The ALIM project (Archivio della Latinità Italiana del Medioevo) intends to offer for free consultation, on the Internet, all texts written in Italy in Latin during the Middle Ages. Many thanks to Bruce Allen, who sent me the link; he said “I mean, how cool is that?” and I responded “Very cool! None more cool!”

The Language of Chess.

A useful roundup by Edwin Battistella at OUPblog:

Chess comes from the 6th century Sanskrit game chaturanga, which translates to “four arms.” The arms refer to the elephants, horses, chariots, and foot soldiers of the Indian army, which evolved into the modern bishops, knights, rooks, and pawns. The chaturanga pieces also included the king or rajah and the king’s counselor, which would later be reinvented as the queen. In chaturanga, the game ended when the rajah was removed from the board—when the king was killed.

Chaturanga was introduced to Persia around 600 AD and the rajah became the shah. Persian chatrang became Arabic shatranj and made its way to Morocco and Spain as shaterej. The word check, meaning an attack on the king, was adapted from the Persian shah. A player would say shah to announce an attack on the king. The expression checkmate came from the situation in which the king is attacked and has no defense: shāh māt means “the king is dead” and this connotation of regicide persists in the Russian name for chess: shakmati. [Sic: Should be shakhmaty.]

In Latin, the game was not named after the killing of the king, but after the attacks themselves—the checks. It was called ludis scaccorum (game of checks) or, when shortened [Sic: This is the Italian form], scacchi. The Latin word for check later gave us the Middle French eschec, which became échecs in the plural and chess in English.

There is much more on various chess terms from French and German; one thing I wish had been pointed out is that it is not just the chess sense of check that is from shah—the entire complex of English meanings comes from the chess term. See the Usage Note at the end of the AHD entry:

Through a complex development having to do with senses that evolved from the notion of checking the king, check came to mean something used to ensure accuracy or authenticity. One such means was a counterfoil, a part of a check, for example, retained by the issuer as documentation of a transaction. Check first meant “counterfoil” and then came to mean anything, such as a bill or bank draft, with a counterfoil—or eventually even without one.

Thanks, Trevor!

Inventing Mandaic.

C.G. Häberl has an extraordinarily interesting post at his blog Philologastry (which I am glad to learn about) on how Mandaic as a subject of study (as opposed to a mere tool for spoken communication) has been, and is still being, constructed. He starts out with the Slovak philologist Rudolf Macuch and his Handbook of Classical and Modern Mandaic:

Philologists are basically people who do things with words, and the primary thing that Macuch attempts to do with his Handbook is to document his personal discovery of both Classical and Modern Mandaic. In a very real sense, neither existed prior to 1965 (please bear with me on this) and he wants us to know that he was present at their making. In fact, he outlines the case that he has played a pivotal role in this making. […]

From his perspective, neither his Mandaean informants nor his scholarly colleagues were truly aware of the significance of this language, until Macuch arrived in Ahvaz to begin the laborious process of construing a discovery from these scattered finds, and thereby bring its significance to the attention of humanity (or at least that portion of humanity that reads Mandaic grammars). In order to do so, he assumes an authoritative position, that of the ultimate arbiter of linguistic norms, which requires him to subvert the authority of his informants repeatedly throughout the pages of his grammar […]

The attentive reader may well ask, what is the “correct” pronunciation of Mandaic, if not that which is used by the people who actually speak it? If I, as an American, do not employ the Queen’s English, is my language incorrect or does it actually reflect some important aspect of my own identity and its history? Obviously the latter, but equally Macuch is not incorrect, either. What he means, clearly, is that the priests are not pronouncing Mandaic correctly according to the scholarly representations of Mandaic that emerged with Nöldeke’s 1875 grammar. This representation is an entirely new scholarly enterprise, separate from but to some extent informed by Mandaic as it is understood and employed by the community, and (increasingly, as we shall see) informing this other Mandaic as well. […]

Classical languages, as opposed to texts, are those that have been elaborated by scholars over the course of generations, and standardized through the production of dictionaries and grammars, so that they can eventually be learned and employed by non-native speakers, even after they are no longer natively spoken. This is, for example, the case for classical languages like Classical Greek, Classical Latin, and Classical Hebrew, but there is no evidence that this process of elaboration had ever occurred in Mandaic, at least not before 1875. Instead, as Nöldeke notes in his grammar, at all times and in all places, native speakers of Mandaic wrote their language exactly as they spoke it (resulting in the wide spectrum of linguistic variation he noticed). It was not until the missionaries arrived that any non-native speaker attempted to learn Mandaic, let alone write it according to any such standard. The first surviving attempt, the Leiden Glossarium, faithfully reflects the language as it was spoken at the time, rather than a self-conscious literary standard, very likely because such a thing simply did not exist at the time. Thus, in a very real sense, the history of “Classical Mandaic” begins in 1875, even if it had to wait another 90 years for scholars to come up with a name for it. This explains Macuch’s repeated insistence that the ultimate authority over “Classical Mandaic” resides among western scholars such as himself, and not among the Mandaeans, whom he relegates largely to a passive role in its construction. Classical Mandaic, as it is currently constituted, is an entirely novel enterprise, and Mandaeans who contrast their own spoken language and their own understanding of their own texts against this enterprise should do so only with their eyes wide open.

I like his tone, which combines a devotion to the subject with an amused awareness of the impossibility of people ever agreeing about it, and the whole post is well worth your time (particularly the final section on pseudo-historical spellings). Many thanks to Joe in Australia, who posted it to MetaFilter.

That Two-Fisted-Man-Tobacco, Prince Albert.

Mark Liberman at the Log investigates the phrase “up/out the wazoo” and its eggcorn up/out to wazoo; that’s an interesting phenomenon, but what I want to make sure gets the widest possible attention is the splendiferous 1919 tobacco ad he turned up (via OCR error) in his search. It begins “Say, you’ll have a streak of smokeluck that’ll put pep-in-your-smokemotor, all right, if you’ll ring-in with a jimmy pipe or cigarette papers and nail some Prince Albert for packing!” It goes on for three more equally peppy paragraphs; Upton Sinclair was so upset he quoted the whole thing and called it “poisonous filth” in his book The Brass Check: A Study of American Journalism. Follow the link and admire this summit of advertising genius in its full glory, headed by a squinty, smirking, balding fellow smoking what I can only presume is a jimmy pipe.

How the World’s Languages Name the Rainbow.

Claire Bowern writes in The Conversation about her research into color terms:

My colleague Hannah Haynie and I were interested in how color terms might change over time, and in particular, in how color terms might change as a system. That is, do the words change independently, or does change in one word trigger a change in others? In our research, recently published in the journal PNAS, we used a computer modeling technique more common in biology than linguistics to investigate typical patterns and rates of color term change. Contrary to previous assumptions, what we found suggests that color words aren’t unique in how they evolve in language. […]

That there’s something unique about the stability of color concepts is an assumption we wanted to investigate. We were also interested in patterns of color naming and where color terms come from. And we wanted to look at the rates of change – that is, if color terms are added, do speakers tend to add lots of them? Or are the additions more independent, with color terms added one at a time? […]

In order to answer these questions, we used techniques originally developed in biology. Phylogenetic methods use computers to study the remote past. In brief, we use probability theory, combined with a family tree of languages, to make a model of what the history of the color words might have been. […]

Our results supported some of the previous findings, but questioned others. In general, our findings backed up Berlin and Kay’s ideas about the sequential adding of terms, in the order they proposed. For the most part, our color data showed that Australian languages also show the patterns of color term naming that have been proposed elsewhere in the world; if there are three named colors, they will be black, white and red (not, for example, black, white and purple). But we show that it is most likely that Australian languages have lost color terms, as well as gained them. This contradicts 40 years of assumptions of how color terms change – and makes color words look a lot more like other words.

I freely admit I don’t understand the method works (“we estimate likely reconstructions, evaluate that model for how well it fits our hypotheses, tweak the model parameters a bit to produce a different set of results, score that model, and so on”), and I’m curious what my readers think of the method and the results.

The 17 Funniest Hungarian Expressions.

Yes, that’s a dumb title, but I’m a sucker for these things (as long as they’re true to the facts of the language, which this appears to be as far as I can tell). Colm FitzGerald created the listicle; my favorite:

3. Hungarians don’t ask little children “Why are you crying?”, they ask “Why are you giving drinks to the mice?” (Miért itatod az egereket?)

War and Peace on the Installment Plan.

Brian E. Denton takes an interesting approach to a famously long novel:

My project is a year-long, chapter by chapter, daily devotional reading of and meditation on Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I read the novel for the first time seven years ago. I loved it. I wanted to read it again. The only problem was, and I’m sure my fellow bibliophiles can relate, I also wanted to read other books. I’m just promiscuous like that. So the question presented itself: how was I to keep reading War and Peace, a notoriously long novel, and still keep up with my other reading interests? While looking at Constance Garnett’s Modern Library edition I noted that the book is divided into fifteen parts and two epilogues (yeah, you read that right). Each part, in turn, is divided into chapters. Small chapters. I counted those small chapters and there turned out to be 361 of them. And that’s when I decided that I’d spend each year of the rest of my life cycling through War and Peace at the rate of one chapter per day. That’s exactly what I’ve been doing for the past six years. It’s a curious, fun, and reflective way to read the book. It also makes it much easier. The longest chapter is only eleven pages and the average chapter length is just shy of four pages. I know this because last year I started a spreadsheet to compare the different translations. Anyway, this year I decided that I want to share this method of reading the novel with other people. To that end I’ll be publishing the devotional, complete with a synopsis and daily meditation based on each chapter starting 1 January 2017, on Medium.

At the end the interviewer, Lucie Taylor, asks “What will you do when you run ut of translations to read?” His answer: “Read them again.” Good man!

Automatic Speech Recognition for Low-Resource Languages.

Maeve Reilly writes about an interesting initiative:

For those who speak English, or another language that is prevalent in First World nations, Siri or other voice recognition programs do a pretty good job of providing the information wanted. However, for people who speak a “low-resource” language—one of more than 99 percent of the world’s languages—automatic speech recognition (ASR) programs aren’t much help. Preethi Jyothi, a Beckman Postdoctoral Fellow, is working towards creating technology that can help with the development of ASR software for any language spoken anywhere in the world.

“One problem with automatic speech recognition today is that it is available for only a small subset of languages in the world,” said Jyothi. “Something that we’ve been really interested in is how we can port these technologies to all languages. That would be the Holy Grail.”

Low-resource languages are languages or dialects that don’t have resources to build the technologies that can enable ASR, explained Jyothi. Most of the world’s languages, including Malayalam, Jyothi’s native south Indian language, do not have good ASR software today. Part of the reason for this is that the developers do not have access to large amounts of transcriptions of speech—a key ingredient for building ASR software.

She and Mark Hasegawa-Johnson are trying something called “probabilistic transcription” which involves native English speakers transcribing languages they don’t know using nonsense syllables (the current project focuses on Arabic, Cantonese, Dutch, Hungarian, Mandarin, Swahili, and Urdu). It sounds weird, and I don’t get quite how it’s supposed to work, but I wish them every success. (Thanks, Andy!)

Seite Books.

I came across a reference to Seite Books and wanted to know how the name was pronounced, so I googled up this LA Times article from 2014 by Hector Tobar and was immediately hooked:

When Adam Bernales and Denice Diaz started Seite Books in a little storefront in East Los Angeles, a lot of people thought their taste in books was too highbrow. […]

But Bernales and Diaz, both then in their mid-20s, persisted. A few students from nearby Garfield High School and East Los Angeles Community College started wandering in. There was Fernando, a teenager who wanted to read nothing but Russian novels “because they’re the greatest,” and a young woman who loved Amiri Baraka and wanted to buy all the African American poets Seite Books had to offer.

Seite Books is the bookstore East Los Angeles didn’t know it needed: an oasis of literary culture in a book-starved corner of L.A. that’s never had a Dutton’s or a Borders or a Barnes & Noble. […]

For its small but loyal initial customer base, Seite Books filled out its collection of Russian literature, and of poets of color, with Bernales and Diaz going to estate and garage sales hunting for used books. For other customers they tracked down novels by sci-fi writer Ursula K. Le Guin, and classic mystery writers like Dashiell Hammett. They built a sizable collection of Latin American literature too, a category that at Seite Books includes Jorge Luis Borges and Chicano journalist Oscar Zeta Acosta’s seminal novel “The Revolt of the Cockroach People.”

What a great-sounding place! Oh, and my original question was answered: “The name Seite is a product of their erudite aesthetic — it’s a German word for ‘page,’ or ‘side.’ (At first, the books occupied just one side of the storefront.)” So it’s theoretically /zaitə/, though I imagine many of their Spanish-speaking customers say /seite/ (which was my guess before I got to that last bit).

An Interview with Sarah Thomason.

Sally Thomason (who occasionally posts at Language Log) is a wonderful linguist I’ve written about here more than once; last March Ryan Bradley interviewed her for the Paris Review, and it’s very much worth reading. An excerpt:

Are there languages that are better at adapting? When languages meet, does one “win”?

Sure. But that comparison has nothing to do with the structure or the vocabulary of the language, it has to do strictly with social factors. It’s not as if people come into contact and one crowd says, Boy, your language is a lot more efficient than ours! It depends on who’s got the power. The world I live in, the world you live in, Western Europe, the United States, highly industrialized countries, the paradigm we’re used to is colonialism—and then the indigenous languages are threatened. A lot of them have disappeared and the ones that haven’t are at great risk, so that seems like the norm.

But imagine a society—and again, these are mostly hunter-gatherer societies, but there are still a lot of those around—where the people practice exogamy, meaning you have to find a marriage partner outside your own group. Often the criterion is whether they speak the same language as you. If you have a society like that, you’re in contact with at least one other group and typically several relatively small groups—and it’s greatly to your advantage to maintain different languages, right? You don’t want to change your whole culture, you value your culture, exogamy seems like the way the world ought to be, and you certainly want to get married and you have this view that you shouldn’t marry your sister—then you preserve the languages.

How did you get started on Montana Salish?

I was working on language contact, and the Pacific Northwest—Washington, Oregon, neighboring parts of British Columbia, particularly—is one of the best-known linguistic areas in the world. There are languages in that area, some of them totally unrelated as far as we know, that share all sorts of structural features. Not vocabulary, so much, but structural features that they didn’t inherit from their ancestors, that have traveled from one language to another. There’s also a phenomenon where you’ve got three or more languages in the same area trading features through multilingualism.

My family was already spending summers one mountain range to the east of the easternmost Salish language—most of the Salish languages are on the coast. I thought I could find out about this linguistic area if I started studying this language, and the tribes wanted somebody to come and help them get used to the writing system, a new linguistic device for them, so I was going to be useful. I thought I’d find out about this language and then I would find out about the whole family, and then I would be able to study the histories—how these features got from one family, where they started, how they got from one family to the next. So in 1981, I started trying to learn about this language, and it took about ten years before I realized I need maybe another 150 years for that project, and then I’d only need another century or so to understand the linguistic area.

But in the meantime, I really got hooked on the language. It’s a wonderful language. I like consonants, and they have thirty-eight consonants. I like big, long, complicated words, and they have huge, long, complicated words.

Here’s a couple of piquant examples of Montana Salish’s reluctance to borrow:

The word they use for automobile means “that it has wrinkled feet,” which is, incidentally, an example of how the words you have reflect your culture. If you’re a tracker, you’re going to be noticing the tire tracks—the focus of that particular word. And the word for telephone means “you whisper into it.”

Great stuff, and here’s hoping for more interviews with linguists.