Uwe Bläsing, the Scholar.

Stefan Georg’s “Uwe Bläsing, the Scholar” (Iran and the Caucasus 19 [2015] 3-7) describes a remarkable man; the first paragraph nearly made me run around the house cackling with joy:

Uwe Bläsing’s scholarly work can easily be described as spanning more academic fields than most of us are following as regular readers, let alone are able to contribute to. First of all, he is, of course, an Altaicist, in the best (and true) sense of this word ― a scholar who is perfectly at home in all three traditional branches of this grouping, Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic (and, which does not go without saying these days, a scholar who actually learned the profession from scratch). Being a true Altaicist, he has always been and continues to be doing, what Altaicists actually should be doing ― reading original texts, from all geographical corners of the vast territory occupied by these languages, and from all periods of their written attestation. Turning the pages of dictionaries alone, and basing far-reaching hypotheses on the possible pre-historic connections of these languages on lengthy lists of (cognate or simply similar looking) words, is something he would certainly refer to as putting the horse be-fore the cart. After all, he knows too well, how much work remains to be done in this field, before the comparative study of Altaic (be it a language family or not) may be regarded as a mature field. This does, of course, not mean that Uwe Bläsing is not interested in questions of (Lautgesetz-based) comparative linguistics ― he most positively is, but he certainly prefers the, often tedious, work on the intricate semantic history of words, including loan-words, the investigation of which not only fosters a better understanding of the history of the languages they are parts of, but also, what is (much) more, of the cultures these languages have been shaping (and were shaped by) throughout the history of their usage by real human beings.

Not only is that my ideal of what linguistic scholarship should be like, it’s delightfully written, and continues so: “And, of course, he is a Tungusologist as well, as if he could not be (whose favourite language from this realm is, if I may reveal this here, Nanai)!” Oh, all right, just one more paragraph:

Does it have to be mentioned that he is a true polyglot (the original meaning of the word linguist)? You bet he is: he reads all languages, which might be remotely relevant for his work (including Georgian, Armenian, Arabic, Persian, Kurdish, all Turkic languages, and so on and on), and speaks some of them; he is also admired for his beautiful command of spoken Turkish (which is also one of his publishing languages), and, of course, he is thoroughly on top of all the older written languages he needs to consult in the search for the answers to his etymological questions ― as a reader of texts, not only, as so many of us, as a user of dictionaries (and, as he would say on more than one occasion: if you don’t read texts in a language, you know nothing about it).

And one more parenthetical obiter dictum: “(there is no reason, why any wall, in any lived-in room, which is not absolutely needed for something else [say, a door], should not be covered with books from floor to ceiling, at least two rows deep ― I have no doubts that Uwe would be more than willing to subscribe to this statement).” Has he seen my office, I wonder?

And for those of you who were interested in this recent LH post, here‘s an ugly-ass (but readable) copy of Georg’s “Japanese, the Altaic Theory, and the Limits of Language Classification,” which John Cowan, in sending both links to me, called “a delightful paper on the history of the Altaic theory.” Thanks, JC!

Losing Patuá.

Matthew Keegan writes for the Guardian about a language used in Macau, and its dwindling number of speakers:

‘Nowadays, nobody speaks much Patuá. Only the old people speak Patuá,” declares 102-year-old Aida de Jesus as she sits across the table from her daughter inside Riquexo, the small Macanese restaurant that remarkably, despite her grand age, she runs to this day.

Patuá is the name of De Jesus’ mother tongue, and she is one of its last surviving custodians. Known to those who speak it as “Maquista”, Patuá is a creole language that developed in Malacca, Portugal’s main base in south-east Asia, during the first half of the 16th century, and made its way to Macau when the Portuguese settled there. It blends Portuguese with Cantonese and Malay, plus traces of other languages from stop-offs on the Portuguese trading route.

Patuá developed to eventually become the language of Macau’s indigenous Eurasian community: the Macanese. They first arose from intermarriages between Portuguese colonisers and the Chinese – mostly Portuguese men marrying and starting families with Chinese women.

However, as of the second quarter of the 19th century, the strengthening of public education in Portuguese and the socioeconomic advantages associated with the language led to the stigmatisation of Patuá. It was shunned as “broken Portuguese” and became a language confined mostly to the home.

In 2009, Unesco classified Patuá as a “critically endangered” language. As of the year 2000, there were estimated to be just 50 Patuá speakers worldwide. […]

Elisabela Larrea, a part-time PhD student and author of a blog that introduces Patuá dialect flashcards to English and Chinese readers, learned of the challenges her ancestors faced speaking the language. She is now part of a small community in Macau that wants to help preserve it as a medium of Macanese culture.

Its a sadly common story, of course, but every such situation is unique, and this article comes with gorgeous photos as well as a video clip in which Ms. Larrea shares some phrases in the language. Thanks, Trevor!

The Turk.

From this Wordorigins thread I learned of a great bit of sports jargon I had not been familiar with: in football, to get a visit from the Turk is to be let go, “because the Turk is the guy who gets sent to tell a player he has been cut from the team, usually quietly/privately to avoid a scene.” A later commenter links to this Tampa Bay Times story by Roger Mooney, which provides the following backstory:

The Pro Football Hall of Fame website credits former L.A. Rams linebacker Don Paul for coining the phrase “the Turk.”

Clark Shaughnessy, who coached the Rams in the late 1940s, cut his players in the middle of the night. He reasoned the bad news would be easier to stomach when the player was still trying to wake up. Shaughnessy would send someone to his dorm room to wake him and tell him to pack his bags and report to Shaughnessy’s office. The player’s absence would be noticed when the team gathered in the dining hall for breakfast.

“The Turk strikes at night,” Paul would yell.

Vox populi comes up with some fine phrases.

New New York Times.

Simple but brilliant: this Twitter feed automatically posts any word that the NY Times uses for the first time. Latest entry: kilimologist (if you click on the word, you get the context, in this case “Batki is a self-proclaimed kilimologist, an expert in old weavin…”). You also get the occasional typo (“attacthed”), which is fun as well. Thanks, Trevor!

The Rise of Doggo.

Andrea Valdez has a nice write-up for Wired about a modish word that makes people smile:

The only way to explain the reaction to Merriam-Webster’s year-end announcement that “doggo” was one of the dictionary’s “Words We’re Watching” is to use another colloquialism: Twitter lost its damn mind.

It wasn’t the first time Merriam, the hippest dictionary that ever was (sorry, Oxford), incorporated internet-beloved words into its corpus; it recently added definitions for the terms “troll,” “woke,” and “hashtag.” Nor was it the first time social media reacted strongly to such a move (see: the Great “Shade” Elation of 2017). But for the prestigious lexical arbiter to acknowledge doggo’s place and popularity was a win for practitioners of “DoggoSpeak,” a specialized vernacular used primarily in memes extolling the cuteness of dogs. (DoggoSpeak includes fun-to-say made-up words like doggo, pupper, flufferino, and doge. You probably don’t have to be fluent to translate, though NPR did a thorough deep-dive on the vocabulary.)

The announcement was also a recognition by Merriam that its original entry for “doggo”—defined as “in hiding—used chiefly in the phrase to lie doggo”—was out of step with its more current incarnation. “The nature of lexicography in general is that it always lags behind language, and that’s the case with doggo,” says Merriam-Webster associate editor Kory Stamper. “The real swell of the modern doggo wave came in 2016 and 2017 with the popularization of the WeRateDogs Twitter account.”

She explains that “there’s a strong case to be made that the word originated in Australia”:

To start, doggo first gained traction on a Facebook group called Dogspotting, a 10-year-old community that became quite popular in Australia, says internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch.

“Australian English has this tendency to make cute pet-names, what’s known in the literature as hypocoristics,” McCulloch says. “Like ‘afternoon’ becomes ‘arvo,’ or ‘avocado’ becomes ‘avo,’ or John becomes ‘John-o’.”

She gives a timeline for the modern use, some reasonable hypotheses as to why it became so popular, and the news (sad but inevitable) that there’s been “a fall in the term’s popularity”; it’s a good piece of popular linguistic journalism, and I for one approve.

Making Sense of Urban Dictionary.

I presume we’ve all used Urban Dictionary from time to time and been both enlightened (so that’s how the kids are talking today!) and amused (beer: “Possibly the best thing ever to be invented ever. I MEAN IT.”). I always vaguely wondered how useful it was from a scientific point of view, and now I have Dong Nguyen, Barbara McGillivray, and Taha Yasseri’s arXiv.org paper “Emo, Love, and God: Making Sense of Urban Dictionary, a Crowd-Sourced Online Dictionary” to tell me. Here’s the abstract:

The Internet facilitates large-scale collaborative projects. The emergence of Web~2.0 platforms, where producers and consumers of content unify, has drastically changed the information market. On the one hand, the promise of the “wisdom of the crowd” has inspired successful projects such as Wikipedia, which has become the primary source of crowd-based information in many languages. On the other hand, the decentralized and often un-monitored environment of such projects may make them susceptible to systematic malfunction and misbehavior. In this work, we focus on Urban Dictionary, a crowd-sourced online dictionary. We combine computational methods with qualitative annotation and shed light on the overall features of Urban Dictionary in terms of growth, coverage and types of content. We measure a high presence of opinion-focused entries, as opposed to the meaning-focused entries that we expect from traditional dictionaries. Furthermore, Urban Dictionary covers many informal, unfamiliar words as well as proper nouns. There is also a high presence of offensive content, but highly offensive content tends to receive lower scores through the voting system. Our study highlights that Urban Dictionary has a higher content heterogeneity than found in traditional dictionaries, which poses challenges in terms in processing but also offers opportunities to analyze and track language innovation.

There’s a discussion of the article at “The Anatomy of the Urban Dictionary,” by Emerging Technology from the arXiv (do their friends call them Em or ET?):

The team also compare the lexical coverage of Urban Dictionary and Wiktionary. It turns out that the overlap is surprisingly small—72 percent of the words on Urban Dictionary are not recorded on Wiktionary.

However, the team note that many words on Urban Dictionary are relevant to only a small subset of users. Many are nicknames or proper names such as Dan Taylor, defined as “A very wonderful man that cooks the best beef stew in the whole wide world.” These usually have only one meaning. […]

The work provides a unique window into a website that has come to play an important role in popular culture. That should set the scene for other studies. In particular, an interesting question is whether online dictionaries not only record linguistic change but actually drive it, as some linguists suggest.

Via MetaFilter.

Our American Poets.

Allan Metcalf describes part of the furnishing of a house he lived in as a graduate student in English in the early ’60s:

In a hallway that I walked through several times a day hung a wood-framed glass-fronted collection of photographs of six distinguished-looking people. And though they were mainly looking at each other — three on the left looking toward three on the right, and vice versa — every now and then one of them seemed to glance at me, telling me to take notice.

After all, I was studying literature — one of about 500 graduate students in English — and those portraits were captioned “Our American Poets.” These, I realized, were our great poets, the ones we would have been expected to study if we had been there around the year 1900, with the 19th century just gone by.

From left to right, these six were:

• Whittier, John Greenleaf, 1807-92. Author of Snow-Bound.
• Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 1803-82. Author of “Days” and “Concord Hymn.”
• Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth, 1807-82. Author of The Song of Hiawatha.
• Lowell, James Russell, 1819-91. Author of The Biglow Papers.
• Holmes, Oliver Wendell, 1809-94. Author of “The Chambered Nautilus.”
• Bryant, William Cullen, 1794-1878. Author of “Thanatopsis.”

Strangely, though, most of them were not the American poets of the 19th century we were most likely to study in 1963.

(You can see the framed photos at the link.) As it happens, I had a strikingly old-fashioned elementary school education in the ’50s and early ’60s, and we read all those poets (and I’m pretty sure I read the named poems), but they are certainly not the ones people think of today, and it’s sobering to be confronted with such shifting patterns of taste. As he says in his conclusion, “I couldn’t decide whether to feel superior to the narrow tastes of that century, or to feel less certain about the durability of my own tastes in the centuries that followed.”

More Demonyms.

Commenter cliff anderson left a comment on this LH post linking to his own post My Favorite Demonyms, and I liked it so much I’m featuring it here. “Utah – Utahn” is pretty well known, but what about these?

St Kitts & Nevis – Kittitian / Nevesian
Botswana – Motswana
Burundi – Umurundi
Lesotho – Mosotho
Kiribati – i-Kiribati
Vanuatu – Ni-Vanuatu
Tampa – Tampanian
Macao – Macanese

And there’s many more at the link. Oh how I love demonyms!

Wilson on Homeric Wordplay.

Emily Wilson, whose translation of the Odyssey I posted about here, has a Twitter thread beginning:

Here’s another major issues for all translators, not just of ancient Greek: what to do about wordplay, including puns. Take these lines from the Odyssey: ἀλλ᾽ ἑλέτω σε καὶ ὕπνος: ἀνίη καὶ τὸ φυλάσσειν πάννυχον ἐγρήσσοντα, κακῶν δ᾽ ὑποδύσεαι ἤδη. (20. 52-53)

The penultimate word in the two lines I quoted echoes the sound of our hero’s name: hypODYSSEAI. Athena is identifying O. as the guy who will “slip out from under” things — he “Odysseus-es” out. So I went to see what different translators do with the pun.

She quotes the Fagles, Fitzgerald, and Lattimore versions, following each with the laconic “No pun,” and provides her own attempt:

Now go to sleep. To stay on guard awake
all night is tiring. Quite soon you will
distance yourself, Odysseus, from trouble.

I made an effort to do something about the word-play. Wish I could have done more/ better, but I did try very hard.

She adds:

There are several puns on O’s name (even beyond metis/outis). At 5.340, I use small-o “odyssey”:
[why does Poseidon]
“create an odyssey of pain for you”.
But I couldn’t do that more than once. For that line, too, Lattimore & Fagles & Fitzgerald have no pun.

Interesting stuff (and of course there are responses from other Twitter users); thanks, Steven!

Joint Speech.

Joint Speech is a site providing “Resources for the study of joint speech,” notably a new book:

Cummins, Fred (2018) The Ground From Which We Speak: Joint speech and the collective subject is a book exploring the topic of joint speech published online here. The book is available in two formats. Large is suited to reading on tablets and laptops. Small is suited to reading on smartphone screens. The electronic version of this book may be downloaded and shared freely.

The book introduces the topic of joint speech through examples that are also documented below. After becoming familiar with the topic, the question is raised: Why is there almost no empirical science of joint speech? Chapters 4 to 7 detail some preliminary scientific work in the phonetics, neuroscience, linguistics and movement sciences, all of which suggests that joint speech is rich territory for empirical investigation. The primary scientific sources are collected here under documentation. The absence of work on the topic suggests instead a difficulty in the contemporary scientific landscape of treating adequately of collective aspirations, collective intentions, and collective subjects. The final two chapters suggest that the emerging vocabulary of enaction may be of use as such topics are pursued.

Feedback to fred.cummins@ucd.ie would be most welcome.

Nine examples described in the book are provided in video form; this is a great idea and I hope it gets traction. (Via MetaFilter.)