Languagehat Returns.

Well, that was unexpected. You feel an unusual sense of compression in your abdomen, and before you know it an ER surgeon is telling you your appendix has to come out and having you wheeled off to the operating room. The team at Cooley Dickinson was wonderful and I had a relatively quick and easy recovery, but after a long (long, long) weekend, I’m very glad to be home. You won’t be surprised to hear that I’m feeling pretty logy and not up to major blog maintenance, but I did clear out the moderation queue (only four comments!), and I wanted to get a quick post up; I’ll read the comments y’all have been leaving, but maybe not till tomorrow. I certainly wasn’t expecting to do another non-language-related post about personal troubles anytime soon, but life does keep one off balance. Take care of yourselves, and remember, if you feel a strange sensation in your abdomen, don’t ignore it!

Curia.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’m reading Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD — superb, like everything he writes — and was struck by a word in the very first passage, about the “Harvester of Mactar,” who had his biography recorded in an epigraphic poem on a stele of which we have a substantial chunk. He “made his way up as a foreman of one of the great gangs of laborers … who would spread out over the plateau of eastern Numidia … as harvest laborers” to “the owner of a comfortable farm”; finally, “the income from his property made him eligible to membership of the town council of Mactar. … As a town councillor (a curialis—a member of the curia, the town council—or a decurio, which was a similar term) he became an honestior, a more honorable person.”

I was familiar with the Latin word curia because of its etymology (it’s from Old Latin coviria ‘gathering of men’: co- + vir ‘man”‘) and of course because of the Roman Curia of the Catholic Church, but I didn’t know about this use; the Wikipedia article gives a nice summary:

In the Roman Empire the curia (ordo, boule) was the town council, the governing body of a city and the hallmark of city rank. It was a co-optive body, whose members, the Decurions, sat for life. Its numbers vary greatly according to the size of the city. In the Western Empire, 100 seems to have been a common number, but in the East 500 was customary on the model of the Athenian Boule. However by the fourth century, curial duties had become onerous and it was difficult to fill all the posts, and often candidates had to be nominated. Constantine exempted Christians from their curial duties which led to many rich pagans claiming to be priests in order to escape the duties.

It meant various other things at other times; the whole article is worth a skim.

A Personal Note.

Sunday I got word that my old friend Mike Greene had had a serious heart attack and was in an induced coma, and this afternoon he was taken off life support and died, hopefully without ever being aware he was in a hospital. I met Mike at my first proofreading job, where I quickly learned he knew everything about proofreading and editing (not to mention all sorts of subjects like sociology and numismatics; he was in fact tremendously erudite, though he hid it behind a screen of good-old-boy joviality) and soon found out he was a musician as well — or rather that he was primarily a musician, who like almost all musicians needed a day job. He was from Abilene, Texas, and grew up in the shadow of his much older brother A.C. Greene, of whose writing he was immensely proud; he himself was a born writer and wrote who knows how many millions of words, but he could never accept being edited, so almost nothing ever got published. He was also a born musician who fell in love with “the devil’s music” (as his religious mother called it) as a boy; he learned to play the piano with the same anarchic fire as Jerry Lee Lewis (another untamed Texan), and during the era of segregation used to play with Black bands in joints where they stuck him behind a potted plant so his whiteness wouldn’t be so apparent. (Or so he said. He was also a born storyteller, and like all born storytellers he never let factual details get in the way of a good story.) When we met I was in awe of him and tried to find out about his background, but he was standoffish until he finally invited me to hear his blues band play, and when I was enthusiastic about their music he started opening up. How I wish I could go back to the Village of thirty years ago and hear his pounding chords and sweeping runs up and down the keyboard, accompanied by his yowling, impassioned vocals on songs like “Junco Partner” and “Nine Below Zero,” with the wonderful Jesse Cohen on guitar and the late Bob Guida on bass.

He was fully himself and fully open when he played and sang, but he could be reticent and contrary in conversation, and he tended to react to any difficult or emotional situation with a joke. But when my mother died unexpectedly in 1992 (she’d had a bad heart all her life, and it felled her during a visit to my brother) he clapped me on the back and said “Well, you’re a motherless child now,” and it was just what I needed; it’s one of the few things I retain from a period my memory has largely wiped clean. And after my father died, almost a decade ago now, he was the closest thing to a father figure I had. He enjoyed reading Languagehat (and occasionally commented, always signing off “Ur fiend, thegrowlingwolf”), and I think it was an inspiration for his own very different blog, The Daily Growler, where he would rail against the politicos and moneymen he felt were ruining the country and the world — and then add “I’m evilly thrilled about all this. I love Chaos and entropy.” But he also occasionally reminisced about his life, and those were the posts I loved. I particularly direct your attention to his 2007 series One Spring Morning Off Spring Street, which I linked to in this LH post. I wish he’d continued it, but I think he felt he was revealing a little too much.

I could go on and on, but I don’t want to get maudlin. I never knew anybody like him, and I don’t expect I ever will again. In the course of reading Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD I recently came across the epitaph (from the Roman Catacombs) of “a comic pantomime artist, Vitalis,” which begins:

O death, what shall I do with you …
You know nothing of merriment.
You do not appreciate jokes.

I immediately thought of Mike, of how much he would enjoy it, and wanted to send it to him. But then it was too late.

I’ll let him have the last word. Here’s the last thing he wrote me, on Saturday afternoon:

I’m having a ball being free to do as I please within the limits of my means — just finished a 120,000-word novel and am now 20,000+ words into a new novel — of course, in my usual abnormal way of reasoning, I’m writing them to finish them not to sell them. In fact, I wouldn’t know how the hell to get a book published in this glutted world. Today is Monica’s 59th — and my niece’s husband John’s 62 — and I just celebrated Cherry’s 69th with her and friends at O’Reilly’s Pub (me footing the bill, of course) (I love that phrase “of course”) — “time, eater of all things lovely” — and tempus fugit and God-damn, where the hell did it go? Yahoo, as Swift said.

Addendum. When Mike’s blog started, I sent a link to Mark Woods of wood s lot (one of my favorite blogs for many years now) because I thought its politics and general style would appeal to him, and sure enough Mark added the Growler to his blogroll and would occasionally quote it in his daily roundup of images and texts, something of which Mike was very proud (and which of course sent him readers he wouldn’t otherwise have had). Just now when I went to wood s lot for the latest update, I found that today’s post (after the inevitable first image) led with a nice tribute to Mike, linking to this post and Mike’s last one and quoting some good bits from it. I wish Mike could have seen it. Thanks, Mark!

Boulle.

I’ve finished Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, which jamessal gave me last year (and for which I have given him fervent thanks) — it’s one of the best novels I’ve read in recent years, and my mind is still turning it over and thinking of things like parallels with Mrs. Dalloway (see this LH post). However, I’m not capable of an analysis of the book at this point, so I will just mention one of the vocabulary items it introduced me to, boulle (also spelled buhl, which is the OED’s main lemma), which means (per the OED) “Brass, tortoise-shell, or other material, worked into ornamental patterns for inlaying” (an oddly general term, if you ask me — brass isn’t really very much like tortoiseshell) and comes from the “name of a wood-carver in France in the reign of Louis XIV.” It occurs near the start of the novel (“the boulle clock ticked on in its place on the mantelpiece”) and near the end (“The boulle clock ticked, with mindless vigilance”) and a couple of times in between, providing one of the many lexical and thematic strands that tie the book together. (It also reminds me, irrelevantly, of Pierre Boulle, a name probably remembered by few nowadays.)

Idioms from Around the World.

When I saw the title “40 brilliant idioms that simply can’t be translated literally,” I rolled my eyes and prepared to move along after a brief glance, because I’ve gotten pretty sick of supposedly untranslatable words and phrases (usually the same collection of hyggeligs and saudades, passed around from one book and column to the next). But this turned out to be different:

As our Open Translation Project volunteers translate TED Talks into 105 languages, they’re often challenged to translate English idioms into their language. Which made us wonder: what are their favorite idioms in their own tongue? Below, we asked translators to share their favorite idioms and how they would translate literally.

So it’s not just the usual suspects; in fact, most of them I’d never seen before, even the Russian ones: Галопом по Европам ‘Galloping across Europe,’ i.e. “To do something hastily, haphazardly”; Хоть кол на голове теши ‘You can sharpen with an ax on top of this head,’ i.e. “He’s a very stubborn person”; and my favorite (for obvious reasons), На воре и шапка горит ‘The thief has a burning hat,’ i.e. “He has an uneasy conscience that betrays itself.” I didn’t know any of the French ones (I particularly like Les carottes sont cuites! ‘The carrots are cooked!’ = “The situation can’t be changed”), and it goes without saying that the Thai, Latvian, and Tamil ones are new to me (and probably you). A very enjoyable collection; thanks, Paul!

Absolute English.

Michael D Gordin writes in Aeon:

If you can read this sentence, you can talk with a scientist. Well, maybe not about the details of her research, but at least you would share a common language. The overwhelming majority of communication in the natural sciences today – physics, chemistry, biology, geology – takes place in English; in print and at conferences, in emails and in Skype-mediated collaborations, confirmable by wandering through the halls of any scientific research facility in Kuala Lumpur or Montevideo or Haifa. Contemporary science is Anglophone.

More significantly, contemporary science is monoglot: everyone uses English almost to the exclusion of other languages. A century ago, the majority of researchers in Western science knew at least some English, but they also read, wrote and spoke in French and German, and sometimes in other ‘minor’ languages, such as the newly emergent Russian or the rapidly fading Italian. [...]

To paint with a very broad brush, we can observe two basic linguistic regimes in Western science: the polyglot and the monoglot. The latter is quite new, emerging just in the 1920s and vanquishing the centuries-old multilingual regime only in the 1970s. Science speaks English, but the first generation who grew up within that monoglot system are still alive. To understand how this important change happened, we need to start way back.

I knew the basic story, but hadn’t seen it presented in full from this angle. Thanks, Paul!

Abba Is Not Daddy.

Back in 2006, frequent commenter Paul sent me an obit for biblical scholar James Barr which made him sound quite interesting; I meant to follow up but never did, and now Henry Wansbrough’s TLS review of Bible and Interpretation: The Collected Essays of James Barr, Volumes I-III has the same effect. His first book, The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), apparently revolutionized the field; this appreciation by Larry Hurtado says:

The Semantics of Biblical Language was Barr’s first major publication, and it has been judged to have initiated “a reconstruction of descriptive biblical linguistics” (Arthur Gibson, Biblical Semantic Logic, 2nd ed., Sheffield Academic Press, 2001, p. 3). Beginning with a criticism of then-current superficial contrasts between “Hebrew thought” and “Greek thought”, Barr then introduced some key principles of modern linguistics. The broad thrust was to challenge traditional etymology-based studies of words and the free use of alleged word-equivalents in other Semitic languages (e.g., Ugaritic) to supply meanings to unusual Hebrew words in the OT. [...]

The basic points that Barr sought to make were, at the time of his book’s appearance, not well understood among biblical scholars. Sadly, I fear that this remains the case. Too many scholars (and so their students) still take an approach in which Hebrew or Greek words are treated as having fixed meanings, and so understanding texts is essentially a process of totting up a suitable dictionary meaning of all the words of their sentences. It is still news to many that the fundamental semantic unit is not the “word” but the sentence, and that “words” (lexical entries) acquire a specific meaning when deployed in sentences. Likewise, scholars often still don’t understand that word-constructions often take on their own meaning that is not the sum of the parts (e.g., “hot dog” isn’t the sum of the meanings of “hot” and “dog”!).

I thought I’d reproduce here a short excerpt from Wansbrough’s review that gives an idea of the kind of thing Barr did:

Two examples may introduce Barr’s careful work and method. Every Christian in the pew knows that Jesus addressed God with affectionate intimacy, but important precision is given by the essay “Abba is not ‘Daddy’” (Volume Two). The highly respected and influential German scholar Joachim Jeremias had argued that Jesus’s Aramaic address to God — Abba — was the equivalent to “Daddy”. By detailed philological work Barr shows that Jesus’s address to his Father expresses a mature relationship of adult, rather than childish, affection. Secondly, literate Christians are normally told that a fresh Greek word, agape, had to be coined to express the novel Christian concept of self-giving love; it derives from the precious expression of unbreakable family love, a specifically Hebrew concept. In fact Barr shows that each element in this claim requires adjustment. The Greek word agape occurs overwhelmingly only in one book of the New Testament — the First Letter of John — and there is nothing especially biblical or Hebrew about it. In the comparatively frequent Old Testament usage, the word does not necessarily designate self-giving love, but is frequently used, alongside other words, for erotic and even illicit love.

God bless careful philologists! Too bad the book costs hundreds of pounds/dollars, but such is the world we live in.

Some Links.

Since the last linkfest was so overwhelmingly popular, here are some more random items!

1) Note on the Word “Scriptorium” in Coptic Sources, at Alin Suciu.com: did Coptic have a word or formula to designate the place within the monastery where the manuscripts were copied by the scribes? It’s unclear, mais ça vaut le détour!

2) Maria writes about Pet Peeves in Russian: if you mix up “походу” with “похоже,” or if you say “имеет место быть” or “Доброго времени суток,” or if you overuse “как бы,” you’re going to annoy a lot of people.

3) You’ve heard about the guy who’s wasting a chunk of his life “correcting” every occurrence of “comprised of” he finds in Wikipedia? David Shariatmadari explains Why Wikipedia’s grammar vigilante is wrong, and does so very convincingly (although probably not to said vigilante).

Addendum.
4) Word Map: “This experiment brings together the power of Google Translate and the collective knowledge of Wikipedia to put into context the relationship between language and geographical space.” Enter a word and it will show you foreign-language equivalents, and play sound files if available. For me, it freezes up in Firefox but works in Chrome.

Tone and Humidity.

A startling theory (description from the FAQ):

Everett, Blasi & Roberts (2015) review literature on how inhaling dry air affects phonation, suggesting that lexical tone is harder to produce and perceive in dry environments. This leads to a prediction that languages should adapt to this pressure, so that lexical tone should not be found in dry climates, and the paper presents statistical evidence in favour of this prediction.

It’s reminiscent of this bit of japery, but this is serious, and the FAQ answers some obvious questions, e.g., re exceptions:

There are certainly exceptions to the prediction. But we’re not expecting a hard and fast rule, just a statistical tendency. We were aware of such exceptions before even embarking on the analysis of the database. Our account is not simply deterministic, but suggestive of gradual pressures operating at the same time as other pressures known to impact the evolution of sound systems. Occasionally such influences may even be at odds. We note in the SI, however, that even in a language family like Tibeto-Burman, in which there are exceptions, the overall pattern holds in the predicted direction. Tibeto-Burman languages spoken in more desiccated regions are less likely to employ complex tone.

Thanks, Yoram!

Everett’s Five Favorite Linguistics Books.

John Emerson sent me this Five Books interview with Daniel L. Everett (of Pirahã fame), saying “I find it very interesting”; I responded, “It is indeed. It grates on me to read praise for Chomsky and Wittgenstein, but I enjoyed reading it and learning about those important doorstop books I’ll never read.” (There was a long and, uh, vigorous LH thread about Everett and Chomsky a few years back. And yes, I know, Wittgenstein revolutionized philosophy, but I’m not a philosopher and pretty much everything he said about language seems to me both wrongheaded and excessively praised.)