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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Cornish Ordinalia.

Trevor Joyce, who sent me the link, said it was fascinating but might be “too nerdy” for the blog. As I told him: “Too nerdy for LH? Surely you jest.” So herewith the Bodleian Libraries:

For #StPirans day, here is our fully digitized copy of the Cornish Ordinalia.

These plays, written in Middle Cornish, come with the earliest surviving stage directions in the world and diagrams of circular staging that predate Shakespeare by centuries.

The following tweet says “For some idea of how spectacular these particular plays would have been – and they were truly blockbuster stuff on an epic scale – you can still check out this 2015 episode of @BBCRadio4’s Making History.” Thanks, Trevor!


Derek Attridge has a fascinating post at Public Books called “The Triumph of Afrikaans Fiction”; being only vaguely aware of Afrikaans literature, I was glad to get a crash course. Attridge begins:

I’m reading one of the great novels of our time. I’m doing so slowly because it’s in Afrikaans, and although I learned the language for many years in South African schools, that was a very long time ago. The novel is Agaat, its title both a proper name (Agatha) and the Afrikaans word for “agate”; the author, Marlene van Niekerk, is a leading Afrikaans poet as well as novelist and short-story writer.[footnote: Agaat was originally published, by Tafelberg (South Africa), in 2004. The title is pronounced with the /x/ sound of Bach.] Luckily, I have at hand the superb translation by Michiel Heyns, the version in which I first encountered the novel. A film of Agaat is said to be in preproduction, but however successful it turns out to be, it will be able to convey only a glimmer of Van Niekerk’s achievement.

He describes the history of Afrikaans, and says:

As only one of the contemporary country’s 11 official languages, and no longer bearing any political privileges, Afrikaans is now under threat. The proportion of Afrikaans speakers who read literary fiction is tiny, and writers must rely on translations to reach a wider readership. Despite these conditions, the language has seen a remarkable flourishing since the ending of apartheid in 1994. At that juncture it became easier to challenge the myth of a pure language; “Afrikaans” could be seen more clearly as a spectrum of speech practices, often intermingling with English and indigenous tongues. Van Niekerk’s ambitious first novel, Triomf, published in that year, uses the language spoken by poor white Afrikaners, a far cry from the Afrikaans of the academy, while Agaat draws on the specialized languages of farming and embroidery—two long-standing features of Afrikaner culture—as well as the heritage of Afrikaans popular song.

After descriptions of other works in Afrikaans, he returns to Agaat and gives a fairly detailed description of the plot and its “four interwoven strands, each using a distinctive mode of narration,” including an analysis of how the translator was forced to change a description of trying to create a sound. It certainly makes me curious to give the book a try. Thanks, Jack!

Especially Charming.

Adam Kirsch’s very favorable TLS review of The Poems of T. S. Eliot: The Annotated Text (Vol. 1, Vol. 2) includes the following parenthetical remark:

(The book is intelligently designed, with cross-references at the bottom of each page linking poem to commentary and back again; and the whole is beautifully printed and highly legible, even the small type. The ampersands and ellipses are especially charming.)

I wish more reviews paid attention to such things.

Another parenthetical remark is less charming:

In 2014, Johns Hopkins University Press began issuing the Complete Prose, under the general editorship of Ronald Schuchard. (Maddeningly, this edition is only available online by subscription, which greatly impairs both its readability and its reach; but it is beautifully edited, and may make it into print some day.)

Shame on Johns Hopkins University Press! I don’t care what their rationale is, that’s disgusting elitism and an abdication of the responsibility of an academic publisher.

Fest und Feier.

Having finished the (superb) second volume of Kotkin’s Stalin biography (he leaves the reader hanging as the Germans are crossing the Soviet frontier in June 1941), I’ve started Soviet Mass Festivals, 1917–1991, by Malte Rolf. I’m still on the introduction, where he lays out his “concepts and research approaches,” and I thought I’d quote this passage from the “Celebrations” section (it’s probably worth mentioning that the book is translated from German):

The present work does not strictly distinguish “festivity” from “ceremony,” as Winfried Gebhardt suggests we should. Inspired by ideal types a la Weber, Gebhardt characterizes a festivity (German: Fest) as an emotional-affective means of socialization and a ceremony (German: Feier), as a value-rational means of collectivization. This view separates and conceptually fixates an ecstatic, escapist kind of celebrating from a solemn, value-stabilizing kind of celebrating. […]

In contrast, Ruth Koch has convincingly shown that while in the German language the terms Fest and Feier do not cover exactly the same ground, their meanings are not distinct enough for each to govern a semantic field of its own such that we might precisely determine an independent meaning for one or the other. If we return to the context of Soviet terminology at the time in question, we also do not find there any clear conceptual distinction between what is considered “festive” and what is considered “ceremonial.” The words prazdnik and prazdnestvo were commonly used, as was torzhestvo, a word being used predominantly to describe larger festive occasions. Nonetheless, the terms are for the most part interchangeable. There was also in use the word massovoe or narodnoe torzhestvo, which means the tumultuous crowd of the folk festival section of a Soviet celebration. Thus, for the most part, the Russian language, too, allows using words for “festivity” and “celebration” synonymously.

Since my German is only serviceable, I’m curious as to what my Germanophone readers think about the Fest/Feier distinction, and of course what Russian speakers think about the Russian words.
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Badeshi: Not Quite Extinct.

Zafar Syed reports for the BBC on a language that was thought to be extinct but (like the fellow being put in the wheelbarrow) isn’t dead yet:

Badeshi used to be spoken widely in a remote snow-clad valley, deep in the mountains of northern Pakistan.

But it is now considered extinct.

Ethnologue, which lists all of the world’s languages, says it has had no known speakers for three or more generations.

But in the Bishigram Valley, we found three old men who can still speak in Badeshi. You can hear them in the video below.

Isn’t that neat? It’s also called Badakhshi, spoken in Khyber Pakhtunkwa province, and is an Indo-Iranian language Ethnologue classifies as “Unclassified.” There’s a nice interview with the men, with the usual lament (“Zaman Sagar says Torwali and Pashto speakers look down upon Badeshi, so there is a stigma attached to speaking it”), but it’s really great to see and hear them speaking it. Thanks, Trevor!

Icelandic Battles Threat of Extinction!

That’s the overheated slant taken by the headline writer for Jon Henley’s article in the Graun; the piece itself isn’t quite so apocalyptic, but it’s sobering enough (“literacy rates among Icelandic children are falling as their vocabulary shrinks”). The culprit, needless to say, is the omnipresent English. Here’s the opening:

Unlike most languages, when Icelandic needs a new word it rarely imports one. Instead, enthusiasts coin a new term rooted in the tongue’s ancient Norse past: a neologism that looks, sounds and behaves like Icelandic.

The Icelandic word for computer, for example, is tölva, a marriage of tala, which means number, and völva, prophetess. A web browser is vafri, derived from the verb to wander. Podcast is hlaðvarp, something you “charge” and “throw”.

This makes Icelandic quite special, a language whose complex grammar remains much as it was a millennium ago and whose vocabulary is unadulterated, but which is perfectly comfortable coping with concepts as 21st-century as a touchscreen.

As you see, we also get the “pristine ancient language” meme (also available in Lithuanian flavors). Dave Wilton at says:

The article repeats this false trope. Icelandic was deliberately and artifically retrogressed in the nineteenth century to make it more like the language in the Eddas and sagas. The medieval grammar was taught in schools and after a generation people were speaking in a fashion more like that of centuries before than their parents. Prior to that, Icelandic had been changing at the same pace as just about every other language.

I found that startling, as did kurwamac, who said:

Is this really true? Everything I can find about Icelandic would seem to suggest that the archaisers confined themselves to vocabulary, and that the grammar had in fact remained largely unchanged.

I’m curious too. Anybody know? (Thanks for the link, Eric!)

‘Whomever’ Revisionism.

Bathrobe sent me this Lingua Franca post by Ben Yagoda about one of the more controversial grammatical subjects around, the use of whomever:

My suggested test for choosing between whoever and whomever is to put that hole in the sentence aside for a moment and look at the rest of the clause. If takes an object at the end (“I was involved with … her”), use whomever; if it takes a subject at the beginning (“She … abandoned these chickens”), use whoever. Another method is to see if you can swap in he who (use whoever) or him who (whomever.)

The New York Times recently published this sentence: “Whomever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit that investigation.” True to form, I mocked the Times on Twitter for falling into the whomever trap.

And I got blowback.

The redoubtable Jan Freeman, former language columnist for the Boston Globe, tweeted, “I too would both say & write ‘whoever,’ but ‘whomever’ is grammatically correct here, no?” I know enough not to dismiss anything Jan says, but after some consideration I answered, “No.” I felt bolstered in my opinion after her subsequent tweet, “As in (the oft-misquoted) ‘let him who is without sin cast the first stone.’”

(Let me take a moment to mock Yagoda for misplacing the period at the end of the “Another method is to see…” sentence.) Yagoda winds up saying “I now concede that [the Times] is right and I was wrong,” which is noble of him; me, I’m in favor of doing away with the antiquated and confusing whomever altogether, but as a bomb-throwing descriptivist, I would be, wouldn’t I? At any rate, Bathrobe says:

There are two points where I think he’s wrong.

1. He incorrectly applies his own test at Whomever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit that investigation.

2. He treats “he who” as a fused relative.

I thought I’d throw it open to discussion from the floor; what say you?

Addendum. I forgot when I posted this that we had discussed “whomever” back in 2007.

Gandhari and Other Long-lost Languages.

John Preston writes about people trying to decipher ancient languages; he starts with a nice anecdote:

One day in 1994 Richard Salomon, professor of Asian Languages and Literature at the University of Washington, received a small package in the mail. Inside were a number of blurry black and white photographs and an accompanying letter from the British Library asking if they might be of any interest.

Salomon started looking at the photos – first idly, and then with growing disbelief. “I could see pretty quickly they were the real deal.” The photos showed various inscriptions that were written on a series of scrolls – scrolls of bark that the British Library had been given by an anonymous donor, who in turn, had bought them from an anonymous buyer based somewhere in Pakistan.

The inscriptions Salomon saw were written in Gandhari, a middle Indo-Aryan language closely related to Sanskrit that was in use from the third century BC to the fourth century AD. It was hardly surprising that the British Library had come straight to him. Salomon was one of the few, the very few, people in the world who could read Gandhari – or at least read some of it. “I knew the basic grammar, but there were an awful lot of words that I didn’t know.”

Up until then Salomon had been working on the only known example of a Gandhari manuscript ever discovered – it’s also reckoned to be the oldest surviving example of an Indian text. This discovery, though, changed everything.

A few days later, Salomon flew to London to have a look for himself.

Because they’re written on bark, Gandhari manuscripts are much more fragile than anything on paper, or vellum. A French archaeologist who discovered some in the 1830s found that they literally crumbled to dust as soon as he touched them. Rolled up, the manuscripts Salomon saw resembled enormous cigars. Unrolled, some of them were more than 8ft long. As he gazed at them, something strange happened. “Literally, it was as if my life flashed before my eyes.” Straight away, Salomon realised that there was so much new material here he was going to be spending the rest of his career working on it. Sure enough, 20 years on, he’s still hard at it. “I know a lot more now than I did, but there’s still a long way to go.”

He goes on to discuss Tangut (see this LH post), Sogdian (“The other day for instance I came across the Sogdian word for liver,” says Sims-Williams. “That was quite a big moment”), and Rongorongo (see this LH post), inter alia; I liked this bit on Linear A:

Trying to unpick a lost language is also very solitary work. “Yeah, it’s not exactly something you can have out with the family over dinner,” says Younger. “But that’s fine for me – I love working on puzzles and I love detective work. For instance, I couldn’t sleep last night so I got up at 2am and started working on Linear A.” Younger receives a steady stream of carefully thought out theories from fellow specialists.

But he also has to contend with a regular influx of deeply eccentric suggestions.

“Oh yes, you get a lot of nuts,” he says cheerfully. “I’m a real magnet for mad people. At the moment for instance I’ve got one woman telling me that Linear A is Japanese, someone saying it’s Celtic and someone else saying it’s proto-Persian. But like the story about the troop of monkeys eventually typing up Shakespeare, they do occasionally send in quite plausible suggestions.”

And Richard Salomon, the guy mentioned at the start of the piece, was actually quoted in this forlorn 2003 LH post. Thanks, Trevor!

Inside the OED.

Andrew Dickson writes for the Grauniad about everybody’s favorite dictionary (every history-minded English-speaker’s, that is), the OED:

In February 2009, a Twitter user called @popelizbet issued an apparently historic challenge to someone called Colin: she asked if he could “mansplain” a concept to her. History has not recorded if he did, indeed, proceed to mansplain. But the lexicographer Bernadette Paton, who excavated this exchange last summer, believed it was the first time anyone had used the word in recorded form. “It’s been deleted since, but we caught it,” Paton told me, with quiet satisfaction.

In her office at Oxford University Press, Paton was drafting a brand new entry for the Oxford English Dictionary. Also in her in-tray when I visited were the millennial-tinged usage of “snowflake”, which she had hunted down to a Christian text from 1983 (“You are a snowflake. There are no two of you alike”), and new shadings of the compound “self-made woman”. Around 30,000 such items are on the OED master list; another 7,000 more pile up annually. “Everyone thinks we’re very slow, but it’s actually rather fast,” Paton said. “Though admittedly a colleague did spend a year revising ‘go’”. […]

Ninety years after the first edition appeared, the OED – a distant, far bulkier descendant of Johnson’s Dictionary – is currently embarked on a third edition, a goliath project that involves overhauling every entry (many of which have not been touched since the late-Victorian era) and adding at least some of those 30,000 missing words, as well as making the dictionary into a fully digital resource. This was originally meant to be completed in 2000, then 2005, then 2010. Since then, OUP has quietly dropped mentions of a date. How far had they got, I asked Proffitt. “About 48%,” he replied.

The dictionary retains a quiet pride in the lexical lengths to which it will – indeed, must – go. Some time in the late 1980s, Proffitt’s predecessor as chief editor, John Simpson, asked the poet Benjamin Zephaniah about the origins of the noun “skanking”. Zephaniah decided that the only way to explain was to come to OED headquarters and do a private, one-on-one performance. Skanking duly went in, defined as “a style of West Indian dancing to reggae music, in which the body bends forward at the waist, and the knees are raised and the hands claw the air in time to the beat”.

The tale touches something profound: in capturing a word, a sliver of lived experience can be observed and defined. If only you were able to catch all the words, perhaps you could define existence.

There’s a lot of potted history of dictionaries in general and the OED in particular, none of which will be a surprise to most LH readers, but there are some nice tidbits:

Among other eccentricities, Murray had taken against “marzipan”, preferring to spell it “marchpane”, and decreed that the adjective “African” should not be included, on the basis that it was not really a word. “American”, however, was, for reasons that reveal much about the dictionary’s lofty Anglocentric worldview.

There is also sobering news:

Adding to the challenge is a story that has become wearily familiar: while more people are consulting dictionary-like resources than ever, almost no one wants to shell out. Sales of hard-copy dictionaries have collapsed, far more calamitously than in other sectors. (OUP refused to give me figures, citing “commercial sensitivities”. “I don’t think you’ll get any publisher to fess up about this,” Michael Rundell told me.)

And optimism:

Despite his pessimism about the industry, he talked with real excitement about a project he was about to join, working with experts from the Goldfield Aboriginal Language Centre on indigenous Australian languages, scantily covered by lexicographers. “Dictionaries can make a genuine difference,” he said. “They give power to languages that might have had very little power in the past; they can help preserve and share it. I really believe that.”

And it ends with a shocker: an antedate of “mansplain”! (Thanks, Trevor and Eric.)