Thesaurus Linguae Latinae.

I can’t believe I’ve never reported on this massive lexicographical project before, but such appears to be the case. Happily, Byrd Pinkerton has done an NPR piece that gives me a chance to remedy the omission:

On the second floor of an old Bavarian palace in Munich, Germany, there’s a library with high ceilings, a distinctly bookish smell and one of the world’s most extensive collections of Latin texts. About 20 researchers from all over the world work in small offices around the room.

They’re laboring on a comprehensive Latin dictionary that’s been in progress since 1894. The most recently published volume contained all the words beginning with the letter P. That was back in 2010.

And they’re not as far along as that may lead you to believe. They skipped over N years ago because it has so many long words, and now they’ve had to go back to that one. They’re also working on R at the same time. That should take care of the rest of this decade.

The Thesaurus Linguae Latinae was one of many big, scholarly projects taken on by the German government in the late 19th century.

Through two World Wars and German reunification, generations of Latin scholars have been chipping away at the same goal: documenting every use of every Latin word from the earliest Latin inscriptions in the 6th century BC up until around 200 AD, when it was in decline as a spoken language. Befitting the comprehensive nature of the project, the scholars will also include some words up to the 6th century AD.

That means poetry and history and speeches. But it also means every gravestone and street sign. It means architectural works, medical and legal texts, books about animals or cooking.

There’s a lot more about the history and techniques involved, as well as the people who work on it (and some great photos); I’ll just quote this one additional bit to explain a joke:

Her colleague, Nigel Holmes, a Thesaurus editor, wrote the article for nam, or “for.”

“I have sometimes joked that I still have nightmares from when I was in nam,” he admits. “But it was actually, it was easier than I thought.”

For those too young to remember, “Nam” (rhymes with “ham”) used to be a common way to refer to Vietnam (and the war America fought there), and “when I was in Nam” was a phrase you heard a lot.

Sac or Poche?

Or sachet or pochon? Or perhaps cornet or nylon? The French have many words for ‘plastic shopping bag,’ and you can see the geographical distribution at Arika Okrent’s Mental Floss post, along with a link to more such maps. Now I’m wondering what the Québecois say…

Most of the Translators Are in Hell.

Ursula Sims-Williams writes about “When Akbar commissioned a Persian take on the Mahabharata,” and a fascinating read it is, with gorgeous illustrations, but I can’t resist excerpting the same passage from Badāʼūnī’s Muntakhab al-tavārīkh that Trevor quoted in his e-mail when he sent me the link:

Collecting together the learned men of India, His Majesty directed that the book Mahabharat should be translated. For some nights His Majesty personally (had it) explained to Naqib Khan, who wrote out the resultant text in Persian. On the third night His Majesty summoned me and ordered me to translate it in collaboration with Naqib Khan. In three or four months out of the eighteen chapters (fan) of that stock of useless fables… I wrote out two chapters. … Thereafter Mulla Shiri and Naqib Khan completed that section, and one section Sultan Haji Thanesari ʻMunfaridʼ brought to completion.

Shaikh Faizi was then appointed to write it in verse and prose, but he too did not complete more than two Chapters (fan). Again, the said Haji wrote out two sections and rectified the errors which were committed in the first round, and fitting one part with another, compiled a hundred fasciculi. The direction was to establish exactitude in a minute manner so that nothing of the original should be lost. In the end upon some fault, His Majesty ordered him (Haji Thanesari) to be dismissed and sent away to Bhakkar, his native city, where he still is. Most of the interpreters and translators are in hell along with Korus and Pandavs, and as for the remaining ones, may God save them, and mercifully destine them to repent…. His Majesty named the work Razmnaama (Epic), and had it illustrated and transcribed in many copies, and the nobles too were ordered to have it transcribed by way of obtaining blessings. Shaikh Abul Fazl… wrote a preface of the length of two quires (juzv) for that work.

From Chickenman to Eagleton.

I’ve barely begun reading Michael S. Gorham’s 2003 Speaking in Soviet Tongues: Language Culture and the Politics of Voice in Revolutionary Russia (which incorporates his article “Mastering the Perverse: State Building and Language ‘Purification’ in Early Soviet Russia,” discussed in this 2008 post), and I’m already hooked — it’s one of those dense books whose every page provides material to think about. There are all kinds of passages I could quote, but for the moment I’ll limit myself to this (from pages 30-31), on the adoption of new family names (I’ve incorporated the footnotes, bracketed, in the text):

A less well-known study of registered name changes in the early Soviet years brings this point to bear, by showing that, apart from those taking on surnames in the Soviet spirit (Maiskaia, Oktiabr’skii, Leninskii, Mashininskii, Kombainov, Boitsov), hundreds of other citizens took advantage of the spirit of revolution to realize their own, personal transformation, which often had little or nothing to do with supporting or resisting the state. [Surnames listed are derived, in order, from the Russian words for “May,” “October,” “Lenin,” “machine,” “combine,” and “fighter.” …] Some took the opportunity to abandon derogatory “talking” surnames (a relatively common trait in Russian), such as Sobachkin, Korovin, Krysov, Tarakanov, Dikarev, Negodiaev, Durakov, Zhirnyi, Sliun’kov, Pupkov, Pupkin, Kulibaba, Likhobaba, and Sorokobabkin. [Surnames derived, in order, from the Russian words for “dog,” “cow,” “rat,” “cockroach,” “savage,” “scoundrel,” “fool,” “fat,” “saliva,” “navel [pup],” “coolie wench,” “varmint wench,” and “blabbermouth wench.” …] Others simply opted for more prestigious, poetic, or euphonic names — again, having little to do with the new Soviet order per se (Pushkin, Tolstoy, Onegin, Nevskii, Gorskii, Amurskii, Uralov, Anis’ia KhliupinaGalina Borovaia, SamodurovPoliarnyi, KurochkaOrlov). [The first surnames listed are derived from names of Russian writers or fictional characters … and geographical references (Neva, gora [“mountain”], Amur, Urals). In the “before → after” examples, Anis’ia Khliupina rejects a surname evocative of “sloshing” or “slogging” (e.g., through the mud) for one that recalls a pine forest (acquiring a more classical, high-society given name as well), a “self-made fool” becomes “the polar one,” and “Chickenman” becomes “Eagleton.”]

I loved seeing Pupkin in the second list, a name indelibly associated with Robert De Niro’s great role in The King of Comedy,

The Perfect Language to Sell Pigs In.

Michael Hartnett, like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, abandoned English to write in a language that far fewer people read; I learned about him from an e-mail that linked to this five-minute interview in Irish:

The bilingual poet Michael Hartnett died in Dublin on 13 October 1999. Renowned for his poetry in both English and Irish, he staked his claim to the Irish language in 1975, when he announced to the world through his book ‘A Farewell to English’ that he would no longer write in English.

‘Féach’ followed him to his new home in Co. Limerick to find out why he had fled Dublin and abandoned the English language. In this interview with Éamon Ó Muirí, Hartnett says he is a poet, but linguistically, “is bastard mise, leath-Ghall agus leath-Ghael”.

There was also a link to this excerpt from A Farewell to English:

I am nothing new
I am not a lonely mouth
trying to chew
a niche for culture
in the clergy-cluttered south.

But I will not see
great men go down
who walked in rags
from town to town
finding English a necessary sin
the perfect language to sell pigs in.

I have made my choice
and leave with little weeping:
I have come with meagre voice
to court the language of my people.

Thanks, Trevor!

Uncommon Bulk.

From Chapter 104, “The Fossil Whale,” of Moby-Dick:

Since I have undertaken to manhandle this Leviathan, it behooves me to approve myself omnisciently exhaustive in the enterprise; not overlooking the minutest seminal germs of his blood, and spinning him out to the uttermost coil of his bowels. Having already described him in most of his present habitatory and anatomical peculiarities, it now remains to magnify him in an archaeological, fossiliferous, and antediluvian point of view. Applied to any other creature than the Leviathan – to an ant or a flea – such portly terms might justly be deemed unwarrantably grandiloquent. But when Leviathan is the text, the case is altered. Fain am I to stagger to this enterprise under the weightiest words of the dictionary. And here be it said, that whenever it has been convenient to consult one in the course of these dissertations, I have invariably used a huge quarto edition of Johnson, expressly purchased for that purpose; because that famous lexicographer’s uncommon personal bulk more fitted him to compile a lexicon to be used by a whale author like me.

I had forgotten how funny Melville can be.


Paul Jorgensen, “university professor, language enthusiast, avid traveler, and an obsessive creator,” has a home page, an Instagram site, a Twitter feed… well, let’s just say he’s plugged in. But his main focus is his YouTube channel (“On this channel I share my love for languages as well as my tips and ideas on how to learn most effectively”); I learned about it via an e-mail from Kobi, who describes it so well I might as well just let him tell you:

By chance I found a YouTube video Basque – A Language of Mystery. Poking around I found the LangFocus YouTube site which provides articles with basic information about various languages. The site owner knows Hebrew, I can confirm that he knows it quite well, and his linguistics makes sense to me as well. There’s a video about Hindi vs Urdu and quite a few others. I have yet to explore it more, and I can tell you that it isn’t too serious but quite well done.

What I watched confirms his final statement, and I might add that the “knows Hebrew” link is to a video in Hebrew about Hebrew in which he says he already made a video about Hebrew in Japanese, and he felt he’d better do one in Hebrew (his second language) as well! That’s impressive; I don’t know any of my foreign languages well enough to feel comfortable making a video in them.

Beuchelle, Beuschel.

In this thread, Syntinen Laulu asked about an obscure French culinary term, beuchelle à la tourangelle, “lamb’s kidneys and sweetbreads in a cream sauce flamed off with cognac”:

I couldn’t help being struck by the similarity of the name to the traditional Viennese dish Beuschel. Beuschel isn’t the same of course – it’s made of calf heart and lungs. But it is also a ragout of offal in cream sauce, and that’s a fairly close similarity.

So, it seems to me there are roughly three possibilities:

1. Pure coincidence, which as we all know can perfectly well throw up pairs of similar but unrelated words in different languages.

2. Direct borrowing, e.g an Austrian cook living in Touraine might have devised a little ragout of lamb’s offal and named it after the offal ragout of his home town. […]

3. The existence of a root word, maybe Old Germanic, meaning perhaps something like ‘offal’ or ‘stew’, outcropping in both French and Austrian German.

As I said in my response:

Neither the Trésor de la langue française informatisé nor the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française has “beuchelle,” so it’s definitely a very marginal part of the French vocabulary. While I’m normally quick to remind people about the possibility of coincidence in such matters, here it seems to me far more likely that the French is borrowed from the German; the details of the offal involved are exactly the sort of thing that would be likely to vary. But I’ll be interested to see if anyone knows more.



Time for another LH quiz! I’ve run into a couple of people who say /tɜrˈmɛrɪk/ (“tur-MARE-ik”), with penultimate stress, something not recorded in any of my dictionaries, which have only initial stress — cf. American Heritage, which gives /ˈtɜrmɜrɪk, ˈtuːmɜrɪk/. I’m curious whether this is idiosyncratic or a sign of an alternate pronunciation on the rise, so I put it to the Varied Reader: do you say this word with penultimate stress, or know someone who does?

Incidentally, the etymology is interesting; it’s from Middle English termeryte, derived from French terre mérite and/or New Latin terra merita, ‘turmeric’ (literally ‘merited earth’).

More on Gyalrongic and Sino-Tibetan.

Since LH has recently featured a fair amount of discussion of (R)gyalrongic languages, Chinese, and Tibeto-Burman (1, 2), I thought I’d post the links that Guillaume Jacques sent me to his paper “Tangut, Gyalrongic, Kiranti and the Nature of Person indexation in Sino-Tibetan/Trans-Himalayan” (published ahead of print in Linguistic Vanguard) and a blog post (in French) that briefly presents the debate, Le proto-sino-tibétain, une langue flexionnelle? Those interested in the topic should enjoy them.