Word Crimes.

I have, of course, been sent the link to Weird Al’s new “Word Crimes” video, a parody of last summer’s hit “Blurred Lines.” My response: “I enjoyed the parody but deplored the prescriptivism.” I didn’t have much more to say, and wasn’t planning to post about it, but I liked Lauren Squires’s guest post at the Log enough to link to it here and quote a couple of paragraphs (the “third” comes after discussions of Al’s use of “grammar” in a way that annoys linguists and the notion of “Proper English” as a tool of discrimination):

Third—and the motivation for this post—is that the view of “grammar” as “you must learn the rules or else be ostracized” just makes grammar no fun at all! Studying language—really digging into it, uncovering its remarkably complex yet orderly structure, investigating what makes it different across speakers and communities—is SUPER FUN! Giving people a list of rules of things to do in order to not be criticized is NOT FUN! I want my students to think language is FUN, and to have FUN thinking about language!

So as a teacher, I want to say: Weird Al can think what he wants about language, and you the audience can laugh along or not, depending on your views on language or taste in music or whatever. But please do not mistake the video itself for an educational video. It will not teach students about language. It will not teach students about grammar. I’ve seen many comparisons to Schoolhouse Rock, but would any student who didn’t already know what a “preposition” was leave Weird Al’s video understanding it? No. Rather, on its face, this video teaches people that there is a right way to speak/write, and if you don’t do things that way, you’re a bad person (or a sewer person? or a person with a disability?) who should not breed. Nothing about how language works, or why these “rules” are what they are.

She presents a list of 25 Questions for Teaching with “Word Crimes” that may be of interest. I would like to add an important point: yes, Weird Al is a parodist and not an educator or editorialist (sample comment by Kyle Gorman: “Weird Al is a parodist—there’s no way the character he is performing is his sincere self—who is no more ignorant of linguistics than society at large”), but that is a red herring here. It is clear from his statements in interviews (e.g., “When I came up with the idea for ‘Word Crimes’ I thought, ‘That’s great, because I’m pretty obsessed with grammar anyway.’ I’m always correcting peoples’ grammar”) that he stands behind the attitudes expressed in the video, though they are presumably exaggerated for comic effect. Also, “no more ignorant of linguistics than society at large” means “completely ignorant.” Maybe someday we can change that!

“Jesus” in Dungan.

Victor Mair has a fascinating post at the Log about Dungan, a variety of Chinese (or Sinitic, if you prefer) spoken in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and written in Cyrillic:

Naturally, separated as they were from their homeland and its speech community, the language of the Dungans has undergone considerable change, especially through the borrowing of terms from Russian, Persian, Arabic, Turkic, and other languages. Even more radical was the adoption of the Cyrillic alphabet for their writing system (nearly all of those who fled were illiterate in Chinese characters).

For a brief introduction to the Dungans and their language, see “Dungan: a Sinitic language written with the Cyrillic alphabet”.

For those who want to hear what Dungan sounds like, there is now an excellent opportunity, since the movie “Jesus” has been dubbed into Dungan. For someone who knows Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), it’s amazing to listen to — sometimes partially understandable, sometimes dramatically affected by Turkic and Russian.

He gives links to both the full movie and the movie broken into clips, and the reactions from commenters who know Chinese are very interesting. Here’s the first, from Natalia:

I am fluent in MSM, and Dungan sounds like someone is narrating or several persons are having a conversation in the next room just out of hearing range.

The rhythm and cadence of the speech is familiar, and I can catch specific words or phrases. However, the speaker will suddenly use an unfamiliar phrase in that same rhythm and I am once again wondering if my ears have stopped working.

And Matt Anderson writes:

That whole site is a great resource. I just watched the same 30 second clip in each of the Sinitic topolects, in rough order of intelligibility (from my perspective), starting with Mandarin varieties and moving on through Cantonese, Xiang, Shanghainese, Hakka, and Mindong & Minnan varieties, etc. Watching it over & over like that allowed me to pick out a lot more from some of the topolects than I would otherwise have been able to, but it really does reinforce how insane it is to consider all this diversity to be part of the same language.

I’ll be curious to know what Bathrobe makes of it!

The Languages of Czernowitz.

Christopher Culver posts this great quote from Gregor von Rezzori’s memoir Blumen im Schnee (translated as The Snows of Yesteryear) about “his childhood nanny Cassandra, hired out of some remote village in the Carpathians” (Rezzori grew up in Czernowitz, now Chernivtsi):

She spoke both Romanian and Ruthenian, both equally badly—which is not at all unusual in the Bukovina—intermixing the two languages and larding both with bits from a dozen other idioms. The result was that absurd lingua franca, understood only by myself and scantily by those who, like her, had to express themselves in a similarly motley verbal hodgepodge. Even though it may be questioned whether I was actually fed at Cassandra’s breast, there can be no doubt that linguistically I was nourished by her speech. The main component was a German, never learned correctly or completely, the gaps in which were filled with words and phrases from all the other tongues spoken in the Bukovina—so that each second or third word was either Ruthenian, Romanian, Polish, Russian, Armenian or Yiddish, not to forget Hungarian and Turkish. From my birth, I heard mainly this idiom, and it was as natural to me as the air that I breathed.

We need more of this kind of mixing (mongrelization, if you will), not less. Culver ends his post with this sad reflection: “From my experiences walking the streets of the city, it’s pretty much down to just Ukrainian, Russian and Romanian now. And while the intermixing of languages was simply accepted as a fact of life back then, today in at least southern (Romanian) Bucovina, the observation that a word in Romanian is of foreign origin is often taken as an insult.”


Victor Mair has a post at the Log called “Neoguri: raccoon or raccoon dog?” which discusses a typhoon name; it begins:

The typhoon that struck Okinawa a few days ago and is now passing by Tokyo is called Neoguri. It gets it name from a Korean word meaning “raccoon dog”.

The Japanese refer to it as Taifū 8-gō Neoguri 台風8号ネオグ リ (“Typhoon No. 8 Neoguri”), but most often without the “Neoguri” (see below for discussion of Japanese typhoon designation practices). However, the Chinese are calling it Huànxióng 浣熊 (“raccoon”), which is a clear mistranslation. The Chinese name for the raccoon dog is hé 貉 or háozi 貉子.

Bathrobe, who called Neoguri to my attention, writes: “Chinese has got itself in knots over naming precisely because of Chinese characters.”

The crux of the matter lies in the fact that, for Chinese, lí 狸 means (“raccoon”), while for Japanese it is the celebrated tanuki 狸 (“raccoon dog”), about which we will have much to say in this post.

It’s fascinating stuff, and if you go to the post you will learn a great deal about the animals involved, as well as how to pronounce the Korean word I used as a title. But the reason I decided to post it was that Mair sent me an e-mail calling my attention to this comment from Ives Goddard, who, as that Wikipedia article says, “is widely considered the leading expert on the Algonquian languages”:

The etymology of raccoon is unknown. The spellings of the Virginia Algonquian word include aroughcun, rarowcun, etc., etc. (John Smith) and arathkone and arrathcune (Wm. Strachey). There is no easy way to connect this to Unami Delaware (the Phila. area language) náhënëm (ë = schwa). Someone has evidently tried to do this (knowing that PA *hk > Del /h/) and has come up with a very bad and in fact completely incomprehensible PA reconstruction (“*ahrah-koon-em”) that appears online as if it were a real word an appalling number of times. I have no idea what the morphemes are supposed to be (except perhaps for the irrelevant -ëm). Can anyone trace this to the source that originally proposed it?

My only news on this word is that I have now been able to persuade the OED to use the spelling “raccoon” rather than the older British(!) and Canadian norm “racoon.”

Isn’t it great that people can discuss an Algonquian etymology and have the leading expert in the field drop by to shed light? I love this multiply connected world!

Around DH in 80 Days.

Michael Hendry sent me this link, to “a story about a project to crowdsource (with more accuracy than that usually implies) the proofing and on-line publication of all 90 volumes of Tolstoi’s works,” and then added “a lot of the other things on the site (Around the Digital Humanities in 80 Days) look like they would be of interest to Hatters.” He’s absolutely right; here is the page listing the “days” they’ve put online so far, and I’m pretty sure everyone will find something of interest. “Deepening Histories of Place” is a “multi-institutional digital cultural project for Aboriginal knowledge management”; “Aluka” is “an international collaborative working to build a ‘digital library of scholarly resources from and about Africa’”; “Book of the Dead | Totenbuch” is a project to edit the text of the Egyptian Book of the Dead; “Sefaria” is a crowdsourced project “to make a ‘free living library’ of all texts in the Jewish canon in their original languages (mostly Hebrew or Aramaic), with translations to English.” There’s lots more where those came from — check it out!

Title Case for Bird Names.

Martha Harbison has a painfully funny piece in Audubon about the history and significance of that magazine’s decision to mandate title case for bird names (e.g., “Bald Eagle” rather than “bald eagle”). Here’s a sample:

A group of magazine editors, scientists, and communications professionals, convened by Audubon’s VP of Content, Mark Jannot, was asked to hash out, once and for all, whether Audubon would use title case (that is, capitalizing the first letter of each word) for common bird names. You can read Jannot’s account of ruffled feathers and rooster-like posturing here. (Spoiler: Audubon is switching to title case across all of its channels, including stories published in Audubon magazine.) The entire dustup was an eye-opener for me, a lifelong birder but a relatively recent hire at Audubon. Before that meeting, I thought magazine copy editors were the most rule-crazy, uptight cranks going when it came to orthography. Little did I know that ornithologists share that trait. Listening to each camp snipe at the other, over rules that nobody else in the world cares about, made me question my allegiance to either side.

As someone with more than a decade’s experience working in magazine editing, grokking the impulses of copy editors is easy: Any given rule is either in the style manual (one of a half-dozen stylebooks—but, in any given copy editor’s case, only a particular one of the those) or it’s not (and therefore it’s not a rule). To understand the ornithologist’s fervor for majuscules required some research, so I dug up a copy of the very first Check-List of North American Birds, published by the American Ornithologists’ Union in 1886. I read the entire Code of Nomenclature [...]

I personally agree with Anselm Atkins, “a longtime birder, ex-Trappist monk, and former academic,” who complained about title case, saying: “let us surrender to the dictionary. Until we do, we ornithologists, with our Important Capitals, continue to look Curiously Provincial.” But I’m not a birder, so I just watch with bemusement from the sidelines. (Via MetaFilter, where birders are defending their Important Capitals.)


A delightful NY Times article by Jon Grinspan called “How Coffee Fueled the Civil War” (thanks, Eric!) is worth reading for any coffee lover (there are tasty quotes like a soldier’s “what keeps me alive must be the coffee” and Gen. Butler’s “if your men get their coffee early in the morning you can hold”), but what brings me to post it here is this sentence: “Men ground the beans themselves (some carbines even had built-in grinders) and brewed it in little pots called muckets.” Naturally I was intrigued by the final word and looked it up, but I was unable to find it in any of my reference works. Both Webster’s Third and the OED know it only as a freshwater mussel (OED, updated March 2003: “A North American freshwater mussel of the family Unionidae; spec. Actinonaias ligamentina of the eastern United States or a related species, usually of the genus Lampsilis or Leptodea“), and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (Vol. 2) and Jonathon Green’s Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang know it only as “a hairpiece” (HDAS: “origin unknown”; Green: “? var. on SE merkin, a pubic wig”). Googling gets me this, from Palmer H. Boeger’s “Hardtack and Burned Beans” (Civil War History 4:1, March 1958, pp. 73-92, quote from p. 89):

Veterans despised the coffee boiled at the company cook shack and boasted about brewing their own to just the right strength and flavor. Early in the war many soldiers of the Army of the Potomac carried a small tin pail with a cover and a wooden handle called a “mucket” in which to boil their coffee.

I’m guessing that’s where Grinspan got it. If anyone knows more about this mysterious term, go ahead and spill the beans.

David J. Peterson on Creating Languages.

I wrote about David Peterson, who invents the languages for Game of Thrones, here, and we had a nice long discussion, but there’s now a wide-ranging interview with him at A.V. Club that goes into a lot of stuff not covered in the previous article, and the guy is very articulate about languages and what’s involved in creating them, so I can’t resist posting this one as well. Here’s a sample:

AVC: One of the things that’s interesting about what you’re doing is that you have to make these languages sound real and plausible in ways that most of us can understand but can’t quite articulate. What is that stuff we’re picking up on?

DP: First of all, there’s a big difference between producing something that looks like language as text and producing a spoken element that sounds like language. There are two different things going on here. The first is that when I’m creating a language, I’m trying to produce something that’s maximally authentic—so that if a linguist were to look at it, and we said this is a new language that appeared in the middle of Australia, they would look at it and say, “Oh, wow.” It’s got to have that. It has to have the grammar behind it, and the history behind it that produces that grammar.

But when it comes to speaking, that’s a different skill set. And there are people that aren’t even language people, per se, but can produce fluent-sounding gibberish. Language creators have the ability to create inflectional prosody. And that’s the thing that ends up selling a language; it’s something that I create on purpose and try to encode.

AVC: How many languages are you working on in the Game Of Thrones universe right now?

DP: So there’s Dothraki, and that’s a very easy one because it’s just a nice isolate. It’s related to another language in the universe, but we haven’t seen that and probably won’t, I’m guessing, in the show. So there’s that. Then in the very first season, they had me come up with little sketches for something that the White Walkers would speak. And something that Mirri Maz Duur would speak when she was doing the chanting from Asshai’i. That language. Two little sketches—they weren’t full languages. I don’t think that they ended up using either of them, honestly, in the show. I did those things, but I’d say they’re probably non-canon at this point.

Then from the Valyrian family, I created High Valyrian—a dead language that’s still spoken by a lot of people as an academic literary language. Among the Targaryens, it was kept alive as a family language. That’s why Daenerys speaks it—and presumably Viserys, her brother, also spoke it. It just never came up. So there’s that.

Descended from High Valyrian is Low Valyrian—what’s spoken in Slaver’s Bay. The first instantiation of this we saw was Astapori Valyrian. The reason that they spoke this is because the old Valyrian Freehold basically sacked the old Ghiscari Empire five times, and then after the fifth time, they completely obliterated and destroyed their capital city, Old Ghis. That empire was destroyed and became a part of the Valyrian Freehold. At that point, Valyrian, as it was, took over as the primary language spoken throughout Slaver’s Bay, supplanting the old Ghiscari language. All this history, this comes directly from the books.

Astapori Valyrian is an evolved form of High Valyrian. It’s about the same relationship as Italian is to Latin. But there are also a bunch of borrowed words from Ghiscari. Ghiscari hasn’t been developed as a full language, because it’s dead and nobody speaks it. But it has a phonological character that we’ve seen from names in the books. Like Hizdahr zo Loraq and Reznak mo Reznak. So we see a little bit of what it would have sounded like. I sprinkled Ghiscari loanwords through Low Valyrian. Yunkai basically speaks the same language. It might be a little different in spots, but we can treat it as the same language.

The next variety, which has a very different sound, is Meereenese Valyrian. It’s the same language as Astapori Valyrian for the most part, except that it has more Ghiscari loanwords and the sound of it is really, really different. And that was done specifically at Dave’s and Dan’s request. Daenerys understands Astapori Valyrian, which is a bit of a stretch, but we’ll take it. But they want her to not be able to understand the people of Meereen. It’s not a different language. But I made it sound so different that somebody who isn’t completely fluent in this Low Valyrian variant wouldn’t understand it. People from Astapor probably understand it and think it’s somebody with a really, really thick accent. But somebody who isn’t super keyed into it is probably going to get lost, and that’s in effect where Daenerys is. She can’t follow it at all. It just sounds too different.

As you can see, he puts in an incredible amount of work on this stuff, and the way he talks about it makes me curious about watching the show (as does, of course, jamessal’s enthusiasm). By the way, anyone who’s curious about the “Ki fin yeni!” in the interview’s title can find the translation here under “Common Phrases.”


Back in 2007 I posted about mana, but that was about an early Japanese writing system called mana or man’yōgana. This is about mana the Polynesian concept of supernatural force — and, as it turns out (heretofore unbeknownst to me), a common term for magic points in contemporary role-playing games. This is laid out in detail in an article by Alex Golub sent to me by bulbul, who was surprised from the other direction: “13 years of gaming and I had no idea” (about the Polynesian origins). In the section on the Polynesian word it links to this, which drew my attention to the Polynesian Lexicon Project Online, aka Pollex Online, which makes my day all on its own; since they say “If you use the POLLEX-Online database, please cite: Greenhill SJ & Clark R (2011). POLLEX-Online: The Polynesian Lexicon Project Online. Oceanic Linguistics, 50(2), 551-559,” I am hereby doing so. And if you’re curious about how the word ended up in gaming, here’s the crucial paragraph:

Mana has been floating around fantasy and gaming fandoms for some time, partially because of Eliade, but also because of Larry Niven. In 1969, Larry Niven published the short story “Not Long Before The End.” The story was set in the distant past, when the environment was suffused with mana. Wizards consumed mana by casting spells, slowly using it up. The result was our current, disenchanted world. Published four years after Frank Herbert’s Dune and the same year as the Santa Barbara oil spill, some people saw in Niven’s work an ecological message about nonrenewable resources. In fact, Niven’s inspiration was a book he had read in college: Peter Worsley’s The Trumpet Shall Sound. Worsley’s book described cargo cults in New Guinea, many of which drew on Austronesian visions of the distant past as a time of powerful ancestors whose knowledge and capacities had been imperfectly handed down to us in the present. The story was superbly told, frequently anthologized, and resulted in several spin-offs. As a result, word of mana spread.

But there’s lots of good stuff in there, and I recommend reading the whole thing. (I’m almost afraid to mention this, but in my Pocket Hawaiian Dictionary, the etymology given for mana is “PPN manga.” Nothing to do with this, honest!)


Victor Mair has a post at the Log taking off from a query by Cortney Chaffin, who says she was bothered by a colleague’s use of phrases like “oriental landscape painting” to describe an exhibit:

Anyways, my colleague just so happens to be Korean and after I explained to him why I feel we should not use the term in university publications, he responded that the term “oriental” is culturally acceptable in Korea and he linked to a website of an art school in Korea that refers to its institution as an “oriental art” school. My husband [himself Korean] showed me that in Korean “oriental” is translated from the characters dong yang 東洋 [VHM: lit., "eastern ocean"]. Do you have any insight on the origin of dong yang 東洋? In a Chinese dictionary (Pleco), I see the term can mean “Japan” or “East Asian countries” and this made me very curious why this character combination was borrowed to mean “oriental” in Korean. Is it a loanword from Japanese?

This provokes a most interesting discussion of Korean dong-yang-ui 동양의, Japanese Tōyō 東洋, Mandarin Dōngfāng 东方 and Dōngyáng 東洋, and English Oriental and Orientalism, as well as the extent to which the English words have been skunked following the publication of Edward Said’s influential Orientalism (1978). Some sample comments: Dongyoun Hwang, “Many scholars in Korea do not use the term Orient or oriental in English but still use the term ‘Dongyang’ or ‘Dongyang ui’ in Korean”; Sean Manning, “I try to avoid ‘orient’ vocabulary not because of Edward Said but because it can mean either Southwest Asia or East Asia”; Dave, “I’ve never considered ‘oriental’ to be a ‘racial slur’ exactly, but my sense is that a significant portion of the people who use it also tend to harbor ideas that taint the word by association — people who call Asians ‘Orientals’ rarely have nice things to say about them”; Jerry Friedman, “Maybe [Said's work being the proximate cause of the deprecation of Oriental] can be ruled out on timeline grounds. The earliest deprecation of ‘Oriental’ I can find is from 1957. [...] In a Google ngrams comparison, nothing dramatic happens in 1978″; rgove, “It’s important to note that the Mandarin 东方, meaning as it does nothing more or less than ‘Eastern’, is very frequently used to refer to the east of China“; and there is much discussion of whether and to what extent Oriental is tainted outside the US. Bathrobe made an interesting point about Vietnamese:

Professor Mair discusses the Japanese and Korean usage of 東洋 along with the Chinese aversion to the term. Of some interest to me is the fact that Đông Dương in Vietnamese has a completely different meaning from what it does in East Asia: it traditionally refers to Indochina, the three Đông Dương countries (ba nước Đông Dương) being Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. I am very curious to know how this usage might have come about.

Also, while China generally doesn’t use 東洋 or 西洋, both Chinese and Japanese (not sure about Korean) at one time used 南洋 to refer to insular South East Asia. Does the vocabulary of 南洋, 東洋 and 西洋 hark back to older Chinese concepts of geography?

On the Said issue, I liked Brian Spooner’s succinct “Said had a point but he went overboard.”