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!

Freddish.

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”:
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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.

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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:
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Holophrase.

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.

The Birds’ Amharic.

Yves Stranger writes for Understanding Ethiopia about የወፍ ቋንቋ (yewof kwankwa), ‘language of the birds,’ “a codified version of Amharic which makes words, sentences and conversations unintelligible to untrained listeners.” It’s a simple insertion game:

How does it work? Let’s pick a simple example. ‘thank you,’ in Amharic, is አመሰግናለሁ (amasegenalehu). You take the word, sound by sound, and interweave the syllable ፍት (fet) into it, starting after the first sound, and leaving the last one uncovered. Thus, amasegenalehu becomes afetmafetsefetgefetnafetlefethu (or, አፍትመፍትሰፍትግፍትናፍትለፍትሁ).

What’s amusing are the myths that have grown from this twig:

There are others who hold, without the least element of proof, that የወፍ ቋንቋ was first used at the court of Emperor Zare Jacob, who believed that by so doing conversations would not be eavesdropped upon by demons. But this seems farfetched even though we do know that the same emperor had his servants tattooed with the words ‘I renounce Satan’ on their hands and wrists and made it mandatory to bear a cross on the foreheads for all of the inhabitants of the realm.

Some philologists insist that Amharic itself is a language of the birds that came to be so widespread that it superseded the original – much simpler – language. This theory holds that the Amharic we now know was invented by a monk from Waldiba. In this theory, to say ‘thank you’ in Amharic you originally said አም (am). It is only much later that the sequence ሰግናለሁ (segenalehu) was added to confuse and lead astray eavesdroppers and foreigners – and any wayfaring demons. Time passed, more and more people came to use the complex form and the simpler language was forgotten forever – the bird of simplicity had flown the nest, so to speak, leaving us with the esoterically difficult language we now have to cope with. […]

This ፍት version is just one of the languages of the birds, and the simplest – the schoolchildren’s version, for the uninitiated. The ድ and ዘ varieties – or should we say dialects? – are much more complicated, and are only practiced by certain anchorites. Mostly when praying out loud, as they do not wish outsiders to learn of their secret heterodoxies. In these languages, not only does the added letter (or better said, fidel) become interspaced between the syllables, but also takes on the vocalic order of the preceding syllable, or fidel. A matter best left to the initiate, believe me.

Thanks, Kobi! For parallels in other languages, I refer the reader to Stuart Davis’s “Language Games“:
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A Hellenistic Jewel Box.

From G.W. Bowersock’s NYRB review of “Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World,” a 2016 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

The final galleries in the exhibition deliver us into the new age with an enigmatic bronze portrait bust of Juba II, the Augustan king of Mauretania (today’s Morocco). He is one of the emblematic figures of the newly formed Roman Empire. In his own person he sums up the complexity of the Mediterranean world that followed the Hellenistic kingdoms. He was a North African possessed of a curiosity and erudition that would have embarrassed even Saint Augustine, another North African of three centuries later. Juba presided over a realm at the southwestern corner of Rome’s empire where Greek was read and spoken, and through his marriage to Mark Antony and Cleopatra’s daughter he had acquired strong ties with Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean. He was a learned and multilingual scholar who furnished the results of his researches on Arabia to Augustus’s grandson, Gaius Caesar, as he was planning an expedition into the region. Juba’s kingdom was a kind of Hellenistic jewel box that kept Greek learning alive in the West even as the Roman government in Italy was growing increasingly autocratic.

If I knew about Juba and his Hellenophile kingdom, I’d forgotten. (The whole review, which is not behind the paywall, is worth reading as a roundup of the Roman/Hellenistic interface in general and Pergamon in particular.)

Irish of the Burren.

I’m a sucker for lost-dialect stories, and especially for Irish dialects, so this piece by Ciarán Lenoach was meat and drink to me:

Poet and playwright Liam Ó Muirthile, who was buried in Baile Bhuirne in the Cork Gaeltacht yesterday, was also an accomplished broadcaster and worked for many years in RTÉ. While working on the Irish-language programme Súil Thart in 1980, he went to the Burren in northwest Clare to speak to two of the last remaining native Irish speakers in that area.

By that time, there were only a handful of speakers of that particular dialect left and by recording two of them Liam Ó Muirthile preserved for us a little piece of socio-linguistic history. […] In the following video, Tomás talks about his native place and Maggie tells us about her family, her school and her heartburn. She even ticks him off for apparently not understanding her. […]

Prof Ó Curnáin says that although northwest Clare is geographically very close to south and east Galway and the Aran Islands, due to historical socio-political circumstances the Irish dialect there resembled more the Irish of Waterford.

Liam Ó Muirthile had hoped to record more of the Clare Irish speakers but the batteries in television cameras in those days had a short lifespan. Nonetheless, he left us a very valuable snapshot of the linguistic variety and diversity that once existed in Ireland.

Thanks, Trevor!

The Crocodile and the Liars.

After reading a novella by Leskov and dipping into the first version of War and Peace (see this post), I turned to a little-known piece by Dostoevsky, Крокодил [The Crocodile], and enjoyed it thoroughly. I mean, I can see why it’s little-known; it’s not only unfinished but very silly, a throwback to his early days writing feuilletons for the newspapers. It’s about a man who is dragged by his wife to see a crocodile on display in the St. Petersburg Arcade and winds up inside, quite content and expecting to become famous — he wants his wife to start having salons in their apartment and have him wheeled in to give lectures. When I described the plot to my wife, she said “That doesn’t sound like Dostoevsky!” It doesn’t, and yet it is, and it’s a lot of fun. Here’s a passage of philological interest, from the swallowed man’s imaginings of his future salon lectures:

Даже этимология согласна со мною, ибо самое название крокодил означает прожорливость. Крокодил, Crocodillo, — есть слово, очевидно, итальянское, современное, может быть, древним фараонам египетским и, очевидно, происходящее от французского корня: croquer, что означает съесть, скушать и вообще употребить в пищу.

Even etymology supports me, for the very word crocodile means voracity. Crocodile — crocodillo — is evidently an Italian word, dating perhaps from the Egyptian Pharaohs, and evidently derived from the French verb croquer, which means to eat, to devour, in general to absorb nourishment.

(The translation is Garnett’s, from the link above.)

After that, I turned to Pisemsky’s Русские лгуны [Russian liars], a series of eight stories published, like the Dostoevsky, in 1865. The first seven are basically humorous anecdotes; the eighth is longer and more serious: Красавец [The handsome man], in which Marya Nikolaevna, an official’s wife, falls in love with the worthless but handsome Imshin and follows him into exile when he is arrested for murdering a 14-year-old girl. The striking thing about it to me was the similarity of the ending to that of Leskov’s Леди Макбет Мценского уезда [Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District] — both Katerina Izmailova and Marya Nikolaevna accompany the men they passionately love on the long journey to Siberia, though the former is a murderess and in shackles and the latter only an adulteress there by choice. I wonder if both Leskov and Pisemsky were inspired by the famous example of the Decembrists’ wives?

Next I move on to 1866 and Crime and Punishment. Oh, and in case anyone’s wondering what my wife and I are reading at bedtime these days, it’s Thackeray’s Vanity Fair; we’re about three-quarters of the way through.