t know, and therefore can’t see coming, that tend to shape our world most dramatically), then continues:

Taleb argues that a personal library “should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates and the currently tight real-estate market allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.”

I don’t really like Taleb’s term “antilibrary.” A library is a collection of books, many of which remain unread for long periods of time. I don’t see how that differs from an antilibrary. A better term for what he’s talking about might be tsundoku, a Japanese word for a stack of books that you have purchased but not yet read. My personal library is about one-tenth books I have read and nine-tenths tsundoku. […]

In truth, however, the tsundoku fails to describe much of my library. I own a lot of story collections, poetry anthologies and books of essays, which I bought knowing I would probably not read every entry. People like Taleb, Stillman and whoever coined the word tsundoku seem to recognize only two categories of book: the read and the unread. But every book lover knows there is a third category that falls somewhere between the other two: the partially read book. Just about every title on a book lover’s reference shelves, for instance, falls into this category. No one reads the American Heritage Dictionary or Roget’s Thesaurus from cover to cover. One of my favorite books is John Sutherland’s “The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction.” It’s a fascinating, witty and very opinionated survey of Victorian England’s novels and novelists, from the famous (Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray) to the justifiably forgotten (Sutherland describes the novels of Tom Gallon as “sub-Dickensian fiction of sentiment and lowlife in London, typically written in an elliptical, rather graceless style”). I’ve owned the book for 20 years and derived great enjoyment from it, but I doubt I’ll ever manage to read every word of it or of dozens of other reference books on my shelves.

He has more to say about “the twilight zone of the partially read”; I find it odd that his primary association is with reference works rather than books you simply stop in the middle of, but his point is certainly valid. (I leave it to my Japanese-speaking readers to say whether tsundoku is a real word and means what it’s alleged to mean.) And the mention of dictionaries prompts me to link to this essay by Michael Adams about their history and uses; here’s a sample paragraph:

After World War II, colleges and universities nationwide required that new students buy the American College Dictionary or the Merriam-Webster Collegiate. Like grammar handbooks, dictionaries supported learning in introductory writing courses, and, for consistency, students and faculty, it was thought, should all refer to the same one. Dictionaries became an icon of the college experience, certified the intellectual status of their owners, and marked the rising social tide of higher education. When you walked into a room and saw a dictionary, you saw it as proof that the owner belonged to your tribe, though, to be sure, you also had to find certain novels, poems, or political manifestos on shelves nearby.

There’s lots of information there, as well as some great illustrations.

Obscenity and the Genetic Code.

I’ve been reading the introduction (freely available as a downloadable sample at the Amazon link) to Taboo Pushkin, edited by Alyssa Dinega Gillespie, which looks like an interesting book (“in our collection the heroic, mythic Pushkin is replaced by a multifaceted, ambiguous Pushkin”); it’s full of hilarious and/or depressing stories about attempts to deify Pushkin (in totally opposite ways in Soviet Russia and today’s, where he is presented as a firm upholder of autocracy and the Orthodox Church) and proscribe anything that causes problems for the deification. The most memorable of these pious interventions is by the Pushkinist Valentin Nepomnyashchii, who as a young scholar in the ’60s bravely stood up for persecuted dissidents and was expelled from the Party, but who now propagandizes for the official line. In a criticism of those who try to call attention to the great poet’s regrettable lapses into obscenity (like his youthful Тень Баркова [The Shade of Barkov], to this day not included in complete scholarly editions), he makes the following remarkable statement:

Geneticists have directly stated that a once-tabooed lexicon [when released from taboo] destroys the foundations of the human, his genetic code.

(He goes on to say that the American cartoon version of Winnie the Pooh is a cultural “catastrophe.”) The intersection of science and literature!

Addendum. This seems like an appropriate place to insert an entry I recently found in Dahl:

ПОМАТЕРНОМУ и поматерну ругаться, сквернословить, матюгать, поносить похабно. Брань эта свойственна высокому, акающему, южному и западному наречию, а в низком окающем, северном и восточном она встречается реже, а местами ее там и нет вовсе.

To swear pomáternomu and pomáternu [means] to use foul language, to curse, to revile obscenely. This type of swearing is characteristic of high [?], southern, and western dialects and those that pronounce unstressed o as /a/; in low [?], northern, eastern dialects and those that pronounce unstressed o as /o/ it is found more rarely, and in places it doesn’t exist at all.

In the first place, what is this high/low business? And in the second place, is this geographical distribution of obscenity completely loony, or might it have had a basis in fact?


Balashon (Hebrew Language Detective) is back to postingheydad! — and provides an interesting, though to me unconvincing, etymology for skeleton, quoting Klein’s entry for the Hebrew word sheled שלד ‘skeleton’:

Syriac שלדא (=skeleton), from Akkadian shalamtu (properly meaning ‘the whole’ corpse), from shalamu (=to be complete), which is related to Hebrew שלם (=was complete). Greek skeleton (=skeleton) is a Syriac loan word. The explanation of Greek skeleton as used elliptically for skeleton soma (=dried up body) as if skeleton were the neutral verbal adjective of skellein (=to dry up) is folk etymology.

Now, this sounds like complete balderdash to me, but I thought I’d toss it out there and see if anyone thinks it’s plausible. The entry ends: “I’m still occupied with the projects I’ve been working on, but I’m going to try to put up smaller posts like this one (which require less research). I hope you still find them interesting!” I for one certainly do!

Ten Words.

Bathrobe sent me 10 Rare But Useful Words Everyone Should Know with the comment “This is really frothy but I love the words!” It is, but I love them too, so enjoy. The first two:

UHTCEARE: This highly useful word means ‘lying awake before dawn worrying’. It appears in the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Wife’s Lament’, and has recently become more widely known thanks to Mark Forsyth, who includes it in his book The Horologicon.

QUAKE-BUTTOCK: This is another term for a coward, and appears in the plays of seventeenth-century playwrights Beaumont and Fletcher. We reckon it should be revived.

Excellent stuff!

The History of Uranus Jokes.

Forgive me; this is a low, vulgar post, but in me, as in most of us, there is an inner twelve-year-old who will not be entirely suppressed, and he enjoys Albert Stern’s A Deep Dive Into Uranus Jokes so much he has to share it. The first line will suggest the style: “Uranus, it has been pointed out, has long been the butt of jokes.” Now that you have been warned, here are some excerpts:

My own introduction to Uranus jokes must have come close to half a century ago, and certainly the playground comedian who related the jape was working solidly within a received older tradition. But how old might that tradition be?

Certainly, no planet Uranus joke can predate March 13, 1781, as that was when astronomer Sir William Herschel first discovered the celestial body from the garden of his house in Bath, England. Okay then, you say — the tradition started March 14, 1781. But the story of the planet’s nomenclature is more involved, as Herschel didn’t just peer through his telescope and say “I can see Uranus.” The astronomer’s name for the object he discovered (and at first misidentified as a comet) was Georgium Sidus, after King George III. According to Mark Littmann in his 2004 tome Planets Beyond: Discovering the Outer Solar System, that appellation proved “instantly unpopular” wherever the monarch did not reign. German astronomer Johann Elert Bode, one of the first observers to properly identify the body as the seventh planet from the sun, named it Uranus after the father of Saturn and grandfather of Jupiter in ancient Roman cosmology. However, writes Littmann, “The new planet remained officially ‘The Georgian’ in Britain until after the discovery of Neptune and through the 1847 publication of the Nautical Almanac for 1851.” […]

I was set on the circuitous path to the first Uranus joke by sheer chance, via a history book for general readers titled 100 Diagrams That Changed the World. In it, author Scott Christianson identifies the first print appearance of an emoticon […] Emoticons first appeared in an American satirical magazine called Puck on March 30, 1881.

What do emoticons have to do with anything? Because Stern, in idly perusing the page of Puck reproduced by Christianson, discovered the first known Uranus joke on the same page! I leave you to learn the details, and be exposed to many Uranus-related turns of phrase, at the link. (A tip o’ the Languagehat hat to DyRE’s MetaFilter post, My what will be at right angles?)

The Midnight Court.

Ciarán Lenoach, an editor with Nuacht RTÉ who has a PhD in sociolinguistics, writes for RTÉ about a wonderful discovery; there are so many interesting features to the story that all I can do is quote a few bits and send you to the full article for the rest:

A version of the wildly licentious 18th century comic poem Cúirt an Mheán Oíche (The Midnight Court) adapted to a dialect of Irish no longer spoken has been discovered in a manuscript by a linguist in Dublin. The manuscript is held in the Royal Irish Academy Library, but up until now there was no record of it containing a version of The Midnight Court in the Connacht Irish of Roscommon rather than the Munster Irish of Clare poet Brian Merriman’s original. Clare Irish survived longer than Roscommon Irish, but both are now extinct.

The Roscommon Irish version of the poem was discovered by dialectologist and sociolinguist Prof Brian Ó Curnáin of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. It was written by scribe Éamann Ó hOrchaidh (anglicised as Hore or Hoare) and is being made available to the public for the first time here.

The Midnight Court by Brian Merriman is the greatest comic dramatic poem of the Irish literary canon. The poem is just over 1,000 lines long and was composed by Merriman in his native Clare Irish around the year 1780. […] The Roscommon version, written in 1817, is unique because it is the only known Connacht version of the Midnight Court. All other extant versions from the late 18th century and early 19th century are in Munster Irish, reflecting Merriman’s original idiom. Furthermore, Ó hOrchaidh’s manuscript is one of the last in the Connacht tradition written down in Irish script and spelling. […] Connacht Irish is in general linguistically quite conservative. It does not share in many of the provincial innovations of Munster or Ulster and it has relatively few independent innovations of its own.

Prof Ó Curnáin says that Merriman’s spellings deviate deliberately from the normal use of the time and are in many cases more dialectal and modern than the Irish spelling we use today. “Merriman provides a very clear indication of how to pronounce Clare Irish through his amazing four rhyming words per line. This provides us with the metrically assured pronunciations of over 4,000 words in Merriman’s own mixture of Clare vernacular and poetic register. In other words, we can tell how Merriman intended practically every syllable to be pronounced.”

Visit the link for examples of dialect words, video clips, photos, and a description of what sounds like a thoroughly delightful piece of ribaldry. Many thanks to faithful correspondent (and fine poet) Trevor Joyce for yet another great link!