Tocharian C.

Douglas Q. Adams reports at the Log on an exciting development (to those of us who are excited by Indo-European linguistics), the confirmation of a third Tocharian language:

For over a hundred years now linguists have known of a small Indo-European family comprised of two closely related languages, Tocharian A and Tocharian B, in the Tarim Basin of eastern Central Asia (Chinese Xinjiang). Tocharian B speakers occupied the northern edge of the Tarim Basin, north of the Tarim River, from its origin at the confluence of the Kashgar and Yarkand rivers eastward to about the halfway point to the Tarim’s disappearance into Lop Nor. Politically Tocharian B speakers were certainly the major constituent of the population of the kingdom of Kucha and natively they called the language (in its English form) Kuchean. To the east-north-east, in the Karashahr Basin, were speakers of Tocharian A, centered around Yanqi (Uighur Karashahr, Sanskrit Agni). On the basis of the Sanskrit name this language is sometimes referred to as Agnean, though we do not have any direct or conclusive evidence as to what the speakers themselves called it. To the east-south-east of Kuqa, along the lower Tarim was the historic kingdom of Kroraina (Chinese Loulan < Han Chinese *glu-glân). The administrative language of Loulan was Gandhari Prakrit, obviously imported into the Tarim Basin along with Buddhism from northwestern India. In documents of the Loulan variety of Gandhari Prakrit are non-Gandhari words that have been attributed to the native language of the area. Some of those non-Gandhari words look like Tocharian (e.g., kilme ‘region’ beside TchB kälymiye ‘direction’) and it has seemed a reasonable hypothesis that the native language of Kroraina/Loulan was another Tocharian language, “Tocharian C.” (That the native language of Loulan was Tocharian was first suggested by Thomas Burrow in his The Language of the Kharoṣṭhī Documents from Chinese Turkestan, 1937.) This is a reasonable hypothesis, for which the evidence is admittedly meager, and many have been (reasonably) dubious or unconvinced.

However, in December 2018 Hempen Verlag of Bremen published Klaus T. Schmidt, Nachgelassene Schriften, edited by Stefan Zimmer. One of the two Nachlass documents was an examination of some ten heretofore ignored texts written in the Kharoṣṭhī alphabet, clearly associated with Loulan, in an obviously Tocharian language that is neither Tocharian A nor Tocharian B. […] This new data firmly establishes the existence of a Tocharian language in the Lop Nor Basin. A rather similar hypothesis, that there was a Tocharian-speaking population in the Gansu Corridor, known to the Chinese as the Yuezhi, is hardly proved by this new data, but it is rendered a bit more plausible in that now we can imagine an unbroken chain of Tocharian languages from the upper Tarim into the Gansu Corridor. The Yuezhi of course, driven from their home by the Xiongnu in the second century BC, migrated to western Central Asia where, ultimately, they were known to the classical world as the Tókharoi. The latter’s name was extended by early investigators (particularly Friedrich W. K .Müller in 1907) to the newly discovered languages of the Tarim Basin (A and B) under the mistaken idea that these peoples represented an eastward reflux of the Tókharoi. This reasoning was clearly wrong, but, if the Yuezhi should happen to have spoken a variety of Tocharian, the name may actually have some historical justification. The classical Tókharoi are now known to have spoken an Iranian language, but it’s quite possible that the incoming Yuezhi (whatever their original language) came to speak the language of the earlier inhabitants of their new home. (Compare the French who today speak a Romance language but whose [partial] ancestors, the Franks, were speakers of Germanic, or the Bulgarians who speak a Slavic language but whose [partial] ancestors, the Bulgars, spoke a variety of Turkic.) Further information and discussion, focusing on the linguistic data and issues, will appear in my review of the book to be published in the Journal of Indo-European Studies.

(Tocharian previously at LH.)


From Lev Oborin’s FB post I learned about a delightful phenomenon, the spread via graffiti of the enigmatic word едодой [edodoi] across the streets of Krasnodar and then via social media throughout the Russian-speaking world, even turning up in the US scrawled next to a Trump Tower. There were plaintive tweets like “Так, а вы знаете, кто такой ЕДОДОЙ? Почему он везде пишет?” [So, do you know what this EDODOI is? Why is it written everywhere?] One person suggested it might be an ad for a pizza chain, another thought it was a mythical bird of the Kuban marshland. You can see many such questions and hypotheses, as well as lots of images, at Maria Vlasova’s Medialeaks write-up, where she quotes the solution to the riddle, as provided by Prost Post of Krasnodar:

На самом деле слово «едодой» (или «одедодой») означает «Это да!» ( «Вот это да!») Существуют и другие интерпретации перевода. Почему? Потому что это слово пошло из новояза, который придумал переводчик и поэт Валерий Нугатов.
В этой белиберде и смесь языков советского пространства, и элементы шифрования, и протест, — как говорят поклонники автора.
На его странице в фейсбуке можно наблюдать, как фанаты перекидываются односложными фразами секретного новояза, который, если приноровиться, легко поддаётся пониманию. Делают они это со скуки или всерьёз — неизвестно.

In reality, the word edodoi (or odedodoi) means Eto da! (Vot eto da!) [exclamation of enthusiasm and/or amazement that could be rendered “how about that!” or “that’s really something!”]. There exist other interpretations of the translation as well. Why? Because the word came out of the newspeak invented by the translator and poet Valery Nugatov.
In this nonsense and mixture of languages of the Soviet space there are elements of both encryption and protest, say the author’s admirers.
On his Facebook page you can see how fans toss at each other terse phrases of the secret newspeak which, if you accustom yourself to them, are easily understood. Whether they do this out of boredom or seriously is unknown.

Not only is it satisfying to learn the solution (I am not one of those who prefers mysteries to answers), I learned the word новояз, translating Orwell’s Newspeak; the first citation in the Национальный корпус русского языка is from Гибель Джонстауна [The destruction/death of Jonestown] (1978-1980)
by Boris Vakhtin (son of the writer Vera Panova [thanks, Alex!]): “В этом тумане, среди неясностей, недоговоренностей, неконкретностей растет и развивается безликий, безнациональный, неукорененный и неплодный «новояз» («ньюспик»), тот «язык», в котором слово «мир» означает «война», слово «счастье» ― «горе», «совесть» ― «обман»…” [In this fog, among unclearness, unspokenness, lack of concreteness, there grows and develops a featureless, nationless, rootless, and fruitless “newspeak,” that “language” in which the word “peace” means “war,” the word “happiness” “grief,” “conscience” “deceit”…].

To quote Gregory of Tours, “a great many things keep happening, some good, some bad” [cum nonnullae res gererentur vel rectae vel inprobae] and to my mind edodoi is one of the good things.

No Man’s Land.

James Pickford reports for the Financial Times on a fascinating discovery:

A 4,500-year-old marble pillar that has lain in the basement of the British Museum for 150 years has been revealed as the first recorded account of a conflict over a disputed border — and the earliest known instance of word play. […] Deciphered only this year by Irving Finkel, a curator in the Middle East department of the British Museum, it describes a long-running and bloody dispute over a lush tract of land claimed by the rival city states of Lagash and Umma, the first prolonged border conflict in recorded history.

Created by the rulers of Lagash as a boundary marker, it is also a political weapon invoking historical precedent and the will of their god Ningirsu to lay claim to the land. The scribe who chiselled it took this a stage further by doctoring the stone to make it look older and employing inventive word play that cast the city state’s nighbours in a bad light. Where the god’s name is normally expressed with the signs “Nin”, “Gir” and “Su”, the scribe replaced some of the conventional symbols with the word for god — ramming home the divinity of Ningirsu through repetition. When it comes to the rival god of the enemy Umma people, however, the signs that spell the god’s name are messy, sprawling and virtually illegible. […]

The ancient scribe had employed an early version of fake news, to bolster Lagash’s historical claim to the border. Mr Finkel discovered that the surface of the marble had been treated so it appeared eroded by the passage of time. The scribe had also used a style of writing that was redolent of a much earlier era, when the written Sumerian language was shifting from pictograms to cuneiform. “The scribe who produced this text was at the same time giving the impression that the underlying text was older than the contemporary time,” said Mr Finkel. “It’s a multi-faceted thing.”

Alongside other artefacts from Mesopotamia, as well as contemporary works, it will go on show on Thursday in a display called “No Man’s Land” (another expression that appears for the first time on the Lagash pillar).

Unrelated, The 50 Best Slaughterhouse-Five Covers from Around the World by Emily Temple at LitHub. It’s fun to see if you can identify the languages from the covers!


I just got back from the Amherst Cinema showing of Solaris in its Tarkovsky retrospective, and my reaction surprised me. Last Sunday I saw Andrei Rublev, which I had seen several times before and always liked, and liked even more now that I understood everything that was going on (having done some intensive reading). For Solaris I prepared by finally reading the Stanisław Lem novel it was based on; I’d been avoiding it both because the English translation (from French, not the original Polish) isn’t supposed to be very good and because I hadn’t liked any of the Lem I’d dipped into — it all seemed to be the kind of heavily ironical social satire that does nothing for me. I solved the first problem by reading Bruskin’s Russian translation, and I found myself enjoying it tremendously; Lem goes on a bit too long sometimes with his detailed descriptions of the phenomena created by the Solaris ocean, but otherwise it’s a well-thought-out and traditional sf novel, with both suspense and philosophical interest. Thanks to my reading, I finally understood all the bits of the movie that had confused me on previous viewings, but I also understood Lem’s irritation with the result: Tarkovsky’s vision (humanistic, emphasizing the vital importance of love and culture, with lots of Bach and Brueghel plus the occasional horse) is irreconcilable with Lem’s (scientific, emphasizing the importance of not succumbing to sentiment in trying to understand the universe). There’s nothing wrong with humanism, of course, but the attempt to impose it on refractory material renders it incoherent here, so I actually enjoyed the movie less than I had on previous viewings. The final scene is still spectacular and spine-chilling, though.

A linguistic note: the subtitles on the print shown were generally good, but when a drunk Snaut tells Kelvin they should open the manholes in the floor and holler down at the ocean, his “Вдруг услышит” (‘Maybe it will hear’ or ‘What if it hears?’) is rendered “It will suddenly hear.” The subtitler didn’t realize that вдруг ‘suddenly’ can also be used for hypothetical suppositions.


Having finished Bunin’s Суходол [Dry Valley, also translated Drydale (name of estate)], an amazing, Faulkneresque novella about life at the Khrushchovs’ country estate in the 1850s as remembered by their former servant Natashka (who was madly in love with one of the Khrushchov sons), I started on the 1912 story Игнат [Ignat (name of character)], and quickly ran across a difficult word (there are lots of them in Bunin): “За ней, смеясь и что-то крича, выбежал на крыльцо, на тающий снег, Николай Кузьмич, приземистый, большеголовый, с тупым и властным профилем, в косоворотке из белого ластика и лакированных сапогах” [Behind her, laughing and shouting something, Nikolai Kuzmich ran out onto the porch, into the melting snow — thickset, bigheaded, with an obtuse and masterful profile, in a shirt made of white lastik and patent-leather boots]. The only ластик I was familiar with was a word for ‘(rubber) eraser,’ which was obviously not right here; fortunately, my Oxford dictionary had an entry for a different ластик, but it was defined as “(material) lasting,” which meant nothing to me. Again fortunately, Merriam-Webster includes the sense in their entry: “a sturdy cotton or worsted cloth used especially in shoes and luggage.” The OED (in an entry updated in September 2014) defines it as “A durable kind of cloth; spec. a strong worsted fabric formerly used for clothing and for the uppers of shoes (more fully lasting cloth)” and has a range of citations from 1748 (Gen. Advertiser 9 June Lastings, Shalloons, Fustians, Cottons, &c.) to 2000 (D. A. Farnie & T. Abe in D. A. Farnie et al. Region & Strategy in Brit. & Japan iv. 138 After the war Japan crowned its victory by surpassing Britain in the supply of lastings from 1918, of Italians from 1924 and of sateens from 1925). The one that struck me was this:

1993 D. L. Ransel tr. O. S. Tian-Shanskaia Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia iv. 56 On holidays, the men..wear cotton shirts, trousers of lasting cloth, [etc.].

The original Russian, if you’re curious (as of course I was), is: “На мужиках домашнего производства будничный костюм: рубаха, портки, онучи, лапти, поддевка, тулуп, а в праздник мужик (особенно молодой) надевает ситцевую рубаху, ластиковые шаровары, жилетку (иногда пиджак и калоши даже) и сапоги бутылками.” So now I know what it is (though I don’t really have a mental image of it, since I’ve never paid much attention to cloth and don’t know worsted except as a word where you don’t pronounce the -r-), but since it doesn’t seem to have been in use since WWI, it’s odd (though lucky for me) that the Oxford dictionary bothered to include it. Are any of you familiar with this sense of lasting?

Accent Softening.

Daniel Lavelle writes for the Guardian about the “accent softening taster session” he’s attending with Jamie Chapman (“the Henry Higgins to my Eliza Doolittle”) at the London Speech Workshop:

I visit Chapman because, since I moved from Manchester to London two years ago, I have been mocked about my accent, which made me think about softening some of my rougher edges. Regional accents not only indicate where we are from, but can reveal our social class, while a recent study found that broad regional accents can be a barrier to social mobility.

The idea of erasing part of my identity makes me profoundly uneasy, nevertheless, it is something that many people are trying. […] Today, businesses – possibly aware of the class connotations – promote their services with more euphemistic words; it’s now about “softening” your accent not changing it and speaking “clearly”, not correctly.

Yet underpinning this are the same old assumptions, says Dr Sol Gamsu, an assistant professor of sociology at Durham University. “Accents are tied into uneven regional geographies of economic and cultural power,” he says. “The associations between intelligence and forms of middle-class and elite speech and accent are deeply woven into British class structures.” […]

“Accents tell you as much about what we project on to people as anything to do with the actual people,” says Sophie Scott, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London. How you perceive accents can be dependent on your proximity to the location of the accent, she says. She grew up in Blackburn, Lancashire, where the Liverpudlian accent was considered “metropolitan”. This contrasts with the animus that some Mancunians have towards a scouse accent, and the romanticism some Americans hear in its cadences.

Since I have been in London, I have become conscious of what my accent signals – northerners are often depicted as being louts or simpletons in the southern-centric media. During the first few ice-breakers at university, I was told by a well-spoken southerner that I sounded like Karl Pilkington, of An Idiot Abroad fame. […]

Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, however, considers her Brummie accent one of her “greatest assets”, but has experienced some of what worried Griffiths. “Outside of parliament, people definitely will use it as a tool to have a go at you,” she says. “They’ll say you sound thick and you’re common and you don’t speak properly.” The way Phillips writes has also been ridiculed. “Every single time I write anything down about being a mom, or about my mom or other moms – I write it: ‘Mom,’ because that’s how we say it in Birmingham. And every single time someone will be like: ‘Oh, that’s not how you spell it. It’s mum. You’re thick.’ I’m like: ‘Not where I live it isn’t’,” Phillips adds.

I’m fascinated by this stuff, because it’s so different from the attitude to regional speech in the US (though of course we have stigmas too), and I’ll be curious to see what my readers have to say. Thanks, Kobi!

Swapping Ls and Rs.

Joss Fong, who describes herself as a “tragically monolingual producer,” presents a splendid video which she describes as follows:

A foreign accent is when someone speaks a second language with the rules of their first language, and one of the most persistent and well-studied foreign-accent features is a lack of L/R contrast among native Japanese speakers learning English. It’s so well-known that American soldiers in World War II reportedly used codewords like “lallapalooza” to distinguish Japanese spies from Chinese allies. But American movies and TV shows have applied this linguistic stereotype to Korean and Chinese characters too, like Kim Jong Il in Team America: World Police, or Chinese restaurant employees singing “fa ra ra ra ra” in A Christmas Story. However, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese are completely different languages that each handle L-sound and R-sounds differently. In this episode of Vox Observatory, we take a look at each language and how it affects pronunciation for English-language learners.

But it doesn’t start out with L/R, it starts out with Cantonese tones: if you don’t say wai faai bat po ‘only speed is unbreakable’ right, it sounds like you’re talking about wi-fi (thus giving birth to a Cantonese meme). This is brilliant, because it immediately puts English-speakers on the wrong foot and makes them see how hard it is to recognize and reproduce distinctions that your native language doesn’t make. The video has linguists and vocal tracts and everything; I can’t recommend it highly enough.

I got it from MetaFilter, where user os tuberoes (Alex Chabot) links to his Glossa paper What’s wrong with being a rhotic?, which is also well worth your while; here’s his MeFi summary:

The objects we hear when someone speaks (or see when someone signs) are not what we actually have in our heads. As you don’t have any blue wave-lengths of light in your head, but can still conjure up an idea of what blue is and means to you, so we don’t actually have the physical objects of sound in our heads. They must be represented somehow. One question some linguists like to ask is, what is the relationship between those mental objects and the physical ones that vibrate through the air? The paper is an investigation of that question via r sounds across different languages.

Tl;dr: There is a kind of psychological unity across languages concerning so-called rhotics, or ‘r-sounds.’ As touched on in the video, there is enormous variation between various members of that class, so while everyone agrees there is a psychological reality, there, no one really knows if it is articulatory or acoustic or what. The paper argues that it is in fact, all in our head, and then it goes into some fairly arcane arguments for why the computational system of linguistic sound is arbitrary and not really related to actual pronunciation, and that R sounds are an especially good example of this arbitrariness since they are especially prone to variation.

Curses of the Middle East and North Africa.

Via bulbul’s Facebook feed, Romano-Arabica XIX (2019): Curses and Profanity in the Languages and Cultures of the Middle East and North Africa (editors in charge of this issue: George Grigore & Gabriel Bițună). It’s 259 pages long, with articles ranging from Lucia Avallone, “Literary Creativity and Curses. A Study Case: ’an takūn ‘Abbās al-‘Abd, by ’Aḥmad al-‘Āydī” to Jonas Sibony, “Curses and Profanity in Moroccan Judeo-Arabic and What’s Left of it in the Hebrew Sociolect of Israelis from Moroccan Origins,” plus Miscellanea and book reviews. The whole thing is online at the link, and you can download it freely. I’m immediately interested in Gabriel M. Rosenbaum, “Curses, Insults and Taboo Words in Egyptian Arabic: in Daily Speech and in Written Literature,” so I’m off to take a look at it. My deep appreciation to bulbul for continuing to post good stuff to FB!

Throwing Away the OED.

Jonathan Morse writes about “decisions in front of an emptying bookshelf and a filling wastebasket”; the first entry:

A photoreduced edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, acquired as a premium for joining a now dead twentieth-century institution, the Book-of-the-Month Club. I’ll keep the nice big magnifying glass that came with it, and at my age I still very much use my multi-volume full-size edition of the original, picked up from the express agency on the same day (April 9, 1968) that I took delivery of my late beloved 1968 Mustang. A book still makes for the best browsing experience, reading in the rising smell of mildew. Obviously, though, the new database OED can do things that are all but impossible with ink on paper. So goodbye, intermediate technology reducing every four pages of the word-hoard to one page to make room on the shelf for one more book a month. The old printed books that remain and the new printed books that will arrive are equally antique now. My wife the librarian says not even the Friends of the Library would want you.

I understand the reasoning, but I will never get rid of my own Compact Edition (I never had the magnifying glass, since I bought it off a guy who presumably had been a member of the Book-of-the-Month Club and had either lost the accessory or was keeping it for other purposes, but I’m nearsighted and so don’t need it — I can even read the reduced fine print without problem). Sure, the online version is convenient and more up-to-date (upper-to-date?), but sometimes you want to look up a word without firing up a computer, and what if the power goes out? I would not, however, want the full-size edition even if it were offered gratis: too many books already, too little shelf space.


My wife and I enjoy the occasional “200 Years Ago” feature in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, and the other day they had one about a reward being offered for the return of a lost indispensable. She read it to me and asked what an “indispensable” might be, so I turned to my trusty OED, where I found this sense (the entry, still unrevised, is from 1900):

A kind of small satchel or bag worn by women instead of a pocket. (French indispensable, Littré.) See Notes & Queries 9th Ser. IV. 310. Obsolete.
1800 Gillray Print 12 Feb. (repr. scene French Milliner’s) A number of disputes having arisen in the Beau Monde, respecting the exact situation of ladies Indispensibles (or New Invented Pockets).
1806 C. K. Sharpe Corr. (1888) I. 265 Rows of pretty peeresses, who sat eating sandwiches from silk indispensables [at Lord Melville’s trial].

That Sharpe citation is from a very lively description of the 1806 trial of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, for misappropriation of public money:

You would have laughed, had you seen the ridiculous care with which his (Whitbread’s) friends gave him sips of wine and water to wet his whistle, and clouts for his mouth and nose. I thought his speech very clever but in a miserable bad taste, and so abusive that Lord Melville smiled very frequently. That monster Fox was there, his sallow cheeks hanging down to his paunch, and his scowling eyes turned sometimes upon Mr Whitbread, sometimes on the rows of pretty peeresses who sat eating sandwiches from silk indispensables, and putting themselves into proper attitudes to astonish the representatives of the Commons of England, occupying the opposite benches.

I was a bit surprised by “wet his whistle,” but I soon discovered it goes back way beyond 1806, indeed back to Chaucer’s day: “So was hir ioly whistle wel ywet” (Reeve’s Tale, l. 235).