The Poor Man of Nippur.

Charles Hymas reports on another attempt to speak an ancient language:

A Cambridge academic has taught himself to speak ancient Babylonian and is leading a campaign to revive it as a spoken language almost 2,000 years after it became extinct.

Dr Martin Worthington, a fellow of St John’s College, has created the world’s first film in the ancient language with his Babylonian-speaking students dramatising a folk tale from a clay tablet from 701BC.

Entitled The Poor Man of Nippur, it recounts the tale of a man with a goat who takes revenge on a City mayor for killing the animal by beating him up three times.

It is the culmination of his two decades of research into how the language, once the lingua franca of the Middle East used by Babylonian kings in Mesopotamia, Egyptian pharaohs and Near East potentates, was spoken and pronounced. […]

Dr Worthington has been learning the language since 2000 and says he could make a speech in it but admitted he was by no means fluent, more a “work in progress.”

I approve of this sort of thing, even if it rarely results in natural-sounding speech (and hey, at least he’s modest about his accomplishments); I’ll leave it to those who know more about the language to comment. Thanks, Trevor!

The Languages of Warruwi Community.

Michael Erard has long been my favorite reporter on linguistic issues (the LSA likes him too), and he’s got a new piece in the Atlantic about a very interesting situation:

On South Goulburn Island, a small, forested isle off Australia’s northern coast, a settlement called Warruwi Community consists of some 500 people who speak among themselves around nine different languages. This is one of the last places in Australia—and probably the world—where so many indigenous languages exist together. There’s the Mawng language, but also one called Bininj Kunwok and another called Yolngu-Matha, and Burarra, Ndjébbana and Na-kara, Kunbarlang, Iwaidja, Torres Strait Creole, and English.

None of these languages, except English, is spoken by more than a few thousand people. Several, such as Ndjébbana and Mawng, are spoken by groups numbering in the hundreds. For all these individuals to understand one another, one might expect South Goulburn to be an island of polyglots, or a place where residents have hashed out a pidgin to share, like a sort of linguistic stone soup. Rather, they just talk to one another in their own language or languages, which they can do because everyone else understands some or all of the languages but doesn’t speak them.

This arrangement, which linguists call “receptive multilingualism,” shows up all around the world. In some places, it’s accidental. Many English-speaking Anglos who live in U.S. border states, for instance, can read and comprehend quite a bit of Spanish from being exposed to it. And countless immigrant children learn to speak the language of their host country while retaining the ability to understand their parents’ languages. In other places, receptive multilingualism is a work-around for temporary situations. But at Warruwi Community, it plays a special role.

Follow the link for the fascinating details and some striking “language portraits” by locals; I like the conclusion:

And that’s one lesson to be learned from receptive multilingualism at Warruwi Community: Small indigenous groups are surprisingly complex, socially and linguistically, and receptive multilingualism is both engine and consequence of that complexity. It may also be a key to ensuring the future of small languages as the population of speakers dwindles if more was understood about how to turn receptive abilities in a language into being able to speak it. “If we understood receptive abilities better, we could design language teaching for these people,” Singer says, “which would make it easier for people who only understand their heritage language to start to speak it later on in life.”

Thanks, Bonnie!


I was reading the introduction to a posthumous work of scholarship by the woman who got it in shape to be published, and she thanked her husband for his “acribic proofreading.” I was taken aback, but figured it was one of the many obscure bits of the English wordhoard I hadn’t yet run into. But it’s not in any dictionaries I can access, even the OED, and yet Google Books turns up quite a few hits, e.g. “The history of insect sting allergy has been described in a very acribic article by Ulrich Müller” (2010), “As a rule the acribic analysis of the broader rasm-text per se” (2003), “the means a ‘true history’ uses to validate its ‘genuineness,’ like an editorial apparatus, acribic detail, and interpolated documents” (1989), etc. It’s obviously derived from Greek ἀκριβής ‘accurate, precise,’ but where are these authors getting it from? Can anybody provide acribic enlightenment?

Boys a Dear.

Jamie Dornan has an enjoyable video about Northern Ireland slang; if you don’t feel like watching a three-minute clip, you can get the gist, and most of the expressions, at Erica Bush’s Metro write-up. There’s lots of good stuff, e.g.:

“Any more of this and there’ll be less of it.” I mean, that’s so stupid. That’s as Irish a statement as you’re ever likely to read. It’s like “Put an end to it, stop it or you’ll get what’s coming to ya.” It could only be uttered in Ireland, that’s why I love it.

But what drove me to post was “Boys a dear,” equivalent to the apparently more widespread “boys-a-boys,” which Green’s Dictionary of Slang defines as “(Irish) a general excl. of amazement, disbelief.” It makes no sense in English, which of course is par for the course for idioms, but I’m wondering if either version might be derived phonetically from some Irish word or phrase. Anybody know? (Thanks, Eric!)


From Wikipedia:

Rakugo (落語, literally “fallen words”) is a form of Japanese verbal entertainment. The lone storyteller (落語家 rakugoka) sits on stage, called kōza (高座). Using only a paper fan (扇子 sensu) and a small cloth (手拭 tenugui) as props, and without standing up from the seiza sitting position, the rakugo artist depicts a long and complicated comical (or sometimes sentimental) story. The story always involves the dialogue of two or more characters. The difference between the characters is depicted only through change in pitch, tone, and a slight turn of the head.

Rakugo was originally known as karukuchi (軽口). The oldest appearance of the kanji which refers specifically to this type of performance dates back to 1787, but at the time the characters themselves (落とし噺) were normally read as otoshibanashi (falling discourse). In the middle of the Meiji period (1868–1912) the expression rakugo first started being used, and it came into common usage only in the Shōwa period (1926–1989).

There is, of course, more about the history (“Rakugo was invented by Buddhist monks in the 9th and 10th century to make their sermons more interesting”) and performers (I can’t help noticing that the list of “Notable rakugoka” includes a great many with the same surnames; does this indicate that it’s a family thing, or that performers take the names of unrelated predecessors?); I’ll just say I love the literal meaning “fallen words” and this joke (which seems on the face of it completely irrelevant):

A man faints in a bathing tub. In the great confusion following, a doctor arrives who takes his pulse and calmly gives the instructions: “Pull the plug and let the water out.” Once the water has flowed completely out of the tub he says: “Fine. Now put a lid on it and carry the guy to the cemetery.”

(Rakugo was mentioned briefly in this post from 2014.) Thanks, Trevor!

A Fastened Rate.

From Violet Blue’s Engadget piece on the new (or at any rate threatened) corporate vileness of implanting their employees with RFID microchips for security purposes:

“As well as restricting access to controlled areas,” The Telegraph said, “microchips can be used by staff to speed up their daily routines. For instance, they could be used to quickly buy food from the canteen, enter the building or access printers at a fastened rate.”

As Jonathan Morse, who sent me the link, said:

“Fasten” in the sense of “speed up”? You (or anyway I) saw it here first. But I think I remember reading about a trick question that used to be asked as part of the plebe ritual at Annapolis: “What is the fastest ship in the Navy?” This turned out to be a Spanish-American War vessel that had been moored fast to its dock for decades.

Actually, it must have been so used before, given people’s linguistic creativeness (or, if you like, sloppiness), but I don’t remember seeing it, and I certainly don’t care for it. Jon adds:

If “fasten” is acquiring a new sense meaning “speed up,” isn’t it also acquiring a new pronunciation, with the T no longer silent?

That seems likely, but I leave it to the Varied Reader to weigh in on these matters.


It has come to my attention that those annoying winged things some trees use to spread their seeds are called samara (/səˈmɑːrə/, UK also /ˈsæmər-/). That word is equally annoying; it doesn’t sound like what it means, and it’s already hard enough distinguishing between Samara and Samarra (which we discussed back in 2003). It’s apparently from a Latin word samera or samara ‘elm seed’; anybody know more about this?

Trivial Confusing in New Zealand.

I don’t usually make “kids today” posts, but this Guardian piece by Eleanor Ainge Roy boggles my mind:

New Zealand high school students have demanded examiners ignore that they don’t know what the word “trivial” means, after it appeared in a final-year exam and left many confused.

Some students who took the year 13 history exam claimed the “unfamiliar word” was too hard, and the exam should now be marked according to each student’s different understanding and interpretation of “trivial”.

The exam asked for students to write an essay on whether they agreed with a quote from Julius Caesar which reads: “Events of importance are the result of trivial causes”. […]

Year 13 student Logan Stadnyk who took the exam told local media that at least half of his classmates thought trivial meant “significant”.

Assuming the story is accurately reported, does it mean the word is falling out of use in NZ? Or are these kids just engaging in the time-honored adolescent practice of yanking their elders’ chains? (Thanks, Kobi!)

Vasili Eroshenko.

Herewith another in my occasional series of posts about remarkable people whose lives involved languages in a significant way; I’ll present some excerpts from his Wikipedia article, passed on to me by Dmitry Pruss, who knew I’d be interested in an “English poet of Russian descent who primarily wrote in Japanese”:

Vasili Yakovlevich Eroshenko (Russian: Василий Яковлевич Ерошенко) (12 January 1890 – 23 December 1952) was an anarchist writer, esperantist, linguist, and teacher. At the age of four, he contracted measles and as a result, became blind. From 1907 to 1914 he worked as a violinist for the Moscow orchestra for the blind. Around this time he studied Esperanto, as well as English. He travelled to Britain in 1912 and studied in a school for the blind. […] Later he went back to Moscow via Paris and resumed his work in the orchestra. There he began studying the Japanese language. In April 1914 Eroshenko, due to contacts with the Japanese Esperantists, left for Japan. He studied massage in a school center for the blind in Tokyo, after learning their reputation in the practice. There he promoted Esperanto among the blind students. His first novels, in Japanese, were published there. After two years he went to Siam and tried to establish a school for the blind. […] During the summer of 1919, he went back to Japan through Shanghai. With a good grasp on the Japanese language, Eroshenko wrote numerous children stories in that language and became famous among the Japanese literary community. […] From 1921 to 1923, Eroshenko went to China and lived in Harbin for more or less three months, then stayed in Beijing, China, where he taught Esperanto. From October 1921 to February 1922 he worked for the Institute of Languages in Shanghai. He was in contact with the Chinese writer Lu Xun, who translated a play and a collection of fairytales by Eroshenko in Chinese. Eroshenko features in Lu’s short story ‘The Comedy of the Ducks’. […] In 1924 he participated in the 16th Esperanto Congress in Paris and the congress of blind Esperantists in Vienna. From 1924 to 1927 he worked as a translator in the communist university for the working people in the east. He translated works of Marx, Engels and Lenin into Japanese. In 1929-1930 he traveled to Chukotka and established a school for blind children. […] From 1930 to 1932 he worked in a school for blind brush-makers in Nizhni Novgorod as a teacher in mathematics, Braille and the Russian language. A year later he went back to Moscow to work as proof reader in a printing house. […] In 1946-1948 he worked as an English language instructor in a school for the blind children in Moscow. […] In 1952 he went back to Obukhivka, his birthplace, and worked on his last book. He died on 23 December and was buried in a country cemetery.

I’ve left out a number of adventures; what I want to know (as I said to Dmitry) is, how the hell did he survive Stalin’s purges? There were so many reasons to have him killed, from Esperantism to anarchism to all that foreign travel… You can read more about him in Transnational Japan as History: Empire, Migration, and Social Movements; here’s p. 174. Thanks, Dmitry!

Thoraxes like Cuirasses.

James Parker reviews David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament for the Atlantic:

In the beginning was … well, what? A clap of the divine hands and a poetic shock wave? Or an itchy node of nothingness inconceivably scratching itself into somethingness? In the beginning was the Word, says the Gospel according to John—a lovely statement of the case, as it’s always seemed to me. A pre-temporal syllable swelling to utterance in the mouth of the universe, spoken once and heard forever: God’s power chord, if you like. For David Bentley Hart, however, whose mind-bending translation of the New Testament was published in October, the Word—as a word—does not suffice: He finds it to be “a curiously bland and impenetrable designation” for the heady concept expressed in the original Greek of the Gospels as Logos. The Chinese word Tao might get at it, Hart tells us, but English has nothing with quite the metaphysical flavor of Logos, the particular sense of a formative moral energy diffusing itself, without diminution, through space and time. So he throws up his hands and leaves it where it is: “In the origin there was the Logos …” […]

So what has he done to the New Testament, this bristling one-man band of a Christian literatus? The surprising aim, Hart tells us in his introduction, was to be as bare-bones and—where appropriate—unsqueamishly prosaic as he can. The New Testament, after all, is not a store of ancient wonders like the Hebrew Bible. It’s a grab bag of reportage, rumor, folk memory, and on-the-hoof mysticism produced by regular people, everyday babblers and clunkers, under the pressure of a supremely irregular event—namely, the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So that, says Hart, is what it should sound like. “Again and again,” he insists, “I have elected to produce an almost pitilessly literal translation; many of my departures from received practices are simply my efforts to make the original text as visible as possible through the palimpsest of its translation … Where an author has written bad Greek … I have written bad English.” Herein lies the fascination of this thing: its deliberate, one might say defiant, rawness and lowbrow-ness, as produced by a decidedly overcooked highbrow. […]

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