Trey of Speculative Grammarian, in a comment on this post, linked to this wonderful piece from Volume CLII, Number γ (December 2006) of SpecGram. In it, Sir Edmund C. Gladstone-Chamberlain, Professor Emeritus of Linguistic Science, Department of Lexicology and Glottometrics,Devonshire-upon-Glencullen University, Southampton, describes his youthful encounter with a very strange language spoken by a remote tribe deep in the Amazon Basin and his discovery of how the language worked and, eventually, of the unfortunate history behind it. I won’t spoil the reader’s enjoyment, but I will say how much I loved the footnotes; a selection:
3 By “very preliminary”, I mean, of course, stupidly, foolishly premature. But I wasn’t much of a linguist then, and I wasn’t yet taking the whole matter very seriously.
4 By “concision”, I mean, of course, the ability to say anything of interest in, say, a number of words, syllables, or morphemes less than or equal to the equivalent in English or Spanish.
5 By “I don’t really know”, I mean, of course, that I have never been bothered to look it up.
7 By “mastered Spanish”, I mean, of course, that his mastery of Spanish had overtaken my own, which had grown even rustier.
8 By “merit a study of its own”, I mean, of course, that now that I am retired I do not have the energy to pursue such a study, but would love to see someone else take up the cause.


  1. Pratchett-worthy footnotes.

  2. A.J.P. Crown says:

    ‘Devonshire-upon-Glencullen’ sounds like an exotic and expensive kind of Irish coffee.

  3. The number “15” in the article looks like an error to me. Shouldn’t it be: klo’klo’a ?

  4. Much of the story sounds plausible.

  5. SnowLeopard says:

    Reminds me of a chapter from one of the volumes of “Handbook of Australian Languages” in which one of the described languages had only ten verbs. IIRC, the author noted that their meanings were “necessarily rather abstract”, and in real sentences they were adorned with various affixes and inserted into compounds that ended up doing most of the work. No time to dig up the reference today.

  6. A.J.P. Crown says:

    It would only sound plausible to somebody with a name like ‘Pete’.

  7. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Or is that actually ‘pets’? I haven’t got my glasses.

  8. It did sound pretty plausible until the end…

  9. The stated ages of the informants was a dead giveaway. That and the ceremony where they stand in a circle and shoot arrows straight up into the sky.

  10. Under the archives section on the left side of the page referred to, follow the Lingua Pranca link to pieces like “Bilingualism in Rats”, or “On Defining the Blaspheme Revisited”:

    Theolinguists have long recognized the existence of the blaspheme (e.g. Aquinas 1270, Luther 1526, Calvin 1559). And it would be hard to improve on the classic formulation of Moses 1300 (b.c.e): “A blaspheme is the minimal unit of eternal damnation.”

  11. A.J.P. Crown says:

    I think the age thing was meant to be a dead giveaway: look at the picture of the thirty-four-year-old indian. A lot of trouble has gone into this piece. Congratulations to whoever it is who wrote it: Trey?
    Are there really such things as theolinguists?

  12. michael farris says:

    Also the people in the pictures don’t look anything like the indigenous peoples of the Amazon (and the material culture is all wrong too).

  13. [A] Few others can provide flawless translations from, say, Mohawk into Scottish Gaelic and back—a surprisingly common need in our ever more interconnected world.
    Just like some LH readers, indeed …

  14. @A.J.P.:
    “Are there really such things as theolinguists?”
    The minimal qualification for being sentenced to eternal damnation is being a non-thing. I would expect those doing the sentencing to be held to the same standards. Presumably a lump of clay need not apply.
    It has, however, been observed that in theolinguistics we don´t progress from the least complex units of speech to the more complex – i.e., the traditional linguistic ladder comprised of rungs we call phonemes, morphemes and so forth. Since the well-formedness of a theolinguist´s pontifications is never at issue, we only need to test them for authenticity. Anti-theolinguistics crusader Wittgenstein famously observed that the easiest such test would indeed be just looking on the ground for the remains of ladders thrown down to earth from on high. Later on, Wittgenstein came to revise his position as he realized that his original advice to shut up rather than talk about subjects nobody has any business babbling on about would lead to an incredibly shrinking universe of discourse – a de-babbling (or, as the postmodernist, trace-seeking reading has it, de-bubbling) of such cosmic proportions that all that would be left over for the members of the scientific community to do would be pushing on a tiny string – no matter whether those scientists´ original calling was physics or economics. (As a means of preserving their privilege of being enthroned at the top of the Great Hierarchical Food Chain Of Scientific Beings, physicists have proposed they be allowed to use special terminology – such as prefixing “super” to any dimensionally ungraspable materialization of the “string” thing.)
    The status of authors like Georges Perec with regard to their positioning in the theolinguistics/anti-theolinguistics debate remains as yet undetermined. Some practitioners of theo-linguistics classify the approach chosen by Perec as experimental anti-theo-linguistics
    because of its heavy reliance on avoiding the use of God´s most frequent tool of communication, i.e., the letter “e”. Others in the same camp have decried these pronouncements as the first step to getting involved with – and thus tainted by – the demonic concepts of secular linguistics which the idea of the “blaspheme” as “the minimal unit of eternal damnation” was meant to supersede.
    The most common repartee by anti-theo-linguists to the accusations leveled against them by the aforementioned subset of enraged, yet alphabet-conscious subset of theo-linguists was to assign a question to users of their textbooks á la “It´s left as an exercise to the reader to work out why this might not actually be so”. At least one student is known to have come up with the response that in a world where morphemes are scarce, meanings tend to multiply to the point where each morpheme carries at least one meaning derived from the domain of intuitions commonly lumped together under the heading of theology.
    Now excuse me, since I have to visit Lingua Pranca first to get a clue about what I may have been trying to obscure here.

  15. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Thanks, Jörg. That may be the fullest answer I’ve ever received to a question I asked at Language Hat and all the more welcome for it.

  16. marie-lucie says:

    A wonderful spoof!
    the people in the pictures don’t look anything like the indigenous peoples of the Amazon (and the material culture is all wrong too).
    The pictures are taken from Edward Curtis’s photographs of North American Indians. The one with the canoe and the bird effigy is from the Kwakiutl (Vancouver Island, Canada). Needless to say, its actual context is quite different from the one in the story.
    … Australian Languages in which one of the described languages had only ten verbs. IIRC, the author noted that their meanings were “necessarily rather abstract”, and in real sentences they were adorned with various affixes and inserted into compounds that ended up doing most of the work. …
    Sounds like English verbs like get and go with their dozens of possible additions, if these verbs went out of use by themselves.

  17. @languagehat: Thanks for the link! The SpecGram webservers are happiest when they are humming.
    @zhoen and others: Expect some of your great comments to eventually end up on the SpecGram Quotes page.
    @Bill Poser: (Do you mind if I attribute this to you as a letter to the editor in a future issue? otherwise I’ll rephrase the question. Here’s the reply:) I’ve asked Edmund about the number 15. klo’klo’a would be more compositional, wouldn’t it. Of course his notebooks are almost 50 years old, but he said the “useful numbers” only go up to about 15, and he recalls that, back in the 1960s, klo conveyed a meaning of “an awful lot”, so klo’klo’klo also conveyed “more than any normal person should care about”. Nowadays, Spanish numbers are used most often, and the Shigudo numbers are often reduced to being just grammatical affixes. That, or he just made a transcription error in his notebooks and our editors didn’t catch it. I’ll have a junior editor flogged just to be on the safe side.
    @pete & Ryan: “plausibility until the end” is the goal of any good satire.
    re: material culture.. langaugehat, I fear your linguistics blog has been overrun by wholly competent anthropologists. Watch out!
    @A.J.P.: A lot of trouble has gone into this piece. Congratulations to whoever it is who wrote it: Trey? — Thanks, and .. I plead the fifth.
    @Jörg: I’d love to use A.J.P.’s question and your reply in an upcoming issue of SpecGram! Is your email address really “nulldev”? Reply here please or email me at trey@ the obvious domain. Thanks!
    @marie-lucie: The pictures are taken from Edward Curtis’s photographs of North American Indians. — Those are some specialized photographic detective skills you have there! Wow!

  18. marie-lucie says:

    Trey, it was easy: I happen to own the paperback edition of Curtis’s photographs, although I can’t lay my hands on it at the moment to check the other pictures. Curtis not only photographed the Kwakiutl but actually made a (silent) movie with them, reenacting some old customs, and the canoe with the bird effigy is in it.

  19. I’ll have a junior editor flogged
    What a frightening place this journal must be. I had pictured some coffeehouse zombies with a printing press in the basement, but it appears they have an entire dysfunctional corporate bureaucracy.

  20. A.J.P. Crown says:

    You’re welcome, Trey. You can certainly use my question.

  21. @Nijma: What a frightening place this journal must be.
    More than you can imagine. Flogging is getting off easy. in 1899, two junior editors sacrificed themselves to form a human bridgeThat’s dedication.

  22. A.J.P. Crown says:

    See the archives page for more information and republication schedule
    You are Republicans?

  23. You are Republicans?
    No, put we turn people into Republicans. Clearly a missing hyphen. Merci.

  24. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Trey, if you’re this Trey Jones, I don’t know how you find the time.

  25. A.J.P., I’m not that Trey Jones. I can remember when the web was still wet behind the ears and I was *the* Trey Jones (first and 6 or 8 of the top 10 on Google). Now these whipper snappers have pushed me aside. I’m still mostly this Trey Jones, except for the knitting guy. I’m not a knitter.

  26. It looks like Trey’s human bridge link has an answer to an earlier LH post about naming of centuries.
    memories of the recent droughts of the mid nineties and early noughties still sting in many quarters

  27. re noughties.. love the homophony.. I don’t know where I first head that one, but it’s been stuck in my head for a while.

  28. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Well you’re still top of the list. But you’re right, don’t take up knitting or bicycle tricks.
    One thing I thought of to do with nought. In the U.S., ought and nought mean the same as one another; whereas in England (Yorkshire) they mean the opposite (‘You can’t get owt for nowt’, or you can’t get anything for nothing.)

  29. mollymooly says:

    “naught” means “nothing”
    “aught”(1) is the opposite of “naught” and archaic
    “aught”(2) is an alteration of “naught” and nonstandard.
    “owt” and “nowt” are indeed Yorkshire variants.
    “nought” is a variant spelling of “naught” preferred for a count “zero” or digit “0” as opposed to “nothing”.
    “ought” is a variant spelling I’ve never seen.

  30. A.J.P. Crown says:

    “ought” is a variant spelling I’ve never seen.
    I may have just made it up, then.
    Thanks for that, Molly.

  31. Say not the struggle nought availeth.

  32. David Marjanović says:

    “owt” and “nowt” are indeed Yorkshire variants.

    <thinking hard about whether to turn into the Incredible Hulk, but noticing being too tired anyway, so…>
    How is that pronounced? With [aʊ̯] like in house? With [oʊ̯] like in no? With one or the other the way bow is? HELP!!!
    Actually, considering the fact that you didn’t spell them “ote” and “note”, the former alternative is more parsimonious, but it still isn’t guaranteed. <grumble>

  33. Grumbly Stu says:

    With [aʊ̯] like in house

  34. David Marjanović says:


  35. ToussianMuso says:

    Those are among the most deliciously pithy footnotes I’ve ever seen. But what kind of institution really has a Department of Lexicology and Glottometrics?
    I remember seeing “owt” and “nowt” in Yorkshire veterenarian James Herriott’s autobiographical series. I can even recall a sentence in context, where a farmer admits to having tested him by asking him to diagnose a perfectly healthy animal: “there’s nowt wrong wi’ t’ beast.”
    Thanks for the literary flashback.

  36. marie-lucie says:

    Reginald Hill’s novels, whose main characters are members of the “Mid-Yorkshire Constabulary”, are full of “owt’s” and “nowt’s”. I always assumed that the words were pronounced as in note and was glad to learn the proper pronunciation.

  37. A.J.P. Crown says:

    I know that younger people from Yorkshire don’t use ‘owt’ or ‘nowt’ any more when they go down south to London, thought older ones do (or did 25 years ago). I hope they are still in use at home in Yorkshire.

  38. marie-lucie says:

    Actually I think it is just one character, the older, curmudgeonly policeman, who pointedly (I think) uses those forms.

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