No, the Other Right!

Mark Liberman at the Log follows up on Bob Ladd’s suggestion for a post “about inexcusably unmemorable terminology for related concepts that have to be sharply distinguished from one another.” It’s turned into a really interesting discussion, with pairs I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of; Bob’s examples are progressive/regressive assimilation, sensitivity/specificity, and tonicity/tonality/tone, and commenters have weighed in with accuracy/precision, sequence/series, hyper-/hypo- (“often indistinguishable when spoken”), coherence/cohesion, mean/mode/median, afferent/efferent, abductor/adductor, high-context/low-context, determiner/determinative, meiosis/mitosis, syncline/anticline, stalactite/stalagmite, meteor/meteoroid/meteorite, metatarsal/metacarpal, affluent/effluent, molarity/molality, phonetic/phonemic, pleistocene/pliocene/miocene… more are coming in even as we speak! hector asks:

Is the ur-example of this problem the distinction between right and left? Most people occasionally use the wrong word. Both are words of one syllable, thus easy to say, and often need to be said as quick responses to events. If one of the two was one-syllable, and the other multi-syllable, would this reduce the number of mistakes?

And narmitaj responds:

As well as normal confusion (I got confused during my early driving lessons and even briefly – and non-disastrously – during my test at one point), there is also the problem that crops up in film-making and other environments when people are facing each other and trying to give and take directions. The cinematographer might say to the actress “move to the right” and the actress moves to her right, and the cinematographer says “no, the other right”, his right, camera right or screen right.

A similar pair in Spanish is derecho ‘straight (ahead)’ and (a la) derecha ‘(to the) right’; after I had terrified my driving instructor in Argentina one too many times by turning when he wanted me to go straight, he made me teach him the English words (which in his pronunciation were /es’tre/ and /rai/). At any rate, I’m beginning to suspect that specialists like having hard-to-distinguish distinctions; it makes the specialty that much more impenetrable and mysterious.


  1. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    You’re quite right about derecho and a la derecha, which have thrown me many times in Chile, and there are corresponding difficulties in French, with à droit and tout droit. We also have this problem with English if a British person (me) is getting directions from an American person (my former wife), and understand “take the next right” differently — to me it means the first right I come to after hearing the instruction, but to her it always meant the one after that. In French one has great difficulties with au dessus de and au dessous de, which sound pretty much the same to me, though I can hear the difference if I concentrate, and can even make the difference when I speak if I try. It’s worse for Spanish speakers, like my present (Chilean) wife, who can hear absolutely no difference, and can’t even begin to make them sound different, no matter how much they try.

  2. J. W. Brewer says:

    English has the separate ambiguity played on in this bit of dialogue from the first Muppet movie:
    Kermit: [navigating in the Studebaker] Bear left.
    Fozzie [who is driving]: Right, frog.

  3. marie-lucie says:

    Spanish derecho/derecha

    I can believe that anglophones would find it hard to hear the difference in the final, unstressed vowels.

    French, with à droit and tout droit

    “To the right” is à droite or more specifically à ma droite ‘to my right’ (and similarly with other pronouns). The word is always in feminine form, as it is short for main droite, ‘right hand’, as in à main droite ‘to the right (hand)’, which may be old-fashioned now. Tout droit means ‘in a straight line’, hence on the road ‘straight ahead’. You can hear the “t” sound in droite but not in droit. In Marseille you would also hear the “e” at the end of droite.

  4. Stefan Holm says:

    Is in English the often debated topic in Swedish about the difference between humane / humanitarian and humanist(-ic) ever heard? I.e. a true Christian could well be a humanitarian but at least not unobjectionable a humanist. (I believe though that Sw. professors are beginning to give up their claims that humanism is a philosophy with roots in Renaissance and not another word for philanthropy ).

  5. J. W. Brewer says:

    Stefan: in AmEng discourse one sometimes sees the fixed phrase (maybe a bit pejorative?) “secular humanism,” from the use of which it may be safely inferred that “humanism” simpliciter is not universally understood as unambiguously and inherently secular. And, indeed, is a thing, or is at least talked about in scholarly discourse as if it once had been.

  6. How about German versus Germanic (a distinction that’s much clearer in languages other than English)? I think that’s part of what causes people to think English “comes from” German, though since they may also similarly think evolution says humans “come from” apes, the terminological confusion isn’t the whole story.

  7. derecho ‘straight (ahead)’ and (a la) derecha ‘(to the) right’

    it’s not like Russian equivalents, прямо / право, a very different.

    Anyway the peculiarity of “impenetrability of the specialists’ language” in Russian has a unique aspect of using the same word, and changing the stressed syllable.
    Like in college we could go to a cafeteria and get a кОмплексный (lit. complex i.e. prix-fixe) lunch, then return to a classroom to work on комплЕксные (complex) numbers. The set-menu meal would follow the dictionary conventions, but the math auditorium usage would be the specialists’ slang.

  8. @Athel Cornish-Bowden: I don’t know if your directions problem was a trans-Atlantic difference. I, an American, would interpret “Take the next right” as you would. However, that assumes that I’m in motion. If I’m stopped at a traffic light, and I’m told, “Take the next right,” I would interpret to meant the next one after the intersection—because if it were the one directly to my right, I should have been told already. If the navigator wants to turn at that very intersection, “Take this right,” is required.

  9. I always find the etymology of these left/right words to be fascinating. In the case of “right”, the meaning straight, correct is earlier than the directional meaning, and the directional meaning came about from thinking of the right hand as the correct hand. I think the same is true for derecho and droit (from Latin directus). But for the left words gauche and sinister, the development seems to have happened in the opposite direction: the directional meaning was first, then the bad meanings developed from the association to the left hand.

    The other interesting thing is how unstable and prone to replacement these words seem to be. In the Romance languages we have izquierdo/sinistro/gauche and in English the directional meanings of right and left seem to be post-Old English.

  10. The talking GPS app in my wife’s smartphone is very impressive. My main complaint is that it pronounces “left” in a way that sounds a lot like “right”.

  11. Three and five? 2:12

  12. @Dmitry Pruss. I always stress комплексный on the first syllable, accommodation be damned. But Russian is full of that kind of stuff. Even absolutely non-technical word путь (way, road) changed gender(!) in the specialized speech (for railways).

  13. I’ve encountered the derecho / a la derecha thing too.

    I have a relative from Mexico City who visits all the time and when he does he likes to drive. He’ll be driving and I’ll be giving directions and I’ll say “derecho” when I mean “straight ahead” and “a la derecha” when I mean “to the right”. As the saying goes, it is “Como Dios manda” (as God wills it) but no, he is the one who gets them confused despite being a native speaker himself. There’s always a lot pointing this way and that way and yes-ing and no-ing, and “go this way”, “no, that way”, “no, the other way!” when we go for a ride.

  14. “OK, here we take a left.”


    “No, left!”

  15. David Marjanović says:


    manche meinen
    lechts und rinks
    kann man nicht velwechsern
    werch ein illtum

    Ernst Jandl

    [Richtung: direction. Lichtung: clearing in a forest. – “Some think / reft and light / cannot be confused / what an ellol”]

    Three and five? 2:12

    “This video is not available. We’re sorry.” I’m familiar with it, though. 🙂

  16. Sinister itself may have started life as a euphemism, if it’s to be related with Vedic sanīyān “more profitable” (a suggestion of Brugmann; I don’t know what people think of this nowadays). Latin and Greek both inherited a pair of rhyming cognates both meaning “left” — laevus / scaevus, λαιός / σκαιός — but these didn’t last long in either language; Greek came up with the euphemisms εὐώνυμος “the one with the good name” and ἀριστερός “best-er” (basically a comparative on top of a superlative, since you can’t be too careful), the latter of which is still the word for left in the modern language.

  17. But laevus survives in chemistry as levo- (or laevo-), the opposite of dextro-. I guess sinistro- was too sinister-sounding.

  18. @Keith Ivey: That’s a bugbear of mine – humans do come from apes, and humans do come from monkeys, in just the same way that birds come from dinosaurs. “Ape” and “monkey” are paraphyletic groups, meaning that the most recent common ancestor of apes had already split into a number of lineages (gibbons, orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees+humans) before humans split from one of those lineages, and the most recent common ancestor of monkeys had likewise split into two lineages (New World Monkeys, and Old World Monkeys+apes+humans) before apes split from one of those.

    (In your linguistic example, claiming that English comes from German is like claiming that humans come from gorillas, which is indeed false. But claiming that humans come from apes is like claiming that English comes from [all Germanic languages that are not English], which is true.)

    I have to correct this a lot, because it seems to have become a near-universal axiom among generally well-informed people that “we’re not descended from apes, we just share a common ancestor with them”, as if there had been some species that split into a humans-only lineage and an all-other-apes lineage. I think this betrays an unfortunate defensiveness among “pro-science” people: most of us can acknowledge that humans are descended from from amphibians and from fish, but apparently those old “I ain’t no monkey!” jibes struck so close to home that we’re now afraid to acknowledge our descent from the most remarkably humanlike creatures that there are.

  19. –As the saying goes, it is “Como Dios manda” (as God wills it)

    This looks like a literal translation of Arabic “Inshallah”, inherited by Spanish from the Moors, I suppose.

  20. SFReader,

    As far as I can tell, “Como Dios manda” in Spanish, and definitely “come Dio comanda” in Italian, means “done right,” the way God intended to be done. I know no Arabic, but I thought “inshallah” meant something like “if God allows.”

    By the way, Spanish does retain the Arabic expression as “ojalá,” which express hope: “¡Ojalá fuera así!”
    means “Would that it were so!”

  21. Inter-/intra- can be pretty hard to distinguish as well.

  22. Keith Ivey,

    But laevus survives in chemistry as levo- (or laevo-), the opposite of dextro-. I guess sinistro- was too sinister-sounding.

    Nope. We use R-/S- when not dealing with sugars and aminoacids.

  23. True, “S” comes from “sinister” (and “R” comes from “rectus”, which brings up the straight/right confusion yet again), but I think it’s even more bizarre that “sinister” is used but not paired with “dexter”, while “dexter” is used but not paired with “sinister”.

  24. There is a much-mooted contrast in German between Kynismus and Zynismus. The former is a philosophical cloud chamber in which traces of the unrecorded tenets of Diogenes of Sinope are observed. Zynismus is cynicism. Reams of books and articles have been written about this, for instance this book, which I just laid aside in disgust. The contrast does not exist in English, fortunately, so most of that stuff will not recommend itself for translation. In the anglophone world, the subject will always be much-muted.

    Sloterdijk’s Kritik der zynischen Vernunft was published a few years after the one I just linked. He talks a bit about Diogenes and this contrast, of course, but moves on to other things (as he always does, being a motor-mouthed motor-mind). All you need to know for a cocktail party discussion of the book: he characterizes cynicism as “enlightened false consciousness”.

  25. For languagehat 6:33pm:
    My father was once navigator of a guided-missile cruiser. You might have thought sailors always say ‘port’ and ‘starboard’ but his captain once asked “should we turn left?” while under way in a crowded waterway. “Right, captain, left” was not the right (I mean the correct) answer.

  26. Homoousion/homoiousion?

  27. I have been on car trips where driver and navigator had to resort to ‘your side’ and ‘my side’ because both kept getting left and right mixed up. I can recommend the system, there is very rarely any confusion.

  28. When my father was giving directions while I was driving, and we came to roundabouts and other non-orthogonal junctions, he would use the the clock system to indicate which way to turn. However, for him “six o’clock” meant “straight ahead”.

  29. The other classic which confuses Americans endlessly is UK ‘public’ (i.e. private) schools.

    Incidentally, there is quite a good essay on left and right:

    Robert Hertz, ‘The Pre-Eminence of the Right Hand: A Study in Religious Polarity’ (orig. in French, 1909), in Rodney Needham, ed. Right and Left: Essays on Dual Symbolic Classification (Chicago and London: U of C Press, 1973)

  30. Kant was a fucking bastard.

    Heidegger was even worse: ontic and ontological, Sein and Seiendes and many a propundity such as geworfen/entworfen etc etc.

  31. ajay:

    Them’s fightin’ words!!

  32. Consubstantiation, “not to be confused with” consubstantiality, sez the WiPe.

  33. @Stu: What, you didn’t think the book on Kynismus and Zynismus “macht den Prozeß deutlich”? How rare for a German academic book.

    I’d think the English would be “Cynicism” and “cynicism” respectively. Interesting to consider what a translator would do with that, though. It’d surely end up as one of those books that have to be mentally translated back into the original to make sense.

  34. Trond Engen says:

    Conrad: Kant was a fucking bastard.

    <Stu: Heidegger was even worse

    And Wittgenstein was a beery swine who was just as schloshed as Schlegel.

  35. tetri_tolia says:

    Georgian words for left and right are the astonishingly boggling მარცხნივ / მარჯვნივ martskhniv / marjvniv. Took me inventing a convoluted mnemonic to keep them straight, and still the extra v in marjvniv occasionally migrates to the other word, and I mispronounce it as *martskhvniv (because in Georgian, a cluster of 5 consonants totally makes more sense than 4…)

  36. tetri_tolia says:

    Not very subtly, martskh- is the root for “failure”, and marjv- is the root for “victory”. Many left-handed Georgian 1st graders are forced to write with their right hands.

  37. “Heidegger was even worse”


  38. Heidegger was even worse: ontic and ontological, Sein and Seiendes

    My preferred translations are “entity” and “entition”, as in “the entition of the entity”. For some reason they persist in not catching on.

  39. humans do come from apes, and humans do come from monkeys, in just the same way that birds come from dinosaurs

    The difference is that dinosaurs are extinct whereas apes and monkeys are not. Saying that people descend from apes suggests that humans have some currently existing ape or monkey species in our direct lineage, which is false; it also spurs the ill-posed question “If humans are descended from apes, why are apes still around?” Saying that humans and [extant] apes have a common ancestor is far less confusing all round.

    Kant was a fucking bastard.

    Policeman: “If I let you off the hook, I’d have to let everyone off the hook.”

    Sidney Morgenbesser: “Who do you think you are, Kant?”

    Policeman arrests Morgenbesser and takes him to the station, where he remains until rescued by someone with a knowledge of philosophy. From which we see that such knowledge is not entirely without practical value.

    Entweder transsubstantiation oder consubstantiation but in no case subsubstantiation.” —Ulysses

  40. Saying that people descend from apes suggests that humans have some currently existing ape or monkey species in our direct lineage, which is false; it also spurs the ill-posed question “If humans are descended from apes, why are apes still around?” Saying that humans and [extant] apes have a common ancestor is far less confusing all round.

    I have always told my son that humans just plain are apes. (Wikipedia has the homos, dont nous, as a branch of the Hominidae.) Is this cladistically erroneous, taxonomically disputable or is it just one of those things that some people get antsy about despite a well-established scholarly consensus?

  41. recount and recant

  42. @des von bladet: By any reasonably scientific definitions, humans are apes, and apes are monkeys. (Moreover, the notion that apes are not a subcategory of monkeys is ahistorical as well as unscientific.)

  43. J. W. Brewer says:

    Upon reflection, you can tell that the Monty Python “Philosophers’ Song” was written quite a long time ago by its utter failure to make reference to Derrida. His generation of dubious Frenchmen had presumably not yet slipped into the Oxbridge curriculum when the Pythons were acquiring the intellectual foundation for their subsequent careers back in the early Sixties.

  44. AJP Crown says:

    Eric Idol’s Philosophers’ Song is much better the way it is. But you’re right about the dates; the French philosopher who’s known to the the cleaning ladies is Sartre. There was a huge public fight in the early 1990s when Cambridge wanted to award an honorary degree to Derrida. I think he got it in the end, but only after a vote.

  45. Stefan Holm says:

    The verb ’transsubstantiera’ is heard only once in Swedish as a result of a bet offered to the author Frans G. Bengtsson that he couldn’t use it in a poem. He did in 1923 and it became a still popular song: En ballad om franske kungens spelmän, even translated and recorded in English by Martin Best and titled Ballad of the French King’s Minstrels.

    The poem is about the adventures of the (perhaps first ever) military band created by French king Charles VIII and participating in his campaign to Naples 1495. These adventures the very last line says: ha vi transsubstantierat till en sång, ‘have we transsubstantiated into a song’.

    Bengtsson himself described his poem as ‘fairly educated but incomprehensible’. Author colleague Ivar Lo-Johansson wrote that it is a song ‘sung by educated Swedes when they get enough drunk’. Here it is, by the way…

  46. The difference is that dinosaurs are extinct whereas apes and monkeys are not. Saying that people descend from apes suggests that humans have some currently existing ape or monkey species in our direct lineage, which is false; it also spurs the ill-posed question “If humans are descended from apes, why are apes still around?”

    I used dinosaurs in the example, but if you take things to a higher level, you’ll see that birds are also descended from the class Reptilia, which still exists in droves. So we may as well pose the quesiton “If birds are descended from reptiles, why are reptiles still around?” The answer is simple: because reptiles are a paraphyletic class. The only way to avoid this question is to claim that dinosaurs weren’t reptiles.

    Saying that humans and [extant] apes have a common ancestor is far less confusing all round.

    I disagree. As I indicated above, this statement implies that there was a species which diverged into one lineage containing humans, and one lineage containing all (other) apes, which is a huge misapprehension of evolutionary history. To claim that we’re not descended from apes is to claim that the MRCA of chimpanzees and gorillas was not an ape – and the MRCA of that species with orangutans, and of that species with gibbons. It’s to claim that these four already separate lineages, despite their shared apelike characteristics, can only bear the name ape after humans arrive on the scene, which is a highly anthropocentric view to take. The same logic would founder completely if applied to a monophyletic group: would anyone take it on themselves to claim that the MRCA of lions and leopards was not a cat, for fear of implying that the species in question is a currently existing cat?

  47. This apes-and-birds discussion morphs by and by into the old riddle whether tomatoes are fruits or vegetables. Common language and specialized biological language do not need to agree. There is nothing uncouth to define “apes” as “non-human apes”. What to do with ancestors is a separate question. And saying that humans and extant apes have a common ancestor does not imply that all extant apes have a common ancestor which wasn’t a human ancestor. At least not outside some specialized use of language.
    For example, my blood relatives are people who have some of the same ancestors as me (that is, strictly speaking, all people, but let’s drop it for a moment). Usually I would not count myself as my own blood relation nonetheless. And the fact that this group includes my sister and my cousins, but not me, is of no importance.

  48. I have no problem with the use of paraphyletic names in speech – cladistics is not everything, and there are perfectly valid reasons why we might like to refer to apes, or monkeys, or animals, as groups distinct from humans. But we are descended from them. And the two-part formulation that I hear over and over again is, “No, evolution doesn’t say we’re descended from apes, just that we share a common ancestor with them”, as if the idea of our having ape ancestors is some Creationist slight to be dispelled. To use the family analogy, imagine that your first cousins are named Smith, and your siblings are named Smith, but for whatever reason you’ve changed my name to Jones. The Smiths, here, are a paraphyletic group. Would it make sense to say “I’m not descended from Smiths, I just share a common ancestor with them”?

  49. Sorry, “my name” should be “your name” above.

  50. @Lazar: I think the misconception people are trying to dispel with the phrasing you describe is that humans are descended from chimps or gorillas. Maybe a better way of saying it is that humans and [other] present-day apes have a common ancestor; the common ancestor was also an ape species, but that species no longer exists.

  51. In view of all these disagreements about what “descended from” means, what “apes/monkeys” means and so on, it’s no wonder that Creationists still gain the ear of the general public. They don’t dither and hedge. As far as rhetoric goes, simplicity has an socioevolutionary advantage over complexity.

    Evolution is a messy, unpredictable business. What we can observe here is the evolution of the notion of evolution. It’s clearly struggling to survive.

  52. “the entition of the entity”

    This has a pleasing sound, and morphs easily into another profound idea: “dentition of the identity”. My essay on How The Ego Cuts Its Teeth has not yet been published.

  53. @Lazar You might’ve changed your surname to Jones if you were a woman who’d married a Mr Jones. Now suppose that you had children, and their surname was always Jones. I think it would be true to say that the Smiths and the Joneses have a common ancestor. I think we needn’t defend the statement “Humans aren’t descended from apes, we just share a common ancestor with them” — I think it’s enough to defend the statement “Humans and apes have a common ancestor” pure and simple. It avoids the question of whether or not we should label the common ancestor “ape”.

    An underlying purpose of taking care what to say is to defend evolution science against the creationists’ straw man that Keith Ivey alluded to, viz that we claim that humans come from (i.e. are descended from) apes. It might technically be true — it might be reasonable to label humans’ and apes’ MRCA “ape” — but creationists’ purpose is to mock evolution science, not to tell the truth so far as scientists know it. People hearing the word “ape” think of present-day apes, so the statement “humans come from apes” sounds as if the MRCA lived only a few generations ago. “Humans and apes have a common ancestor” avoids creationists’ mockery, as well as being true.

  54. Russian has very nice term for apes – “human-like monkeys”.

  55. It might technically be true — it might be reasonable to label humans’ and apes’ MRCA “ape” — but creationists’ purpose is to mock evolution science, not to tell the truth so far as scientists know it.

    But this illustrates what I meant about the defensiveness of the pro-science crowd: when Creationists attempt to mock us with something that happens to be true, rather than accepting the charge with confidence and explaining why it’s true, we run from it and try to sidestep the issue. D.O. disputes my view that “we share a common ancestor” is misleading, but all the same, my impression – based on how often it’s paired with “we’re not descended from them” – is that most people who use it are using it to express a misconceived view of evolutionary history, and removing the explicitly false part will do little to dispel that view. “We’re descended from apes” leaves less room for such misconception, because it’s clearer on what our ancestors were and on the issue of paraphyly. I don’t fully understand the objection that this will bring to mind present-day apes: it verges on tautology to point out that apes which existed in the past are not apes which exist today, and the species in question would likely appear even more similar to a chimp than does a gorilla, as it had already split from the MRCA of the two.

    (I apologize for taking the thread on a biological tangent, although I suppose there’s still a linguistic component to it.)

  56. What about scatology and eschatology? The problem in Spanish is worse; there is only a word: “escatología”.

  57. There is a well-known brand of anisette in Spain since 1870 called “Anís del Mono” (anisette of ape) whose label has a caricature of Darwin according to the theory more widespread. It seems the owners were against the Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

  58. I apologize for taking the thread on a biological tangent

    No apology needed; it’s interesting and thought-provoking, and that’s all I ask of a comment thread.

  59. human-like monkeys

    Historically, what we call apes were formerly known as “anthropoid apes” (of which the Russian is evidently a calque) to avoid confusing them with the various monkeys historically called “apes”, notably the Barbary ape, Macaca sylvanus.

    would likely appear even more similar to a chimp than does a gorilla

    While this may be true, it’s not a universal rule. The group {Spanish, Italian} is paraphyletic with respect to French (which is more closely related to Spanish than to Italian). but they are far more similar to each other than either is to French, because French has undergone far more mutation since the MRCA.

  60. >John Cowan
    From « Escape from the Planet of the Apes”:
    Do you understand? We mean you
    no harm.

    Slowly and bitterly, ZIRA points an ironic and accusing
    finger at the next cage, where an anesthetized and
    chained GORILLA slumps in the shadows.

    But he isn’t us. He’s your own

    (angrily on her
    feet in a flash)
    He’s a gorilla.

  61. Anyway our MRCA with the extant apes may be some retrovirus – a genetic equivalent of a recent borrowing in linguistics. It wouldn’t be far “the most prominent ancestor”, but “the most recent one”. And just like with the ancient language interinfluences which may have come in waves and between distinct, if related, languages of the past, so it may turn out that we share more than one principal ancestor with the extant apes.

    known as “anthropoid apes” (of which the Russian is evidently a calque)

    which immediately reminded me that Ukrainian has a separate (and weirdly sounding) word for apes (vs. monkeys) (as well as for the “at” sign, @ !), мавпа “mavpa” which didn’t have any transparent etymology for me. Apparently <= Polish małpa (also Yiddish מאַלפּע) <= (???) German maulaffe, a traditional figurine with a gaping mouth where affe must be cognate with “ape”? But Hungarian majom isn’t from German, but rather from the Turkish maymun <= Arabic مَيْمُون.

  62. Affe indeed, like French singe, means both ‘ape’ and ‘monkey’, and is cognate with ape.

  63. marie-lucie says:

    French le singe does mean both ‘ape’ and ‘monkey’. To refer to gorillas and orang-utans, etc it is common to use les grands singes ‘the large singes‘.

  64. Ha? Ukrainian мавпа means both ape and monkey.

  65. human-like monkeys

    Historically, what we call apes were formerly known as “anthropoid apes” (of which the Russian is evidently a calque)
    German has Menschenaffen, which has the same literal meaning, and which, taking into account the influence German had on Russian in culture and the sciences, is probably the immediate source of the Russian expression.

  66. David Marjanović says:



    German maulaffe, a traditional figurine with a gaping mouth

    That, “maw” + “ape/monkey”, is a High German folk etymology of the Low German for “keeping your maw open”, “standing there, looking stupid and not doing anything”.

  67. It can’t be very Low, or it would have had /p/ instead of /f/ in the word for ‘open’.

    Which reminds me: there is a fairly new theory of just how and where the High German Consonant Shift began, and it is in a very surprising place: after short vowels. The idea is that original pre-German [o.pʰan] ‘open’ was resegmented as [op.han], whereby the aspiration became a full consonant. This [h] then strengthened to a full fricative [f] while the coda [p] simultaneously weakened to the same [f], giving [], the ancestor of Standard German offen. Eventually the shift then spread throughout the language.

    The evidence for this is the dialect of Wermelskirchen, a North Rhenish village at the very tippy top of the Low German area, which was apparently reached by the first wave of the shift but not any of the later ones. As a result, by the turn of the 20th century, people there were saying [vesən] ‘know’, [ɛsən] ‘eat’, [ɔfn] ‘open’, [lɛfəl] ‘spoon, [brɛçən] ‘break’, [vɛçə] ‘week’, all of them shifted, like standard wissen, essen, offen, Löffel, brechen, Woche). But in other contexts they had [smiːtən] ‘throw’ (cf. English smite), [strɔːtə] ‘street’, [ʃarp] ‘sharp’, [pɛfər] ‘pepper’, [zyːken] ‘seek’, [ʃriːkən] ‘shriek’, very unlike standard schmeißen, Straße, scharf, pfeffer, suchen. (I don’t know any Standard German cognate for shriek, which is actually a Norse borrowing in English).

    The evidence of the strong verbs is even more striking: ‘shoot’ was [ʃiːtən, ʃɔs, jəʃɔsən], ‘break’ was [brɛçən, brɔːk, jəbrɔχən], and ‘strike’ was [striːkən, streç, jəʃtreçən]. Here the historical long/short ablaut oppositions are preserved along with their direct influences on the consonants.

  68. Fascinating!

  69. Trond Engen says:

    JC: It can’t be very Low, or it would have had /p/ instead of /f/ in the word for ‘open’.

    Wouldn’t *apa (?) and *opan develop in parallel? If so, it wouldn’t take more than awareness of the regular correspondence.

  70. Folk etymology, perhaps, but it’s still hard for me to believe that maulaffe (or even any version with ‘p’) would evolve into Polish „małpa” [~mawpa], it almost looks like the distance is too great both semantically and phonetically…

  71. Stefan Holm says:

    I don’t know any Standard German cognate for shriek, which is actually a Norse borrowing in English

    No, but there is OSax scrĭcon and MLG schrĭen, schrĭgen. Since the word obviously is onomatopoetic, varieties are expected. Modern Swedish has both skrika and skria, ‘cry (out)’ with the same semantics, the latter maybe being a little more poetic.

  72. The latter looks like schreien.

  73. Stephen Bruce says:

    Hopefully the next revision of the OED entry on “ape” will indicate when people first started using “ape” to refer to humans; the current entry from 1885 mentions: (1) the “monkey tribe” Simiadae (which seems obsolete) and (2) “A member of the Simiadæ, having no tail nor cheek-pouches.”

    Whatever terminology we use, it is clear that humans and non-human apes are not descended from (Latin) apes, though apes and apes share a common ancestor.

  74. David: Ideenevolution … Memetics

    Nope, nothing do to with “memes”, a silly notion Luhmann never bothered with. But it’s a nice pun, better than barfology !

    Jede Art von kulturgeschichtlicher Forschung, nicht nur die soziologische, findet sich heute vor zwei fundamentalen Schwierigkeiten. Die eine betrifft die unerschöpfliche Masse der Einzelheiten, die andere die erkenntnistheoretischen Grundlagen… Die Feinfühligkeit, Kompliziertheit, Beweglichkeit des Ideenguts der Tradition – man denke an theologische oder juristische Dogmatiken, an Stilfragen in der Kunstentwicklung, an die Moralkasuistik der Beichte oder an die Liebeskasuistik der Salons – bereitet allein schon einer hinreichend sensiblen Bestandsaufnahme kaum lösbare Schwierigkeiten. Forscher, die man mit dem Auftrag, festzustellen, wie es wirklich war, ins Feld jagt, kommen nicht zurück; sie apportieren nicht, sie rapportieren nicht, sie bleiben stehen und schnuppern entzückt an den Details.

  75. David Marjanović says:

    “Simiadae” is obsolete as all hell: Simia itself was suppressed by the Commission in Opinion 114 because its usage was too confusing and there was no non-arbitrary way to determine which species this genus name should be attached to; the ending -adae doesn’t exist anymore either, families end in -idae and tribes in -ini.

    Which reminds me: there is a fairly new theory of just how and where the High German Consonant Shift began, and it is in a very surprising place: after short vowels.

    Surprising and fascinating indeed!

    It can’t be very Low, or it would have had /p/ instead of /f/ in the word for ‘open’.

    It did; High German folk etymology did take care of that, but failed at the vowels.

  76. David Marjanović says:

    I’m still thinking about the surprise. 🙂 Maybe syllables are the key to the mystery in a different way: Proto-Germanic had three kinds of stressed syllables:

    1) short, ending in a short vowel followed by short consonant;
    2) long, ending in a short vowel followed by a long consonant;
    3) long, ending in a long vowel or a diphthong or a short vowel + /m n l r/ followed by a short consonant.

    (Overlong syllables, like 3 but ending in a long consonant, had existed earlier, but were converted to long syllables by shortening the consonant before the Proto-Germanic stage.)

    Both West Germanic gemination and the HG consonant shift converted some short stressed syllables into long ones; one might interpret a trend into this that culminated in the complete elimination of short stressed syllables by the lengthening of open syllables a few hundred years ago.

    The HG consonant shift, however, overshot: it went against the trend by creating new overlong syllables by putting long fricatives behind long syllable nuclei. And that is exactly the part that was not adopted in Wermelskirchen. I wonder if, when the shift arrived from the south, the good people of Wermelskirchen found the shift natural enough where it turned short stressed syllables into long ones, but ugly newfangled silliness where it turned long syllables into overlong ones, and therefore preferred to leave that part to their strange southern neighbors.

  77. That’s more or less what the original paper says, but with the addition of the three vows of academia (poverty, bibliography, and jargon). Sorry for not posting the reference before: characteristically, I am way more interested in the cool data than in the explanations.

    Typos above: for [striːkən, streç] read of course [ʃtriːkən, ʃtreç].

  78. David Marjanović says:

    I am way more interested in the cool data than in the explanations

    And right you are, because you can’t argue with data, while I find a lot to bicker with in the explanations. Is anybody interested in what exactly? 🙂

    Even the most direct interpretation of the data isn’t flawless. At the end of p. 20, Kirche is mentioned as an example of the shift of /k/ in “post-liquid environments”. As even Wikipedia knows, that is plainly incorrect:

    Other ostensible irregularities in the sound shift, which we may notice in modern Standard German, are usually clarified by checking the etymology of an individual word. Possible reasons include:
    Later developments after the High German sound shift, especially the elimination of some unstressed vowels. For example, Dutch kerk and German Kirche (“church”) seem to indicate an irregular shift -rk- > -rch- (compare regular German Mark, stark, Werk). However, Kirche stems from OHG kirihha (Greek kyrikē) with a vowel after /r/ (which makes the shift perfectly regular). Similarly, the shifted form Milch (“milk”) was miluh or milih in OHG, whereas the unshifted melken (“to milk”) never had a vowel after /l/.

    See also Old English cirice. …The Greek original is missing an a (kyriakē), isn’t it?

    The most important other thing about the presentation of the data is that the f in schlafen is long in those varieties that have kept consonant length in the first place, including Swiss and Austrian Standard German. The orthography is in denial about this, but even my dad has apparently noticed – he routinely misspells schlafen with ff.

    I also find it particularly strange that no mention is made of what’s happening right now in Liverpool, where aspirated consonants go to affricate. And so on and so forth – I’ll stop here for now. 🙂

    the three vows of academia (poverty, bibliography, and jargon)

    I love that. 🙂

    That’s more or less what the original paper says

    The difference is that I offered the idea only to explain the spread of the shift, not its origin. The paper equates the causes of the spread with the causes of the origin.

    Anyway, Google Scholar immediately found the paywall; the paper was published in 1999.

  79. David Marjanović says:

    I’m sure there was another, more recent thread where the dialect of Wermelskirchen came up, but this is the only one Google finds. The good news is that a dictionary was published in 2003, so apparently the dialect didn’t die out very soon after the original description which appeared in 1905. The bad news is that the dictionary was published by a history association, so maybe the dialect is history now.

    Horst Joest (2003): Wärmȩlskirkȩr Plat: Ein inhaltlich gegliedertes Wörterbuch in Lautschrift [a dictionary in a phonetic alphabet, ordered by topics]. Bergischer Geschichtsverein, Abteilung Wermelskirchen.
    cited here

  80. The “three vows of academia” are the invention (or discovery) of Leo Rosten, author of The Joys of Yiddish and many other books.

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