Indo-European Etymological Dictionaries.

I realize this post will be of interest to a limited portion of my readership, but I have to be true to my roots, and even though my days as an Indo-European scholar are four decades behind me now, Matthew Scarborough’s Indo-European Etymological Dictionaries: A Guide for the Perplexed gets my blood racing and I have to share it. He begins:

Over the last three years I have worked more-or-less intensively and widely on Indo-European etymological problems […] Because I have been working on this over the last three years, have come into contact with all manner of etymological resources I had never used before, and (most importantly) because I’m the perverse sort of individual who delights in making lists and bibliographies, I thought I ought to compile a working bibliography of Indo-European etymology as a kind of where-to-go list if you need to make etymological enquiries – something that could be of interest to laypeople who are etymology hobbyists who want to know the relative reliability of different sources and so forth, or maybe you just want a quick resource to know where to go to fact-check dodgy etymology memes floating around the internet.

I will be doing this series in a piecemeal form, first with the general handbooks covering cross-branch cognacy for all of the older Indo-European languages, then the main handbooks that exist branch by branch. […] So, I’ll now begin this series in this post starting with an overview of the general Indo-European etymological dictionaries that are commonly in use today.

He starts with Pokorny’s venerable and still necessary Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch (1959–1969), and continues with the Lexikon der indogermanischen Verben (2001), Nomina im Indogermanischen Lexikon (2008), and Lexikon der indogermanischen Partikeln und Pronominalstämme (2014), with some appetizing images of entries, and for lagniappe adds Cal Watkins’ American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (3rd ed., 2011). I can’t wait for the promised coverage of handbooks for individual languages/branches!

Update: Scarborough has added an “Appendix to Part I“:

Somehow, up until now (and having discovered this work only today through a random Google search trying to find information about a somewhat obscure etymological glossary of Old Cornish I feel fairly sheepish to admit it) it has largely escaped my notice until today that in 2005 Frank Heidermanns published a massive three volume work Bibliographie zur indogermanischen Wortforschung. Wortbildung, Etymologie, Onomasiologie und Lehnwortschichten der alten und modernen indogermanischen Sprachen in systematischen Publikationen ab 1800 [Bibliography for Indo-European Lexical Research. Word-formation, Etymology, Onomasiology, and Loanword Strata in the Ancient and Modern Indo-European languages in systematic publications from 1800] (Tübingen, 2005), which contains 28000 references for the various subject categories. If you have access to a university library that subscribes to De Gruyter Online, you can also read the full thing here. There’s also a limited preview in the Google books page in that first hyperlink.

The existence of this bibliography probably renders some of my efforts here to be a little bit pointless, but I suppose there is still probably a certain audience for an annotated bibliography of Indo-European etymological resources, and in any case much has appeared since 2005 besides. I just now feel remiss for not knowing about this and including some discussion of it in my initial post.

I will only add that the book costs $699, so thank god for the preview function.

The Rudeness of Metafictional Irony.

I’ve had occasion once again to consult Joe Peschio’s The Poetics of Impudence and Intimacy in the Age of Pushkin (see my posts Shalost and Shalost II), and in the chapter on Pushkin’s Ruslan and Lyudmila I found the following passage (pp. 112-13) so illuminating I thought I’d share it here:

The lyrical digressions of RL, again, are a good example. The accepted view has long been that the digressions serve a narratological purpose: to create an ironic bifurcation of the lyrical subject. This idea is worth pausing on because irony is what makes RL possible. There is near universal agreement that RL is a metafictional work — a poema, first and foremost, about poetry. Metafictional texts invariably both “systematically flaunt [their] own condition of artifice” and “criticize previous literary conventions.” […] Postulating a now standard argument, Tomashevskii says that the subjectivity introduced and maintained in the lyrical digressions “infects” the entire poem. Moreover, he says, this was a major innovation. “That is why … the entire poem in all its parts is, in a sense, a chat between the author and the reader, the very opposite of the old epic poema, in which the author did not reveal himself as an individual in the poema‘s verse, and the word was dislocated from its speaker, becoming abstract and monosemantic.” […] Pushkin’s claim to the reader’s attention — his ethos — rubbed many readers the wrong way, and the omnipresence of Pushkin’s lyrical subject(s) displeased a number of his critics. […] The Nevskii zritel’ reviewer, for example, wrote, “The poet likes to talk about himself quite a lot and [always seems to be] addressing himself to pretty girls, to preceptors, to actors, and the like — that is what holds up the progress of the action and hinders unity. I would like to be charmed, to forget myself — but, instead, the poet brings my delight to a halt, and instead of Ancient Rus’, I see today’s world around me: the incongruity becomes plain, and, what’s more, all this distracts the reader’s attention and belittles the importance of the [poet’s] subject.”

The expectations that this reviewer has of poets are extremely telling. He wants to “be charmed, to forget himself.” In other words, he wants to be entertained and delighted. And the poet should not hinder this with a lot of asides and jokes; paradoxically enough, the poet should keep out of the way and let the reader enjoy himself. The poet here is a kind of a servant to the reader, one who, as Voeikov says, “should not for a moment lose sight of his readers, before whom he is obliged to conduct himself politely and respectfully.” Pushkin’s lack of respect for his reader, as evinced by the intrusiveness of his narrator, was one of the central themes in the critical polemic of 1820-21. Clearly, he asserted himself more than was customary and, in Goffman’s terms, took a “line” that was not in keeping with the expectations of the readership. His lyrical subject, like the obnoxious young men Bulgarin describes, “does not respect his elders, is familiar with his superiors, and arrogant with his equals.” As such, we have here an ineluctable intertwining of two sets of conventions: literary and behavioral. Not only did the lyrical digressions that lie at the heart of the poem’s pragmatic structure run against literary convention, they were fundamentally rude. It is impossible to separate the two.

We are so used to accepting whatever an author dishes out as appropriate — not in the sense that we like it, but in the sense that it’s to be considered as literature, not as a personal insult — that it’s very hard indeed to put oneself back in the mindset of people for whom there were norms of literature and norms of conduct, and those norms should not be violated. This is the first time I think I’ve really gotten a grip on it, thanks to that image of the poet as “a kind of a servant to the reader”: I see him summoned to declaim a poem as a juggler might be summoned to perform for the entertainment of a noble audience. The poet starts by talking about far-off times and lands, allowing the audience to drift into a pleasant reverie about knights and fair maids, and when he suddenly says something on the order of “But hey, we’ve all been there, you know what I’m talking about!” (to transpose the idiom a couple of centuries forward), it throws the audience right out of the reverie and pisses them off. The poet is supposed to be a tasteful hireling, not a rude ironist.

What Tech Does to the Reading Brain.

This is exactly the sort of pop-psych piece beloved of op-ed pages and their online equivalents, but what the hell, it’s interesting: Angela Chen interviews Maryanne Wolf about her book Reader, Come Home (subtitle: “the reading brain in a digital world”). Chen starts with a question about the idea of “circuits” in the brain; Wolf responds:

When we have any function, whether it’s language or vision or cognitive functions like memory, we aren’t dealing with a straight line to the brain that says “This is what I do.” The brain builds a network of connections, a network of neurons that have a particular role in that function. So when we have a new cognitive function, like literacy, it doesn’t have a preset network. Rather, it makes new connections among older networks, and that whole collection of networks becomes a circuit. It’s a connected scaffolding of parts.

The beauty of the circuit for functions like literacy is its plasticity. You can have one for each different language, like English or Chinese or Hebrew. And then something miraculous happens: the circuit builds upon itself. The first circuits are very basic — for decoding letters as we’re learning to read — but everything we read builds upon itself.

So what’s changing now with technology? How is that affecting our circuits?

The fact that a circuit is plastic is both its beautiful strength and its Achilles’ heel. Reading reflects our medium. And to the extent that a digital medium is going to require us to process large amounts of information very quickly, it will diminish from the time we have for slower processing work.

And these slower processes are deep learning, the ones that are more cognitively challenging. They’re the basis for going beyond that initial short circuit of decoding the information and understanding it at a very basic level. The digital medium affordance rewards and advantages fast processing at the cost of the slower processes that build our very important critical, analytical, and empathetic processes.

Wolf proposes we aim for a “bi-literate brain.” I leave it to my readers to decide the relative proportions of sense and woo in all this. Thanks, Jack!


On “Tweet of the day” on Radio 4 (two-minute clip), the actor Sam West talks about the line in Hamlet “I can tell a hawk from a handsaw,” which he had assumed was intended as nonsense. He discovered from a Norfolk bird-watching friend that “hanser” is Norfolk dialect for a Grey Heron, whose appearance in flight could be mistaken for a hawk. My thanks to Alastair for this bit of Shakespeariana, and for the glossary of Norfolk dialect words with which he accompanied it.

Dead as the Moa.

Priscilla Wehi, Hēmi Whaanga, and Murray Cox at The Conversation (“Academic rigor, journalistic flair”) discuss Māori oral traditions:

Tracing extinctions that happened centuries ago is difficult, but our collaborative analysis of ancestral sayings, or whakataukī, found that early Māori paid attention to their local fauna and environment and recognised the extinction of these giant, flightless birds that were an important food resource.

After Europeans arrived, some whakataukī used moa as a metaphor for the feared extinction of the indigenous Māori people themselves, which emphasises the powerful cultural impact the extinction of moa had. […]

Sometimes, what is missing from a body of knowledge reveals more than what is actually there. We searched the whakataukī for bird species that became extinct in the first few centuries after Māori arrived in New Zealand. There were none, apart from moa, and the giant eagle, or pouakai, that preyed on moa. Pouakai tracked moa on the highway to extinction. […]

Many whakataukī highlight the disappearance of the moa, a sign that moa represented more than just another extinction. They were a poster species. A hashtag. Many sayings lament the loss of the moa, using different words and different phrasing, but with an echo that repeats over and over.

Huna i te huna a te moa
Hidden as the moa hid

Thanks, Dmitry!

Everything You Know Is Wrong.

As I suggested here, I’ve started Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, and I confess that so far I’m underwhelmed; he has interesting things to say, but as I wrote at Tom’s site: “I’m not nearly as interested in the apocalypse as he is — I mean, it’s an interesting concept that has been important to some writers, but he seems to me to be greatly exaggerating its importance to literature in general.” He also is far more interested in Robbe-Grillet than pretty much anybody has been in the last few decades, a peril of trying to deal with contemporary literature. But it’s interesting enough to carry me along, and now that I’ve gotten to chapter 2, I thought I’d quote the epigraphs (every chapter has its set of epigraphs) and make a few comments:

What can be thought must certainly be a fiction.

…the nicer knowledge of
Belief, that what it believes in is not true.
      Wallace Stevens

Who can deny that things to come are not yet?
Yet already there is in the mind an expectation
of things to come.
      St. Augustine

C’est par l’effort et le désir que nous avons fait connaissance avec le temps; nous gardons l’habitude d’estimer le temps selon nos désirs, nos efforts, notre volonté propre.
      Guyau, La genèse de l’idée de temps [My edition has the incorrect “Le genèse”; I don’t know whether the fault is Kermode’s or the publisher’s.]

The idea implied by the first two quotes has long fascinated me; perhaps the canonical expression in my head is the quote from the immortal Firesign Theatre that I have used as my post title. But I have questions. Why is Guyau (Jean-Marie Guyau, who sounds like a very interesting fellow — any friend of Kropotkin’s is a friend of mine — and about whom I am glad to learn) given in the original French, while Nietzsche and Augustine are in translation? (Nietzsche’s original is “was gedacht werden kann, muß sicherlich eine Fiktion sein”; Augustine’s is “quis igitur negat futura nondum esse? sed tamen iam est in animo expectatio futurorum.”) And why is so parsimonious a snippet of Stevens provided that you can’t make out what he’s saying? (It’s from section III of “The Pure Good of Theory”: “Yet to speak of the whole world as metaphor/ Is still to stick to the contents of the mind// And the desire to believe in a metaphor./ It is to stick to the nicer knowledge of/ Belief…”) At any rate, here are a couple of suggestive snippets from the chapter:

Myths are the agents of stability, fictions the agents of change. Myths call for absolute, fictions for conditional assent. Myths make sense in terms of a lost order of time, illud tempus as Eliade calls it; fictions, if successful, make sense of the here and now, hoc tempus.
. . .

So my suggestion is that literary fictions belong to Vaihinger’s category of ‘the consciously false.’ They are not subject, like hypotheses, to proof or disconfirmation, only, if they come to lose their operational effectiveness, to neglect. They are then thrown, in Stevens’s figure, on to the ‘dump’—’to sit among mattresses of the dead.’ In this they resemble the fictions of science, mathematics, and law, and differ from those of theology only because religious fictions are harder to free from the mythical ‘deposit.’ […]
If we forget that fictions are fictive we regress to myth (as when the Neo-Platonists forgot the fictiveness of Plato’s fictions and Professor Frye forgets the fictiveness of all fictions).

Nice zinger at the end there, though I have no idea what passage of Frye’s is being zinged. Tom’s last two posts, by the way, are here and here; he says “Please come back in early November for more literary criticism, Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations, which will, I hope, be over my head in different ways than The Sense of an Ending.”

Chinook Wawa.

Back in early 2003 I posted about Chinook Jargon, but there were only four comments (two of them by me) and the linked site is dead, so it’s time to revisit the subject. Diane Selkirk of BBC Travel writes about her experience with it:

Like many from British Columbia, I grew up with an easy familiarity with a handful of strange words. They were terms I always thought were common English, but they turned out to be unknown beyond the boundaries of my Pacific Coast home. I later learned that words like potlatch, saltchuck, kanaka, skookum, sticks, muckamuck, tyee and cultus were from a near-forgotten language that was once spoken by more than 100,000 people, from Alaska to the California border, for almost 200 years.

Known as Chinook Jargon or Chinook Wawa (‘wawa’ meaning talk), this was a trade, or pidgin, language that combined simplified words from the First Nations languages of Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka), Chinook and others, as well as from French and English. It was used so extensively that it was the language of courts and newspapers in the Pacific Northwest from about 1800 to 1905. Some Chinook Wawa still exists in place names and slang, but the meanings are so deeply buried in Pacific Northwest culture that the words come with more of a feeling than a definition, and most residents can’t say which language the terms evolved from. […]

Chinook Wawa was developed to ease trade in a place where there was no common language. On the Pacific Coast at the time, there were dozens of First Nations languages, including Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Nuu-chah-nulth, Haisla, Heiltsuk, Kwakwaka’wakw, Salishan and Chinook. After European contact, which included Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778, English, French, Spanish, Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese were gradually added to the mix.

While pidgin languages usually draw most of their vocabulary from the prestige language, or colonising culture, unusually, in the case of Chinook Wawa, two thirds of the language is Chinook and Nuu-chah-nulth with the rest being made up mostly of English and French.

She mentions various theories about how Chinook Wawa arose, but I expect several of my commenters will be more informed about the matter, so I will leave it up to them to discuss it. At any rate, there’s a lot more about the history of the language, as well as some nice photos. Thanks, Trevor!


Stan Carey investigates the popular catchphrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” (which, as every schoolboy knows, does not occur in the Conan Doyle canon). It seems to have been created and spread by P.G. Wodehouse in his 1915 novel Psmith, Journalist. As Stan says, “if you quote Sherlock Holmes as saying ‘Exactly, my dear Watson’ – which he really does say in Conan Doyle’s stories – there’s a good chance your listener will ‘correct’ you, so entrenched is the elementary version.”

Also (speaking of canons), I realize the intensely allusive, forbiddingly learned style of criticism epitomized by Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (see this LH post) is caviare to the general, but if anyone is interested, Tom of Wuthering Expectations is doing a reading of Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending (not to be confused with the Julian Barnes novel that borrowed its name), a book I’ve been meaning to read for years and am finally, with the spur of Tom’s example, plunging into; his first post is here. (He just posted on Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, for those who might be interested in that.)

The Fastest-Growing Language in the U.S.

Geoff Pullum has a Lingua Franca post with the hook suggested by the title:

Few would guess correctly if asked which foreign language has the fastest-growing population of speakers in the United States. It is (so Quartz India reported this week) Telugu, a Dravidian language of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana states. In 2000, the U.S. had less than 88,000 speakers of Telugu; by last year it was more than 415,000.

He briefly describes the Dravidian languages, then writes:

There’s actually just one other major group of languages with retroflex consonants: many of the Australian Aboriginal languages. You may immediately be thinking, could that be a sign of where the Aborigines came from? Well, yes and no. There does seem to have been an influx of Dravidians into northern Australia, probably Tamils traveling by boat, about 4,000 years ago: About 11 percent of today’s Aborigines seem to have some Dravidian DNA. But four millennia ago is far too recent to account for most of the Australian Aboriginal population. They have been there for more like 50,000 or even 60,000 years, and they would have come ultimately from East Africa, like all the rest of the world’s human population, possibly on foot, via land bridges (that’s controversial). The structure of a stop-consonant system (which can change in a couple of millennia) cannot justify an assumption of kinship. Positing an Australian-Dravidian superfamily would be just fantasy.

I agree with his Afterword: “A slew of Telugu workers in the US has…” is ungrammatical. As he says, “Slew is a typical number-transparent noun, like lot, number, and couple.”

The Last of the Calabrian Greeks.

John Kazaklis reports on a topic that has long fascinated me, the Greek of southern Italy:

There exists today a tiny enclave of Greek-speaking people in the Aspromonte Mountain region of Reggio Calabria that seem to have survived millennia…perhaps since the Ancient Greeks began colonizing Southern Italy in the 8th and 7th Centuries BC. Their language is called Greko. They survived empires, invasions, ecclesial schisms, dictators, nationalistic-inspired assimilation, and much more. Greko is a variety of the Greek language that has been separated from the rest of the Hellenic world for many centuries. There are various population estimates circulating, but after I visited the region in April 2017 and sat down with several community leaders, the clearest estimate of remaining Greko speakers seems to be between 200-300 and numbers continue to decrease.

To help bring more perspective, Greek was the dominant language and ethnic element all throughout what we know today as Calabria, Basilicata, Puglia, and Eastern Sicily until the 14th Century. Since then, the spread of Italo-Romance languages, along with geographical isolation from other Greek-speaking regions in Italy, caused the language to evolve on its own in Calabria. This resulted in a separate and unique variety of Greek that is different from what is spoken today in Puglia. […]

There are many theories or schools of thought regarding the origin of the Greko community in Calabria. Are they descendants of the Ancient Greeks who colonized Southern Italy? Are they remnants of the Byzantine presence in Southern Italy? Did their ancestors come in the 15th-16th Centuries from the Greek communities in the Aegean fleeing Ottoman invasion? The best answers to all of those questions are yes, yes, and yes. This means that history has shown a continuous Greek presence in Calabria since antiquity. Even though different empires, governments, and invasions occurred in the region, the Greek language and identity seemed to have never ceased. Once the glorious days of Magna Graecia were over, there is evidence that shows that Greek continued to be spoken in Southern Italy during the Roman Empire. Once the Roman Empire split into East (Byzantine) and West, Calabria saw Byzantine rule begin in the 5th Century. This lasted well into the 11th Century and reinforced the Greek language and identity in the region as well as an affinity to Eastern Christianity.

Today, there is more evidence of a Byzantine legacy rather than an Ancient Greek or Modern Greek footprint.

There’s a great deal more at the link, both history and the current situation, as well as gorgeous photos and a video clip with a brief section in dialect. It ends with an IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE: “Greko vs. Griko: Don’t confuse the two. The variation of Greek that is spoken in Calabria (Greko) is different from the variety of Greek spoken in Puglia, known as Griko.”