Over a decade ago, Mark Liberman posted at the Log about a garbled account of a “magical sounding gibberish language”; I won’t confuse you with the details, which turned out to be irrelevant, but the upshot was that the actual term was grammelot, which seems to have been invented by Dario Fo. A followup post has more details, and makes it clear that the notion that it is “a gibberish language … that was first described over 500 years ago” is balderdash. Mark wrote:

The confusion seems to have arisen because of Fo’s references to the 16th-century playwright Angelo Beolco. In Fo’s Nobel acceptance speech, he gave credit to “Ruzzante Beolco, my greatest master along with Molière”, called him “until Shakespeare, doubtless the greatest playwright of renaissance Europe”, and referred to the inspiration of Ruzzante’s linguistic inventiveness:

Ruzzante, the true father of the Commedia dell’Arte, also constructed a language of his own, a language of and for the theatre, based on a variety of tongues: the dialects of the Po Valley, expressions in Latin, Spanish, even German, all mixed with onomatopoeic sounds of his own invention. It is from him, from Beolco Ruzzante, that I’ve learned to free myself from conventional literary writing and to express myself with words that you can chew, with unusual sounds, with various techniques of rhythm and breathing, even with the rambling nonsense-speech of the grammelot.

(Wikipedia says that Angelo Beolco was “better known by the nickname Il Ruzzante.”) Stefano Taschini suggested that “Grammelot might result from the composition of the French words grammaire, mêler, and argot.” The exact history is murky, and if anyone knows anything more, please share. Thanks for the links go to Michael Trevor, who found out about “Grammelot” from this article on the invented penguin language Pingu, which calls Grammelot “a technique that has been used in theatre and commedia dell’arte for hundreds of years,” which may or may not be true depending on how narrowly you’re defining “technique”; at any rate, it certainly wasn’t called Grammelot.

For Pasternak, the Word Does Not Exist.

I’m reading Dmitry Bykov’s biography of Pasternak in conjunction with the poetry, and it’s a wonderful book — Bykov himself is a poet and novelist, so he understands the work from the inside. This longish passage comparing Pasternak to his great contemporaries is so enlightening I thought I’d translate it here (Russian below the cut); he’s just quoted «Осень» [Autumn]:

We notice a phonetic awkwardness in these much-anthologized lines — «Поцелуй был как лето» [Potselui byl kak leto, “The kiss was like summer”], in which can be heard some sort of “kakleta” — but for some reason you rush past such awkwardnesses in Pasternak without noticing them; that’s because in his early lyrics (and for the most part in the later ones) you don’t concentrate on individual words. The operative elements are not words but series — of metaphors, sounds, images; in isolation they’re all awkward or meaningless, but together they form a masterpiece. Tsvetaeva, in a letter to her young colleague Yuri Ivask, remarked that in a mature poet the main semantic unit is the word (“N.b.! In my case, often the syllable”). We must note that such a semantic overload sometimes makes Tsvetaeva’s later verse difficult to read, with their crowded spondees; when you try to read them aloud, you have to scan as you go. This frightening density is the result of iron self-discipline. Strikingly willful in daily life, in friendship and love, in her division of people into her own and the others (as a rule, without the slightest idea of their true essence), Tsvetaeva made her poetry the apotheosis of discipline, repeating and varying the same thing over and over with the obstinacy of a divisional commander, drumming the same thought into her reader, and her poetic unit indeed becomes the syllable, if not the letter. Pasternak is a different matter: in his poems, the individual word does not exist. Words rush past in a stream, in the narrowest sense (“it’s all part of the plot”), they are linked by sound even if they are often opposed in sense and part of different stylistic layers. The reader is overwhelmed by a wordfall, in which the feeling of unbroken speech, of its energy and pressure, generosity and surplus, is more important than the eventual sense of the intended communication. The very energy of the speech flow transmits the energy of wind and rain, the very prolixity creates an effect of dampness, humidity, softness. This is what fundamentally distinguishes Pasternak from another great contemporary, Mandelstam, in whose poems the individual word is also not that significant, but what’s important is their juxtaposition — each word, often infinitely distant in sense, is joined to the preceding word by an invisible chain of “omitted links” (Mandelstam’s own expression). In his description of a Moscow rain, Mandelstam, in words “so very sparing” [«куда как скупо», a quote from the poem], uses a single epithet, “sparrow’s chill” [«воробьиный холодок»], and the collision of two ideas not associated in any way, sparrow and cold, immediately gives rise to a bundle of senses: we see the ruffled wet sparrows of Moscow streets, the fine, brisk, sparrow-swift, barely falling rain of early summer. Such spareness is not native to Pasternak; his rains crash down, he makes the whole world soggy all at once:

Behind them ran blind slanting raindrops
Hard on their heels, and by the fence
The wind and dripping branches argued—
My heart stood still—at my expense.
[Lydia Pasternak Slater’s translation]

slepli, sledom, kapli, pletnya, plyam, plyukh, again sound runs ahead of sense, always abundant, cunningly woven. Tsvetaeva makes each individual word stick out, and Mandelstam makes it collide with a distant one; Pasternak hides it, washes it away in a single chain of sounds. It may be that of the renowned foursome, only in the poetry of the unbending acmeist Akhmatova does a word mean more or less what it does in prose—it’s not overloaded, it doesn’t bang up against representatives of an alien stylistic series, it’s not surrounded by a crowd of soundalikes, it remains clear and equal to itself. In prose paraphrase, her verses lose a great deal—their music, the magic of the rhythm—but they don’t perish (and perhaps this is why her blank-verse poems succeed; Tsvetaeva has none, and they’re rare in Mandelstam and Pasternak). For Pasternak, prose paraphrase is fatal (but for Mandelstam it simply results in Mandelstamian prose; for him, unlike his three great contemporaries, the principles of construction of prose and poetic texts were identical).

That last parenthetical remark is both surprising and (once you’ve read it) obvious; it made me laugh in delighted recognition.
[Read more…]


I am finally reading Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden stories, which I have been wanting to do ever since this thread (almost a decade ago now!); they are wonderful, and I hereby thank everyone who recommended them. In the third, called “Giulia Lazzari” in my edition, this sentence introduced me to a delightful word I had never before encountered: “Chandra met her in Berlin in a Tingel-tangel, you know what that is, a cheap sort of music-hall.” German Wikipedia has it as one word, Tingeltangel; it says it goes back to 1870s Berlin and the name is onomatopoeic, “nach dem Klang von Schlagzeuginstrumenten gebildet (vergleiche dazu auch den Eintrag ‘ting tang tingel tangel’ im Wörterbuch der Brüder Grimm).” It also provides the information that Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons is called Tingel-Tangel-Bob in German, which suggests that the word, if not the institution, remains in living use. I’d be glad to hear more from my Germanophone readers.

Een Cookie, C’est Un Cookie.

An amusing legal contretemps from “Facebook disputes Belgian tracking order over use of English in court ruling,” by Samuel Gibbs of the Guardian:

Facebook is objecting to the use of English words such as “cookie” and “browser” in a Belgian court order, which has demanded the site stop tracking users without their consent, saying that Belgians may not understand the words. […]

Dirk Lindemans, a lawyer representing Facebook Belgium told the Belgian newspaper De Tijd: “It is a requirement that justice can be understood by everyone. Otherwise you get a slippery slope towards class-biased justice.”

But “the strength of Facebook’s argument on this point is questionable”:

The Dutch for “web browser” is “webbrowser” for instance, while in French it is “browser” or “navigateur”. An internet “cookie”, as opposed to a biscuit, is “cookie” in all three languages.

Thanks, Bathrobe!

Butterfly Redux.

Back in 2003 I posted about the many and varied words for ‘butterfly’ in the world’s languages; I’m pleased to see the subject has come up again in Victor Mair’s latest Log post. Mair starts off by mentioning an absurd attempt to make butterfly equal “butter” + “shit” (as I started off with an absurd account of “cognate borrowing” by an anthropologist), but he moves on to a detailed account of the history of the Chinese word húdié 蝴蝶 / 胡蝶, “which is botched in almost all lexicographical sources”: it’s “from Middle Chinese *ɣo dep (first syllable unstressed), from Old Chinese *ɡa-lep, derived from a proto-form of *kʰleːp ~ *ɦleːp, a prefixed form of the root *lep (“wide, flat”, represented by the phonetic element 枼).” The post is well worth reading for that alone, but the comments include many interesting examples, some of which are startlingly similar to *lep: DE brings up Hungarian lepke, and I cite Wolof lëpp-lëpp bi, mentioned by Tim May in the earlier LH thread. I continue to be amazed by the fascinating variety of these words, which are so frequently poetic-sounding.

Arabic Listening Resources In All Dialects.

Donovan Nagel posts at Mezzoguild:

I often say that the hardest part about learning a language like Arabic is not the speaking. Speaking can be picked up pretty quickly believe it or not (made even easier by amazing sites like italki that connect you with Arabic speakers). The hardest part about Arabic is actually learning to listen – training your ears to grasp what you’re hearing.

What sucks is that this is the one part of language learning where there are no shortcuts. To become better at listening you just need time and lots of exposure to Arabic. You need to listen constantly. […]

Here you’ll find some excellent links to high quality material online that will improve your listening skills in Arabic. There are many many more than this online and probably a lot that I don’t know about but what I’ve listed here are high quality listening resources (mostly free, some paid) in a wide variety of dialects.

A tip o’ the Languagehat hat to Slavomír Čéplö (aka bulbul).

How Shakespeare Spoke.

A nice half-hour episode of the BBC’s Word of Mouth show:

To take us back to Shakespeare’s own time Michael Rosen and Dr Laura Wright hear Shakespeare as he himself would have spoken. The original, unvarnished version from linguist David Crystal and actor Ben Crystal. They look at the fashion for Original Pronunciation and ask what it can tell us about how we speak now.

Michael and Laura perform some of Shakespeare’s best known work in the original accent and attempt to bring new meaning and wit to language coated by centuries of veneer.

David Crystal explains how, for instance, we know that love and prove had the former sound, not the latter (because Ben Jonson said so); puns are explained (reason/raisin, hour/whore, lines/loins); and several passages are read in original pronunciation. Well worth your time. Thanks, PK!

Australian Dates.

Mark Gwynn at Ozwords takes “a light-hearted look” at Australian words for the backside; the opening paragraph will explain my post title:

As a kid I was often told by my dad to ‘get off my date’ when he wanted me to get off the lounge and go outside, or to help with some chore. I was surprised to discover many years later, when I started working at the Australian National Dictionary Centre, that date was not a coinage of my dad’s but an established word in Australian English, meaning ‘anus’. Further exposure to Australian English at the ANDC revealed a number of colloquial terms with the same or a similar meaning.

Lots of interesting terms there, like blurter (from blurt ‘to emit breath eruptively’) and bracket (probably from the shape of a pair of round brackets).

All This I Saw.

I’m reading Tolstoy’s first published work, the 1852 Istoriya moego detstva [The story of my childhood] (in 1856 published in the book Detstvo i Otrochestvo [Childhood and Boyhood] and known from then on as Detstvo [Childhood]), and I was struck by this passage, from a description of a hunt:

Говор народа, топот лошадей и телег, веселый свист перепелов, жужжание насекомых, которые неподвижными стаями вились в воздухе, запах полыни, соломы и лошадиного пота, тысячи различных цветов и теней, которые разливало палящее солнце по светло-желтому жнивью, синей дали леса и бело-лиловым облакам, белые паутины, которые носились в воздухе или ложились по жнивью, – все это я видел, слышал и чувствовал.

The voices of the peasants; the clatter of horses and wagons; the joyous whistling of quails; the buzz of insects hovering in motionless swarms in the air; the smell of wormwood, straw, and horse-sweat; the thousands of different lights and shadows which the blazing sun poured out over the light-yellow stubblefield, the blue distance of the forest, and the white-and-lilac clouds; the white spiderwebs which were floating in the air or lying on the stubble—all this I saw and heard and felt.

That final “all this I saw and heard and felt” sums up for me what is so striking in Tolstoy, his unique ability to convey in words the sense of life as it is happening and as it is experienced. Even in this early work (he was only twenty-three when he wrote it), his prose has that magical effect; it’s no wonder people took notice and wanted more from him.

Incidentally, I’ve translated полынь as “wormwood,” but it could equally well mean “mugwort”; I have no idea which is more likely for a central Russian rye field in late summer, or for that matter what either smells like.

Update. According to John Cowan in the comments: “For practical purposes the names wormwood and mugwort are interchangeable.” Which would make the task of the translator easier, except that both are exceptionally ugly words. Also, I finally looked up “mugwort” in the OED (entry updated 2003) and discovered it’s etymologically “midge-wort”: “The plant is said to attract flies and midges, and has therefore been used as a means of disposing of them (compare the North German custom of hanging up bundles of mugwort in rooms to attract flies, which are then easily caught by pulling a sack over the bundle).”

Universal Positivity Bias?

Another study that arouses my instinctual skepticism: “Human Language Reveals a Universal Positivity Bias,” by Peter Sheridan Dodds, Eric M. Clark, Suma Desuc, et al., PNAS Online, 112.8 (2015). The abstract:

Using human evaluation of 100,000 words spread across 24 corpora in 10 languages diverse in origin and culture, we present evidence of a deep imprint of human sociality in language, observing that (i) the words of natural human language possess a universal positivity bias, (ii) the estimated emotional content of words is consistent between languages under translation, and (iii) this positivity bias is strongly independent of frequency of word use. Alongside these general regularities, we describe interlanguage variations in the emotional spectrum of languages that allow us to rank corpora. We also show how our word evaluations can be used to construct physical-like instruments for both real-time and offline measurement of the emotional content of large-scale texts.

Significance: “The most commonly used words of 24 corpora across 10 diverse human languages exhibit a clear positive bias, a big data confirmation of the Pollyanna hypothesis.” It may well be true, and as a pretty optimistic guy myself, I don’t find it inherently implausible, but I don’t know enough about statistics to evaluate it, and I can’t help but think the results depend on how you set up the study and define things like “positive.” But confirmation of the Pollyanna hypothesis (which apparently goes back to 1969) certainly sounds like a good thing. Always look on the bright side of life!