Acquisition of Grammatical Categories through Qur’anic Memorization.

Arika Okrent reports on a fascinating study about how much grammar people can deduce without explicit instruction:

The answer is: quite a bit. People, even as babies, are good at pulling out grammatical structure from patterned data. But the artificial learning experiments are necessarily small and limited, so it’s unclear how much they can tell us about language learning in the real world.

As it turns out, there has been a large-scale natural test of statistical learning out there all along in the practice of Qur’anic memorization. There are Muslims all over the world who do not speak Arabic (in Indonesia, Pakistan, and Turkey, for example), but who as part of religious practice memorize the Qur’an for recitation, often starting as children and continuing memorization training for years. That training is often unaccompanied by any explicit Arabic instruction or direct translation of the memorized text. They get the statistics of the pattern without the meaning.

A recent paper in Cognition by Fathima Manaar Zuhurudeen and Yi Ting Huang takes advantage of this “natural experiment” to test whether simple exposure to the patterned properties of the Classical Arabic in the Qur’an results in implicit grammatical knowledge. They compared four groups: memorizers who also had classroom Arabic lessons, memorizers with no classroom exposure, non-memorizers with classroom exposure, and a group with no Arabic exposure of any kind.

The groups that had classroom experience had explicitly learned things like what the first person pronoun “I” looks like and how it attaches to verbs, or what the second person possessive pronoun “your” like looks like and how it attaches to nouns. The group without classroom experience but with memorization training had never had these things explained. Had they absorbed the rules of how they worked simply by hearing and repeating them in memorized text?

Yes. The memorizers without classroom Arabic did better than any of the other groups at demonstrating knowledge of the rules. This knowledge was not explicit; they could not explain how pronouns, verbs, and nouns worked, but they could judge whether a sentence they had not heard before was correct or not with accuracy.

Surprisingly, the memorizers with no classroom Arabic did better than those who had had lessons, suggesting that a “top-down approach” that explains the rules of language “may negatively impact learners’ sensitivity to the bottom-up statistics of a language.”

I welcome this as another nail in the coffin of the Chomskyite dogma that grammar must be innate because we couldn’t possibly learn it from simply hearing a language spoken.

Pasternak the Untranslatable.

Back in December I posted about the wild-and-woolly early poetry of Pasternak; I’ve continued reading him in order, and having finished the masterpiece My Sister, Life (1922), I want to focus on the last two stanzas of the last poem in that amazing book, “Конец,” “The End” — of both the book and the love affair it recounts, that blazed up in the summer of 1917 and fizzled out in the fall. (Not that the first stanza is any easier; how do you translate “разгуливать,” in the very first line?) Here is the original:

Познакомь меня с кем-нибудь из вскормленных,
Как они, страдой южных нив,
Пустырей и ржи.

Но с оскоминой, но с оцепененьем, с комьями
В горле, но с тоской стольких слов
Устаешь дружить!

Here’s a transliteration, with stress marked only when it’s not on the penult:

Poznakóm’ menyá s kém-nibud’ iz vskórmlennykh,
Kak oní, stradói yuzhnykh niv,
Pustyréi i rzhi.

No s oskóminoi, no s otsepenen’em, s kóm’yami
V gorle, no s toskói stol’kikh slov
Ustayósh druzhít’!

Note the complex pattern of assonances: -KOM menya, s KEM-nibud’, -sKORMlennykh, -KOMinoi, s KOM’yami; straDOI, pustyREI, s tosKOI, STOL’kikh… Here’s a literal translation:

Introduce me to someone from those raised,
Like them, on the harvest labor of southern fields,
Wastelands and rye.

But with the bitter taste, but with the stupor, with the lumps
In the throat, but with the pangs of so many words,
You get tired of being on friendly terms.

That doesn’t sound like poetry, and it’s not meant to; the only poetic translation I’ve been able to find, by James E. Falen, renders those stanzas:

Acquaint me with one who was nurtured, as they,
By the labors of southern fields,
Of wastelands and rye.

But this bitter taste, this stupefied heart, these lumps
In the throat, the anguish of words. . . .
One longs for an end.

That rolls along more mellifluously, but it’s still not really poetry, to my taste, and the last line is just ridiculous, corresponding to nothing in the Russian. Here’s a couple of English stanzas that, while having nothing to do with the original semantically, attempt to give some idea of the sound play:

It’s as common as camping, or as cormorants,
Like a knee that straddles your knees,
It’s a ray of the sea.

Not as communist, not as some paynim, as companies
Quarterly, not as coy stalks; as love
You stay all too sweet.

I can knock that doggerel off in a few minutes, but I couldn’t English the poem in a million years. Pasternak boils down the resources of Russian too idiosyncratically and completely; there’s not enough that can be carried over in the leaky bucket of translation.

Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla.

Alf MacLochlainn’s “Father Dinneen and His Dictionary” is a wonderful account of the origin and nature of Foclóír Gaedhilge agus Béarla / an / Irish-English dictionary, being a thesaurus of the words, phrases and idioms / of the modern Irish language./ Compiled and edited /by / Rev. Patrick S. Dinneen, M.A.,/Hon. D.Litt. (Nat. Univ. of Ireland). There’s a nice comparison with the OED, which had a significant influence on the Irish dictionary:

The typical OED entry consists of a list of the variant forms in which the headword has appeared, explanation(s) of its meaning or meanings, separated and numbered if necessary and supported by dated occurrences, and a derivation. The explanations can be discursive. Thus, for example, the third meaning recorded under ‘kitchen’ reads as follows: ‘Food from the kitchen; hence any kind of food (as meat, fish, etc.) eaten with bread or the like, as a relish; by extension, anything eaten with bread, potatoes, porridge, or other staple fare to render it more palatable or more easily eaten. Thus butter or cheese is ‘kitchen’ to bare bread, milk is ‘kitchen’ to porridge. Chiefly Sc. or north Ir. (=Welsh enllyn)’

The entries in Dinneen’s Foclóir are broadly comparable and consist typically of an array of meanings of the headword (only very rarely separated by numbering), illustrative phrases, often including extracts from songs or poems and occasional references to cognates or early Irish forms. We note too a characteristic use of that little word ‘as,’ in OED’s ‘as meat,’ above. Dinneen resorted to it to extract himself from difficult corners in which he found himself as a result of his consistently giving verbs in the first person singular of the present indicative. So the unlikely ‘milsighim I dawn’ requires the qualification ‘(as the day).’ Similarly ‘gabhluighim, … I fork as a road,’ and, making distinctions which might appear unnecessary ‘clithim, I copulate, as swine’ but ‘doirim, I copulate, as cattle.’

Dinneen’s illustrative citations suffer in comparison with the dated quotations which distinguish the OED. In Irish there was no significant printed tradition and therefore few datable occurrences to cite. Dinneen’s quotations from poets are necessarily from editions of their works published long after their floruits and he frequently falls back on the vague ‘early’ or ‘recent’.

This paragraph is quite delightful:

If a special bag for hens to lay eggs in should strike us as a strange object, what are we to make of such surrealist concepts as a gaunt rabbit (‘spiodal’), goats’s honey (‘mil gabhair’) or dead man’s spittle (‘blinn’)? There is an anecdote which might explain some of these more bizarre entries. The distinguished Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was on the staff of University College, Dublin, while Dinneen was a student and was the victim of practical jokes. He was an informant for Joseph Wright, compiler of the standard English dialect dictionary and students allegedly presented him with fake locutions for communication to Wright, asserting that they had heard them in their native places throughout Ireland. If Dinneen was one of these jokers, he may in poetic justice have later been a victim, for, his biographers tell us, many fake lists were sent to him when he had turned lexicographer. Tantalisingly, they do not identify any such hoax items and they do not assure us that Dinneen identified them all.

And the following passage reminds me of Dahl’s great dictionary of Russian:

The exuberance of the information pouring out forces us to realise that inside Dinneen’s Foclóir there is another book hidden. The information, for example, that eating cabbage affects the way in which your pee works in tucking frieze is certainly above and beyond strict dictionary needs, a gratuitous addition to the simple explanation of what ‘maothachán’ is – ‘maothachán … an emollient liquid for steeping, esp. suds and urine stored for … washing new flannel, tucking frieze, etc. (the consumption of cabbage affected its emollient qualities).’ But this nugget of information would form an interesting part of an entry in some encyclopaedia describing traditional crafts, in this case weaving – and the book hidden inside Fr Dinneen’s great dictionary is just such an encyclopaedia. It is an encyclopaedia of the manners and customs, lore and skills, of the pre-industrial society which survived in Dinneen’s home place (4), Sliabh Luachra, on the bare Cork-Kerry border, and in the other parts of western Ireland where the Irish language was still the vernacular. By cool design or in response to some inner compulsion, Dinneen was loath to miss the opportunity to record the way of life of that Irish-speaking community.

That it was an encyclopaedia of rural life becomes obvious when we see, for example, under ‘seanfach’ not only the meaning of the word – ‘a heifer from three to four years (without calving)’ – but a full classification of cows from ‘laogh,’ a young calf, through ‘gamhain,’ ‘colan’ and so on, complete with distinctions by age and fecundity. Numerous references to potatoes include, under ‘scrios,’ a detailed description of a particular form of tillage: ‘ … prátaí do chur fás., to sow potatoes covering them in the beds with a light coating of soil (the first step in sowing potatoes the third consecutive year, the old furrow is made the middle of the new bed, and the surface of the middle part of the old bed constitutes the scrios for the new bed; this method of tillage is called ath-riastáil, while the tillage of the previous year is called ath-romhar …’

Dahl is likewise fascinated with traditional ways of life and will take the opportunity of a relevant word to list a whole catalogue of related items or events. MacLochlainn’s essay ends with “examples of entries in which the explanation goes far beyond what is needed to explain the headword”; I posted about a parody of a Dinneen entry here, and I am happy to see that the Twitter feed I posted about here is still active. Thanks, Trevor!


This (an anonymous post on is quite a story:

“Du geht wo, Du essen was?” Anyone who speaks German will doubtless understand this question despite its somewhat clumsy grammar. It is in fact German, however – or more precisely “Unserdeutsch” (i.e. Our German), a creole language that is at risk of dying out. A language is described as creole if it emerged from several different languages. “Unserdeutsch” is now spoken by fewer than a hundred people – most of them elderly – in Papua New Guinea, and is the world’s only German-based creole language. Unlike most creole languages, which evolved in the context of trade on plantations or in ports, “Unserdeutsch” is the result of a secret language invented by missionary school children during the German colonial period in Papua New Guinea in around 1900.

The mothers of the missionary school children belonged to one of the local tribes, while their fathers were colonial officers from Germany, seafarers from Australia or migrant workers from China. In the Catholic Herz-Jesu-Mission Vunapope near Kokopo, today’s provincial capital, the children would be taught by the nuns in standard German. Outside school, they would mix the German they learnt in the classroom with the languages of their parents, the result being “Unserdeutsch”. The German phrase “Um drei Uhr hole ich dich ab” (meaning “I will pick you up at three”) became “Drei Uhr i komm aufpicken du”, “i” being a mixture of the German “ich” and the English “I”, while for simplicity’s sake the children only used “der” or “de” as the definite articles.

Professor Craig Volker from the Divine Word University in Madang (Papua New Guinea) only discovered “Unserdeutsch” by chance in the 1970s. Together with the linguistic experts Professor Péter Maitz and Professor Werner König from the University of Augsburg, he is studying “Unserdeutsch” more thoroughly. During the course of a three-year project, the linguists are documenting the at-risk language, systematically describing its structure and reconstructing its history and evolution. The German Research Foundation (DFG) is providing 367,000 euros in funding for the project. “Anyone who speaks German can understand Unserdeutsch fairly well because the vocabulary is largely the same”, explains Professor Maitz.

I wouldn’t have believed that “a secret language invented by missionary school children […] around 1900” could still be in use, even if not exactly flourishing. If you’re curious, the Wikipedia article has a short but respectable bibliography. Thanks, Trevor!

Old Sinitic Reconstructions and Tibeto-Burman.

A guest post by Tsu-Lin Mei at the Log describes work he has been doing on Tibeto-Burman cognates and Old Chinese:

The work is quite interesting. It involves the internal history of the Tibetan language, internal history of Tibeto-Burman, etc. Some of these areas have been covered by James Matisoff, and others are terra incognita. My young colleague Jackson Sun at Academia Sinica has been working on comparative Tibetan dialects as well as Proto-rGyalrong 嘉戎。 I am making up the phonological history as I go along. The final product will be 100 cognate sets, supported both by philological evidence and by evidence from living Tibeto-Burman languages. […]

Why am I doing this? While there are many books on Sino-Tibetan comparative linguistics, there is no succinct account of the reasons why we believe Sino-Tibetan-Burman are genetically related. The answer is quite simple. (1) There are between 140 to 300 cognate sets involving Old Chinese and Tibeto-Burman languages. (2) Sino-Tibetan has a causative *s- and a nominalizing *-s. Both (1) and (2) have been in the literature since 2000, but nobody took the trouble to give a short, easy-to-understand account. This is what I am doing and I am writing in Chinese.

I have always thought that in Chinese lexicography there should be a section which tells the reader which Chinese words have Tibeto-Burman cognates and which do not. The American Heritage Dictionary does that for English; for every English word, the Dictionary gives its Indo-European root, if any. We should be able to do that for Chinese.

That’s exciting stuff to me, and I presume to anyone interested in historical linguistics. (We discussed Rgyalrongic languages here a bit last year.)

For anyone who reads Russian, by the way, Sashura has a very interesting interview in Ogonyok with Dmitry Bobyshev on the occasion of Bobyshev’s eightieth birthday; I translated a poem of his five years ago.

Language and Identity.

Rebecca Tan’s “Accent Adaptation” (“On sincerity, spontaneity, and the distance between Singlish and English”) is an interesting account by a college student of her struggle with adapting her Singaporean style of speech to American norms:

Every international student will surely find this idea of performance familiar. The most difficult thing about speaking in a foreign country isn’t adopting a new currency of speech, but using it as though it’s your own—not just memorizing your lines, but taking center stage and looking your audience in the eye. It is one thing to pronounce can’t so that it rhymes with ant instead of aunt, but a whole other order to do that without feeling like a fraud.

I got the link via Mark Liberman’s Log post, in whose comment thread you will find a good discussion of the fact (which had never occurred to me) that US can and can’t are frequently indistinguishable, or hard to distinguish, for foreigners. And anyone interested in the general topic of the problem speakers of localized forms of language have with standard languages should read Lameen’s recent posts at Jabal al-Lughat, “Lexical gaps in diglossia: When you can’t write what you know” (“even well-educated Algerians don’t know enough Fusha to adequately describe their daily life, much less to write all they know”) and “School in a language you don’t speak” (“Even the most divergent Appalachian or inner city dialects are closer to standard English than the home language of the most highly educated middle-class Algerians is to standard Arabic”).


An Adam Taylor story in the Washington Post, to be filed under “About time!”:

Politicians in the Czech Republic are set to put decades of debate to an end this week by officially announcing a new name for the country: Czechia.

In a meeting with reporters this week, Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek said he supported the move, suggesting that foreigners often mangled his country’s name when he met them abroad. “It is not good if a country does not have clearly defined symbols or if it even does not clearly say what its name is,” Zaoralek said, according to the Czech News Agency.

When the decision does go through, Czechia will officially become the conventional short-form name for the country, while the Czech Republic will remain the conventional long-form name.

As always, not everyone is happy (Karla Šlechtová, the minister of regional development, says the change will mean wasted funds in rebranding and the new name is too close to Chechnya), but I am. Thanks, Eric!


The excellent archivist Leslie Fields (whose work you can read about here) has reminded me of the excellent word wayzgoose, which I’ve always loved; a moment’s work showed me that 1) I have never mentioned it on LH, and 2) the OED just updated their entry last December, so without further ado, here ’tis:

wayzgoose, n.

Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈweɪzɡuːs/, U.S. /ˈweɪzˌɡus/
Inflections: Plural wayzgooses, (rare) wayzgeese.
Etymology: Apparently a variant or alteration of another lexical item. Etymon: waygoose n. [s.v. waygoose: It has been suggested that a goose was the main dish served at such an event, but this cannot be substantiated, and it is unclear whether the second element is to be identified with goose n. There do not appear to be plural forms of this word modelled on geese, plural of goose n. (but compare the plural forms cited at wayzgoose n.).]
Apparently an alteration of waygoose n., after wase n., originally as an attempt to provide an etymology (by Nathan Bailey; compare quot. 1731 at main sense).
There is no secure independent evidence for the sense ‘stubble goose’ posited by Bailey.
The rare plural form wayzgeese (after geese, plural of goose n.) usually appears alongside wayzgooses in contexts showing uncertainty over the correct form.

An entertainment given by a master printer to his workmen around St Bartholomew’s Day (24 August), marking the beginning of the season of working by candlelight. In later use: an annual festivity held in summer by the members of a printing establishment, consisting of a dinner and (usually) an excursion into the country. Cf. earlier waygoose n.

1731 N. Bailey Universal Etymol. Eng. Dict. (ed. 5) Wayz, a Bundle of Straw. Wayz-goose, a Stubble-Goose, an Entertainment given to Journeymen at the beginning of Winter.
1837 Colonial Times (Hobart, Tasmania) 12 Sept. 300/2 It is customary, all over the world, for journeymen printers to give their masters a dinner, on a fixed day, which dinner is called a ‘Wayse Goose’.
1875 J. Southward Dict. Typogr. 137 The wayzgoose generally consists of a trip into the country, open air amusements, a good dinner, and speeches and toasts afterwards.
1895 Surrey Mirror 23 Aug. 2/7 The members of the typographical staffs of the Surrey Advertiser (Guildford) and the Surrey Mirror (Redhill) had their wayzgoose on Saturday last, when they journeyed to Brighton.
1956 Yale Univ. Libr. Gaz. 30 133 This wayzgoose of the Honorable Company of College Printers affords a most appropriate speak about Franklin and his press.
2005 Cheshire Life Aug. 285/1 The staff of WH Evans & Sons Ltd, Printers, enjoy a wayzgoose (traditional printers’ outing) at Ristorante Sergio.

The first two cites for the earlier waygoose are:

1682 in W. R. Scott Rec. Sc. Cloth Manuf. New Mills 31 To write to the master to give the servants there way-gouse the night befor the fareiday of Haddington and bestow upon itt 15 s. sterling.
1683 J. Moxon Mech. Exercises II. 361 These Way-gooses, are always kept about Bartholomew-tide. And till the Master-Printer have given this Way-goose, the Journey-men do not use to Work by Candle Light.

As I told Leslie, I’ve never had the opportunity to take part in one, but I fervently support the institution. Long live wayzgeese!

Afterword: The Death of the Translator.

George Szirtes saith:

The translator meets himself emerging from his lover’s bedroom. So much for fidelity, he thinks.

Je est un autre, said the translator. Try next door.


A poet and a translator walk into a bar. Give me a beer, says the poet. I suppose you’d better give him a beer, says the translator.

Via, bien sur, wood s lot; if you like the Szirtes, there’s more of it at the first link, and if you don’t, there’s more translation- and language-related material at the second link, and if you don’t like any of it, hang in there, another post will be along tomorrow.

Snortomaniac Hyperbolic Pylorectomy.

John Cowan sent me a link to this webpage, which, alas, I have been unable to access, but the quote is too good not to repost, so I’m copying it from his e-mail:

In Gelett Burgess’ 1911 novel Find the Woman, a truck driver blocks the way of a parade organized by a society to ban profanity. He is addressed by Dr. Hopbottom, the society’s head:

See here, you slack-salted transubstantiated interdigital germarium, you rantipole sacrosciatic rock-barnacle you, if you give me any of your caprantipolene paragastrular megalopteric jacitation, I’ll make a lamellibranchiate gymnomixine parabolic lepidopteroid out of you! What diacritical right has a binominal oxypendactile advoutrous holoblastic rhizopod like you got with your trinoctial ustilaginous Westphalian holocaust blocking up the teleostean way for, anyway! If you give me any more of your lunarian, snortomaniac hyperbolic pylorectomy, I’ll skive you into a megalopteric diatomeriferous auxospore! You queasy Zoroastrian son of a helicopteric hypotrachelium, you, shut your logarithmic epicycloidal mouth! You let this monopolitan macrocosmic helciform procession go by and wait right here in the anagological street. And no more of your hedonistic primordial supervirescence, you rectangular quillet-eating, vice-presidential amoeboid, either!

The truck driver apologizes: “I see a plain, sea-faring man has no show with a doctor when it comes to exhibiting language in public. … If this here society what’s running this here procession can turn out graduates of the noble art of profanity like you are, I want to say this: Give me the pledge, and I’ll sign it.”