Alien Linguistics.

Davide Castelvecchi writes for Nature about a subject dear to the heart of this old science fiction fan, what is sometimes called xenolinguistics:

Sheri Wells-Jensen is fascinated by languages no one has ever heard — those that might be spoken by aliens. Last week, the linguist co-hosted a day-long workshop on this field of research, which sits at the boundary of astrobiology and linguistics.

The meeting, at a conference of the US National Space Society in Los Angeles, California, was organized by Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI). METI, which is funded by private donors, organizes the transmission of messages to other star systems. The effort is complementary to SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), which aims to detect messages from alien civilizations.

There follows an interview with Wells-Jensen, which of course touches on the recent movie Arrival (see this LH post), but I want to feature this interesting exchange:

What was discussed at the conference?

The piece that was underpinning everything there, I think, was the extent to which human language is innate. If language has a necessary innate piece, then two civilizations might have a good chance of understanding each other: that was the Chomskian approach represented in some of the papers presented at the conference. Others expressed the sense that third factors — body shape, what your planet is like — would have more to do with language and that little has to be innate. If that is so, then we’d have a better chance of understanding aliens that are similar to us than of understanding those that aren’t.

Needless to say, I am firmly on the anti-Chomsky side. Thanks, Trevor!

The Bookshelf: Origin of Kibosh.

A few years ago I did a post on the slang word kibosh, and Stephen Goranson added the following comment last October:

Published this month:
Origin of Kibosh: Routledge Studies in Etymology
by Gerald Cohen, Stephen Goranson, and Matthew Little.

Now he has been kind enough to have a copy sent to me, and it’s a wonderful little book — I wish there could be such a volume for every word with an interesting etymology. It starts, admirably, by presenting the basic thesis (it’s from kurbash ‘a long whip made of hippopotamus or rhinoceros hide’) and summarizing the evidence; the bulk of the book consists of detailed accounts of the history of the word and of the attempts to provide an etymology. These paragraphs from the Overview will give the basic idea:

The earliest previously noticed attestation of kibosh is from 1836—in Cockney speech—and the new antedatings of ca. 1830–1835, while only a few years older, are highly significant. They bring important evidence in favor of kibosh < kurbash and also confirm the early presence of kibosh in Cockney speech.

The most important antedating, spotted by Goranson, is the ca. 1830 kibosh in the broadside Penal Servitude!, an apparently humorous poem supposedly written by a convict returning from Australia. The writer not only provides the earliest attestation thus far for kibosh, but is likely also responsible for the entrance of kibosh into British speech. If we assume (and this seems reasonable) that his poem had popularity in the lower strata of British society, we would have the explanation for how kibosh was acquired (or at the very least, popularized) there.

Here is the crucial quatrain from the broadside:

There is one little dodge I am thinking,
That would put your profession all to smash,
It would put on the kibosh like winking,
That is if they was to introduce the lash.

The next step in the development is described on p. 3:

So kibosh was evidently introduced to British speech by the poem Penal Servitude!, but it was not yet widely known. Unless something happened to change this situation, kibosh would remain restricted to the lower echelons of British society or fade into oblivion, as so many other slang items did. But something did happen. An unlikely, unheralded, and unwitting lexical hero emerged: a Cockney chimney sweep, hauled into court in 1834 with his companion for violating the 1834 Chimney Sweepers Act, had an outburst of frustration and anger after the trial. That outburst—delivered in an unmistakable Cockney dialect—contained a blast against ‘the Vigs’ (Whigs) and the sweep used the new expression put the kibosh on. The London Standard article reporting on the trial was widely reprinted in England, and now people all over country were reading about putting the kibosh on the ‘Vigs.’ In particular, people engaged in political discourse picked up the expression. Put the kibosh on was of humble origin, but the people doing the kiboshing were politically significant: the Duke of Wellington, MP William Ingilby, and no less a personage than the British King. Put the kibosh on was now taking root in British speech.

There are plenty of illustrations, including one of the broadside itself (of which only a single copy survives). And the primary author of the book is Gerald Cohen, whose journal Comments on Etymology I wrote about here (it’s only on paper, not available on the Internet); you could hardly ask for a more authoritative scholar. The book is pricey (it almost goes without saying), but see if your library has it; it’s well worth perusing if you have any interest in the word.

Crevez, chiens!

I’m on Chapter 3 of Part 3 of Crime and Punishment; Raskolnikov is explaining to his mother that he has given away twenty-five rubles that she and his sister had sent him, because he had encountered a family so poverty-stricken they would have had nothing to eat and would have been thrown out on the street if he hadn’t helped them. He admits that he had no right to squander the money they had scraped together with such effort, and ends his little speech by saying that you shouldn’t help people unless you have a right to — otherwise “Crevez, chiens, si vous n’êtes pas contents!”

Of the two translations I have, Sidney Monas simply repeats the French, while Pevear and Volokhonsky provide a translation in a footnote: “Drop dead, dogs, if you don’t like it!” (My Soviet edition also provides nothing but a translation.) They do not, however, appear to be aware that it is a quote from an extremely famous novel. Google Books tells me that Sarah J. Young’s translation identifies it as such (“A near quotation from Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables“), but says no more. Only Oliver Ready’s version (praised highly by Boris Dralyuk; see this LH post) gives important context in its footnote:

Crevez, chiens, si vous n’étes pas contents!: “Drop dead, dogs, if you aren’t satisfied!” (French): an almost exact quotation from Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables, which Dostoyevsky read on its appearance in 1862. See Book Eight, Chapter Four (“A Rose in Misery’), in which the young student, Marius, receives a visit from the young and appallingly emaciated daughter of his neighbour Jondrette. In the course of their conversation, she tells him: ‘Do you know what it will mean if we get a breakfast today? It will mean that we shall have had our breakfast of the day before yesterday, our breakfast of yesterday, our dinner of to-day, and all that at once, and this morning. Come! Parbleu! if you are not satisfied, dogs, burst!’ (trans. Isabel Hapgood).

But even this omits the vital fact of what follows when Marius realizes how much worse off than he the Jondrettes are:

By dint of searching and ransacking his pockets, Marius had finally collected five francs sixteen sous. This was all he owned in the world for the moment. “At all events,” he thought, “there is my dinner for to-day, and to-morrow we will see.” He kept the sixteen sous, and handed the five francs to the young girl.

This is, of course, an exact parallel to what Raskolnikov has done, and I provide it here for the benefit of readers of the novel, which (I am realizing all over again) is damn good.

I can’t resist pointing out that the egregious P&V, in an earlier footnote, refer to G. H. Lewes’s The Physiology of Common Life as “The Physiology of Everyday Life.” No cookies for you!

The Macabre Maccabees.

If I ever knew this striking etymology, I’d forgotten it:

French, from (danse) macabre dance of death, from Middle French (danse de) Macabré

We trace the origins of macabre to the name of the Book of Maccabees which is included in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canons of the Old Testament and in the Protestant Apocrypha. Sections of this biblical text address both the deaths of faithful people asked to renounce their religion and the manner in which the dead should be properly commemorated. The latter includes a discussion of praying for the souls of the dead, which was important in the development of the notion of purgatory and a happy afterlife for those persecuted for their religion. In medieval France, representations of these passages were performed as a procession or dance which became known as the “dance of death” or “dance Maccabee,” which was spelled in several different ways, including danse macabre.

In English, macabre was originally used in reference to this “dance of death” and then gradually became used more broadly, referring to anything grim or gruesome. It has come to be used as a synonym of horrible or distressing, always with a connection to the physical aspects of death and suffering.

I think I’ll start a brand-new peeve, insisting that since it’s from Macabré the only correct way to pronounce it is “mac-a-BRAY.”

Bates Questionnaires Online.

More great news from the world of online publication, courtesy of this piece by Nick Thieberger of the University of Melbourne:

In 1904 Daisy Bates, an Irish-Australian journalist and ethnographer, sent out a questionnaire to squatters, police, and other authorities across Western Australia asking them to record examples of the local Aboriginal language. […] Importantly, the responses to her questionnaire, preserved in 21,000 pages of handwritten notes or typescript, are immeasurably valuable; in some cases recording all we have left of many Aboriginal languages, otherwise lost as a result of European invasion.

The papers are important not only for a general understanding of the diversity of languages that have been part of Australia’s heritage for thousands of years, but also for the people associated with those languages. Aboriginal communities can not only reconnect to their languages through the papers, they can in some cases trace their named relatives. Some of the words listed have also been used in Native Title claims, establishing continuity of the language over time. […]

However, until now, they’ve been largely inaccessible. The pages themselves have been spread across three libraries in different states and territories – the Barr Smith Library in Adelaide, the National Library of Australia in Canberra, and the Battye Library in Perth. Some have been published with English translations, but this work has not been linked back to the primary records in a way that is now possible with digital technology.

The Bates Online project has now done this and more, putting all 21,000 pages online in a searchable database, complete with maps showing where the words and phrases come from, as well as images of the original notes and typescript.

There are 4,500 pages of typescript representing languages from the Southern South Australia/Western Australia border all the way up to the Kimberley. At least 123 speakers are named in the vocabularies and, even now, it’s not clear how many languages they represent.

More details at the link; this is the kind of thing that makes the 21st century worthwhile. Thanks, Trevor!


Maxwell King writes for the Atlantic about how Fred Rogers crafted the language used on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, saying his “placidity belied the intense care he took in shaping each episode of his program”:

He insisted that every word, whether spoken by a person or a puppet, be scrutinized closely, because he knew that children—the preschool-age boys and girls who made up the core of his audience—tend to hear things literally.

As Arthur Greenwald, a former producer of the show, put it to me, “There were no accidents on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He took great pains not to mislead or confuse children, and his team of writers joked that his on-air manner of speaking amounted to a distinct language they called “Freddish.”

Fundamentally, Freddish anticipated the ways its listeners might misinterpret what was being said. For instance, Greenwald mentioned a scene in a hospital in which a nurse inflating a blood-pressure cuff originally said “I’m going to blow this up.” Greenwald recalls: “Fred made us redub the line, saying, ‘I’m going to puff this up with some air,’ because ‘blow it up’ might sound like there’s an explosion, and he didn’t want the kids to cover their ears and miss what would happen next.” […] And Rogers’s secretary, Elaine Lynch, remembered how, when one script referred to putting a pet “to sleep,” he excised it for fear that children would be worried about the idea of falling asleep themselves.

Rogers was extraordinarily good at imagining where children’s minds might go. For instance, in a scene in which he had an eye doctor using an ophthalmoscope to peer into his eyes, he made a point of having the doctor clarify that he wasn’t able to see Rogers’s thoughts. Rogers also wrote a song called “You Can Never Go Down the Drain” because he knew that drains were something that, to kids, seemed to exist solely to suck things down.

There’s a list of the “nine steps for translating into Freddish” and a discussion of how Rogers’s philosophy of child development “is actually derived from some of the leading 20th-century scholars of the subject”:
[Read more…]

French Anglicisms.

Valérie Saugera, author of Remade In France: Anglicisms in the Lexicon and Morphology of French, has a useful OUPblog summary of recent developments:

The escalating global influence of English raises the issue of novel and deeper contact outcomes that go beyond well-known cultural loans (le Big Mac) and computer and Internet terminology (le big data). The latest period of vigorous contact beginning in the 1990s has its own complex linguistic characterization, including the four singular outcomes:

(1) A significant influx of very low-frequency Anglicisms

(2) A diversity of borrowing types

In this period of sustained virtual contact with English, French Anglicisms can be defined less homogenously than ever before. The following sample of recently borrowed items embodies the current phenomenon: serial dragueur “serial flirt” (patterned on serial killer), Dru «the» boucher (borrowed stressed definite article), toutou-sitting “doggy-sitting” (loanblend), flashcode “QR code” (false Anglicism), runnings (truncation of running shoes), e-réputation (borrowed prefix e-), etc.

[Read more…]

The Chapter: A History.

Back in 2014, Nicholas Dames wrote a New Yorker essay about something we generally take for granted, the division of books into chapters:

The first authors who wrote in chapters were not storytellers. They were compilers of knowledge, either utilitarian or speculative, who used chapters as a way of organizing large miscellanies. Cato the Elder’s “De Agri Cultura” (“On Farming”), from the second century B.C.E., was organized in numbered units with titles; Pliny the Elder’s great compilation of Roman science, “Naturalis Historia” (“Natural History”), from the first century C.E., came with a summarium of topics similar to a modern table of contents; Aulus Gellius, a collector of legal and linguistic arcana in the second century C.E., divided his “Noctes Atticae” (“Attic Nights”) into “capita” with long descriptive titles. These chapters, unlike the “books” of epic poetry, were what we would now call finding aids: devices for quickly locating specific material in long texts that were not meant to be read straight through.

[…] The chapter might have disappeared in favor of some other form had not the early Fathers of the Church made it their signature technique. Jerome, in fact, seems to have been the first to unambiguously use the term capitulum to refer to a numbered, titled segment of a text.

He goes on to describe the (perhaps apocryphal) division of the Bible into chapters by Stephen Langton in the early decades of the thirteenth century, then turns to novelists:
[Read more…]


I love the eudæmonist; a single one-line post* (*plus footnote) gives me two things to write about. The first is the word holophrase, which I hadn’t been familiar with; as Wikipedia explains:

Holophrasis is the prelinguistic use of a single word to express a complex idea. A holophrase may resemble an interjection, but whereas an interjection is linguistic, and has a specific grammatical function, a holophrase is simply a vocalization memorized by rote and used without grammatical intent.

And the second is the one-line post* (*minus footnote) itself:

One finds a holophrase: men – one still awaits the longed-for day.

That’s hilarious, but to explain why I have to tell you a bit about Greek particles. Ancient Greek depended heavily for its sentence structure on a group of little words called particles; to quote the always dependable Herbert Weir Smyth:

Greek has an extraordinary number of sentence adverbs (or particles in the narrow sense) having a logical or emotional (rhetorical) value. Either alone or in combination these sentence adverbs give a distinctness to the relations between ideas which is foreign to other languages, and often resist translation by separate words, which in English are frequently over emphatic and cumbersome in comparison to the light and delicate nature of the Greek originals (e.g. ἄρα, γέ, τοί). The force of such words is frequently best rendered by pause, stress, or alterations of pitch. To catch the subtle and elusive meaning of these often apparently insignificant elements of speech challenges the utmost vigilance and skill of the student.

The best-known of these particles are surely μέν [men] and δέ [de], of which Smyth says: “μὲν . . . δέ serves to mark stronger or weaker contrasts of various kinds, and is sometimes to be rendered by on the one hand . . . on the other hand, indeed . . . but; but is often to be left untranslated.” Although there can be a μέν without a δέ (its sad name is “μέν solitarium”), one of the first things you learn as a student is that when you encounter a μέν you should expect a following δέ: the Greeks naturally arranged their thoughts in antitheses.

So! I’m sure we’re all familiar with the formulaic expression “Men!” as used by exasperated women in TV sitcoms (and occasionally in real life); it is, as we have learned, a holophrase. And when one finds a μέν, or “men,” one awaits a δέ, or “day.” QED!

Oh, and to understand the footnote you need to know that haedus is Latin for ‘young goat, kid,’ and the English verb caper ultimately derives from the Latin noun caper ‘he-goat, billy-goat.’ So to “caper apud hædis” is to goat around among the goatlings.

Danish Language Loss.

Joel of Far Outliers has posted an excerpt about Danish from Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages, by Gaston Dorren; it starts like this:

Two centuries ago, Danish was spoken on four continents in an area twelve times the size of Great Britain. Now, the language is contained in scarcely more than a single country that’s just over half the size of Scotland. Read on for a chronicle of ruin.

And ends like this:

And so all that remained of Denmark’s colonies was the largest and most sparsely populated of them all: Greenland. Until 1979, that is, when the island was granted limited autonomy and permission to govern in its own language, Kalaallisut, otherwise known as Greenlandic. This decision came as no great surprise. Although Danish was a mandatory school subject, many Greenlanders struggled to speak the language, which was poles apart from their own. In autonomous Greenland, Danish initially retained more official functions than in the autonomous Faroe Islands. But that has since changed as well: in 2009, Kalaallisut became the one and only official administrative language. With this move, Greenland achieved a unique position: the only country of the Americas (yes, Greenland is part of the Americas), from Canada all the way down to Chile, where the indigenous language doesn’t play second fiddle to that of its colonial master. The poor Danes. Rejected by the Norwegians, betrayed in the warm-water colonies, defeated in Slesvig, then dumped by the cold-water colonies as well. But the Danes do have one consolation: their ancestors were among those who occupied England in the fifth century and thus laid the foundations for English – a language that has conquered the world like no other.

In-between details at the link, obviously. I don’t think I’ve read reviews of the book; I’m guessing it’s enjoyable but one would want to check the facts against more authoritative sources.