The Rise of Arabic.

In 2018 I waxed enthusiastic about Elias Muhanna’s New Yorker piece about Ahmad Al-Jallad, a professor of Arabic and Semitic linguistics at Leiden University, and in 2020 about Al-Jallad’s Twitter thread on the origin of the word Saracen; now I’m here to recommend his lecture The Rise of Arabic, posted on YouTube last December. I don’t normally link to, or even watch, hour-long videos — I like to absorb information via the written word — but in this case his presentation is so lively and informative, and the ability to see the inscriptions and maps (and hear his pronunciations) is so useful, that I wasn’t bored for a minute. He says the question of why there seems to be so little early Arabic, why it seems to appear suddenly out of nowhere, is mistaken; it conceives “Arabic” as “what is described in Western grammars,” including the definite article al- and a certain form of past tense, but that renders not only earlier forms of the language but modern dialects non-Arabic. If we talked about Egyptian the way we do about Arabic, we’d conclude the language of hieroglyphs was entirely different from that written in the Coptic alphabet and wouldn’t be able to see a developmental line connecting them (he also uses Old English as an example, at which point, around the 25:30 mark, we get Alex Foreman reading a sample). He says there was an explosion of Arabic scripts in the second half of the first millennium BCE, but the modern script begins with Nabataean (which was originally used not to write the users’ native Arabic but the official language, Nabataean Aramaic, so when it started being used to write Arabic there were many Aramaicisms, the longest-lasting of which was bar ‘son’). It’s an hour well spent if you have any interest in the topic.


Dave Wilton at has a Big List post on the state name Illinois featuring the overturning of a false etymology that was accepted for centuries:

The Illinois people were an informal confederation of a dozen or so Algonquian tribes who lived in the Mississippi Valley, stretching from present-day Michigan to Arkansas, including what is now the state of Illinois. The tribes included the Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Michigamea, Peoria, and Tamaroa, among others. Their name for themselves is irenweewa (he who speaks normally). In Ojibwa, that name is rendered as ilinwe, or in the plural ilenwek.

The French, who in the late seventeenth century made contact with the Ojibwa, rendered the -we ending as ‑ois, using the conventions of seventeenth-century French spelling to make it Illinois. Subsequent to European contact, the Illinois people were decimated by disease, war, and forced relocation. Today, the primary organization of the people is the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma.

The name Illinois appears in English by the end of the seventeenth century. This translation of an anonymous account of René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle’s expeditions is from 1698 and mentions the Illinois people:

[…] He sent likewise fifteen Men further into the Country, with orders to endeavour to find out the Illinois, and left his Fort of Niagara, and fifteen Men under my command. One of the Recollects contineud [sic] with us.

And Louis Hennepin’s A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America gives an incorrect etymology for the name Illinois, claiming it meant “accomplished men.” This etymology has been thoroughly discounted, but it was accepted as correct for several centuries, and one will often still see it on websites and in popular press accounts of the word’s origin.

See the link for more, including a quote from Hennepin and the full version of the first quote. I myself am curious about how the word irenweewa ‘he who speaks normally’ works morphologically, if anyone knows.

Y’all on the World Stage.

Bryan Lufkin writes for the BBC about the surprising (to me) spread of a familiar word:

What do y’all think of when you hear the term ‘y’all’?

Perhaps the twangy accent of the Southern United States? You wouldn’t be wrong – the term, a contraction of ‘you all’, is a ubiquitous part of Southern speech that extends across demographic lines. For many people, it has a certain down-home, hospitable friendliness that sounds specific to the South

In other regions of the US, ‘y’all’ has historically been far less common. Yet, in the past couple years, ‘y’all’ seems to have exploded in use, including and especially among people who live far outside the South, in places north of the Mason-Dixon Line in the US, like New York City, and even overseas.

Australian Twitter users, many of whom have started saying ‘y’all’, are being playfully chided for trying to masquerade as Americans. Forty-something CEOs in the US have traded ‘you guys’ for ‘y’all’ under the influence of their more progressive Gen Z colleagues. And LGBTQ+ advocacy groups encourage the ‘y’all means all’ mantra, arguing that the term is preferred because it includes people of all gender identities.

‘Y’all’ is fun and useful – but the way the term has gradually slipped into conversation in other English-speaking regions and countries tells us a lot about how and why certain bits of language catch on. The more widespread use of y’all also signals a shift towards more careful use of language to be more inclusive, including within the workplace. […]

Bonikowski finds it interesting this evolution appears to be from the ground up. A top-down change in linguistics might be when a respected style guide announces a change: for example, recommending news organisations use ‘police officer’ instead of ‘policeman’. But ‘y’all’s’ ascent seems to be the reverse, starting from the speakers themselves and gaining traction on social media. “This grassroots acceptance of this is filtered into general public awareness,” says Bonikowski.

Much more at the link; thanks, Trevor!

Druid Bird.

In Brian Morton’s TLS review of The Oak Papers by James Canton, I was startled to find the following parenthetical etymology:

wrens (the word derives from “Drui-en”)

I’m used to false etymologies being peddled by journalists, but this one was so plainly ridiculous that I wondered where it had come from. Now that I’ve found out, I’m going to share my discovery with you. The Modern Irish word for ‘wren’ is dreoilín; the earlier words were dreän (also dréën, dreoan, droen) and dreollán. The only etymological discussion of that word-cluster I’ve turned up (I’m sure Xerîb can find more recent ones) is in a Miszellen article by Whitley Stokes, “Irish Etymologies,” Indogermanische Forschungen 26 (1909), on p. 143:

dreoán ‘wren’

dreoan, Rev. Celt. 25, 302, notes 2, 6, 7, corruptly dreaán .|. dreollän, O’Cl. This is obviously a diminutive of *dreo = Cymr. dryw ‘wren’, as eo ‘yewtree’ is = Cymr. yw. *Dreo, dryw point to an urkelt. drevo-, cognate with Germ. treu (vorgerm. drévo-) and its numerous relatives. This seems supported by the bit of folklore embodied in pseudo-Cormac’s etymology druién .|. ēn donē fāisdine ‘a druid-bird’, i. e. a bird that makes prophecy, YBL. 265a 20, and by the facts that Cymr. dryw also means ‘druid’, ‘soothsayer’, and that in a Latin Life of S. Moling the wren is called “magus avium, eo quod aliquibus praebet augurium”.

Loth, however, identifies Cymr. dryw ‘wren’ with Bret. dreo vif, alerte, joyeux, “sens corroboré par le nom breton de laouenanic, sous lequel cet oiseau est généralement connu en Bretagne”, Rev. Celt. 20, 342; and see Victor Henry, Lexique etymol. du Breton moderne s. v. dréô.

You can see pseudo-Cormac here:

And from the confusion of the English and Irish words, you get remarks like this, from Joe Mc Gowan’s Sligo Heritage site: “Medieval texts interpret the etymology of wren, the Irish for which is dreolín, as derived from ‘dreán‘ or ‘draoi éan‘ the translation of which is ‘druid bird’.” Some such source is clearly the origin of Morton’s (Canton’s?) opaque “Drui-en.” As for wren itself, it seems to be purely Germanic (OED [entry from 1928]: “Old English wrenna […], obscurely related to Old High German wrendo, wrendilo, Icelandic rindill“).


When I got the latest issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine, I was delighted to find an article by Kristen Herdman and Raymond Clemens on an unusual kind of book used by the Toba Batak of North Sumatra:

The image shown here, of a bark book in the Beinecke Library’s collection made by the Batak people of northern Sumatra, challenges our notion of what a book is. This particular volume is a divination book, also called a pustaha, which was made for use by a datu: a shaman and healer. Pustaha are frequently made of materials like the bark of an Aquilaria tree, a writing surface unique to the Batak people.

While pustaha deal with medicine or divination and are the dominant type of surviving book from pre- or early colonial Batak society, other objects preserve other traditions, of love laments and poems. […] A pustaha could be used as an informal (and highly individual) way of recording instructions for how to complete a particular rite. Such a document could support oral instruction for the beginning datu and serve as a reference work for the well practiced. The Yale book, like most pustaha, is folded like an accordion—a style of binding that has found popularity in manuscript cultures around the world. It is made of a single, thin, long strip of bark.

Dated to between 1860 and 1920, this example is written in Hata Poda, a language that was long thought to be understood only by the datu himself. The writing was carried out by use of a sugar palm pen dipped in a specially prepared black ink. Batak, as a language group, is divided into six subcategories, representing the diversity to be found between northern and southern ethnic groups of Batak people. As a result, surviving pustaha can act as witnesses to the linguistic differences among the Batak peoples.

There’s more at the link (as well as an image of the book); you can read more about pustaha at Wikipedia (“The name pustaha is borrowed from the Sanskrit word pustaka […] meaning ‘book’ or ‘manuscript’”) and more about the hata poda form of the language here (p. 48 of Herman Neubronner van der van der Tuuk’s venerable Grammar of Toba Batak [1971, first published in Dutch 1864–1867]). As I wrote in 2008, I took a Field Methods class in which we met every week to elicit forms from a speaker of Toba Batak and each had to produce a (rudimentary) grammar by the end of the semester, so this was of particular interest to me.

Permafrost Words.

Joshua Yaffa’s January 10 New Yorker piece on the melting permafrost in Yakutia (archived) is sobering, but I’m not here to talk about global warming, I’m here to discuss words, and there are several of interest, some of which I’d never seen before. First, on “permafrost” itself:

In a widely read monograph published in the nineteen-twenties, a Soviet scientist named Mikhail Sumgin called the country’s frozen earth vechnaya merzlota, literally “eternal frost,” a neo­logism that was later rendered into English as “permafrost.” Sumgin was something of a permafrost romantic, writing that “vechnaya merzlota astounds the human intellect and imagination.” He likened it to a “Russian Sphinx”—inexplicable, alluring, a riddle to be solved.

I knew the Russian term was вечная мерзлота, but didn’t realize it was the source of the English word — although the OED (updated December 2005) complicates the picture (“quot. 1943 at main sense” is S. W. Muller, Permafrost 3: “The expression ‘permanently frozen ground’ too long and cumbersome and for this reason a shorter term ‘permafrost’ is proposed as an alternative”):

Etymology: < perma- comb. form + frost n.
It has been suggested that the term is after Russian večnaja merzlota, literally ‘perpetual frozenness’; however, quot. 1943 at main sense explicitly rejects a similar phrasal model (‘permanently frozen ground’) in favour of compounding using existing elements in English. The phenomenon was first observed in Russia in the 17th cent.; in the 19th cent. the Russian academic K. M. von Baer proposed that in English the term ground ice (see ground-ice n.) should be used. Compare the following:
1838 Jrnl. Royal Geogr. Soc. 8 210 (title) On the ground ice or frozen soil of Siberia.
1838 Jrnl. Royal Geogr. Soc. 8 403 All these modifications may be comprehended under the term of ground ice, which has also the advantage of allowing of the expression ‘perpetual or permanent ground ice’… It seems to me very ascertain the thickness of perpetually frozen ground.

The term permanent frost, which could have served as a model for the formation of permafrost, was used in a title translated from Russian in the following:
1916 Geogr. Jrnl. 39 186 On permanent frost and the forms of perennial snow and ice in the Amur Province. By B. Polinof.

The original of the title in the 1916 cite is Boris Polynov (Борис Полынов), “О «вечной мерзлоте» и о формах льда и снега, переживающих лето, в Амурской области” (Землеведение. 1910. Кн. 3. С. 35-48); Polynov was arrested as an English spy in 1937 and taken to the Lubyanka, but by some miracle was released in 1939 and restored to his scientific positions. At any rate, if vechnaya merzlota was used in 1910 it could not have been invented by Sumgin in the nineteen-twenties.
[Read more…]

Precipitation Verbs.

Beth Levin of Stanford University has an interesting 2017 paper called Talking About the Weather: A Case Study of Precipitation Verbs which begins with a quote from Ronald Langacker:

In the eyes of linguists, such [=weather] expressions are nearly as problematic and ill-behaved as the weather itself: they not only have many special properties, but from one language to the next the same phenomenon is coded linguistically in ways that are lexically or grammatically quite distinct.

She proceeds to discuss “several challenging properties of weather events”:

Identifiability: Depending on the metereological phenomenon, it can be difficult to identify any participants in the event (e.g., becoming dusk). Perhaps it is possible to recognize a single participant (e.g., snow, rain).
Independence from the phenomenon: The participant, to the extent it is identifiable, is not independent from the phenomenon itself: snow and rain do not exist outside of the event of snowing or raining […].
Selectional restrictions: When a participant is expressed, weather verbs impose fairly strict selectional restrictions on it: outside of metaphorical uses, only snow can snow, only rain can rain. […]
Semantic role: It is hard to determine what semantic role to assign to this participant: when rain rains from the sky, is it acting or being affected?

She brings in Eriksen et al.’s suggestion that “weather event expressions fall into three major types according to which element in the sentence lexicalizes the ‘weather’ phenomenon”: the predicate type (It is raining), the argument type (Rain is falling), and the argument-predicate type (It is raining rain). She then goes on to her own proposed solution for encoding weather events; there is some Chomskyism, but not enough to set off my alarms and make me want to throw the computer against the wall. (We discussed precipitation expressions to some extent in last year’s word-order thread, starting here.) Thanks, Martin!

Meissl & Schadn.

Yet another fascinating post at Poemas del río Wang, Hotel Meissl & Schadn, begins with a description of an unusual mosaic running across the entire second floor of a building on the Kärntnerstraße in Vienna; perhaps its most unexpected feature is “a faravahar, the identity symbol of the Iranian Zoroastrians, an allegory of God with the extended wings.” After explaining that “As Encyclopaedia Iranica describes in detail, commercial and later diplomatic, military and cultural relations between Austria and Persia developed greatly during the 19th century,” Studiolum asks “What building could have been adorned with such magnificent mosaics?” As it turns out, it was once the Hotel & Restaurant Meissl & Schadn:

From Kärtnerstraße, one of Vienna’s most elegant hotels, whose guests are referenced in the mosaic of the façade made by Eduard Veith, the only element surviving from the building, which was bombed by the Americans and looted and set on fire by the Soviets. And from the Neuer Markt it was one of the best restaurants in the city, praised by contemporary authors as “Rindfleischparadies”.

In fact, the restaurant of Meissl & Schadn offered no less than twenty-four beef dishes with ten different garnishes, all following centuries-old Viennese recipes. It was a privilege to dine here that only Vienna’s elite could enjoy.

There follows an extended quote from Joseph Wechsberg, “whose recollection of Meissl & Schadn’s Tafelspitz is both an anthem to Viennese cuisine and to the disappeared old Vienna.” I urge you to read the whole delirious thing, which made me think of that delightful movie The Grand Budapest Hotel, but what brings it to LH is the following extended rhapsody on its variety of dishes:
[Read more…]

Jerriais Revival.

An AFP story reports on efforts to revive Jerriais (or, if you prefer, Jèrriais):

Jerriais, the ancient language of Jersey, the largest Channel island which is just minutes from the French coast. “We’re the last generation to speak it naturally,” the 84-year-old told AFP. “It’s so sad when you lose the very essence of your culture.”

Lying just 14 miles (22 kilometres) from the French coast, Jersey is a self-governing British Crown Dependency, represented internationally by the UK government in London. Due to the dominance of English, a dwindling number of people speak the French-influenced local language. Jerriais — also called Jersey French — has existed for more than 1,000 years and traces its origins to nearby Normandy in northern France.

Sitting with his 77-year-old brother Jean in the small village of Saint Ouen, Le Maistre recalled that as children “we spoke nothing else at home”. But Jerriais was “considered a peasant language”, and teachers would even punish children for using it, Jean said. Now the brothers mainly use English, like most of Jersey’s 100,000 residents, reflecting its transformation since World War II from a rural community to a tourism destination and offshore tax haven. The same has happened for the similar but distinct language spoken on the nearby island of Guernsey — Guernesiais.

Today attitudes are changing, with efforts to preserve and revive languages gaining traction in many parts of the world. In 2019, Jersey declared Jerriais one of its official languages alongside English and French, and the government supports teaching it in schools. Enthusiasts hope Jersey will follow the example of another British Crown Dependency, the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, which has revived its moribund local language Manx. […]

Giving a class at Beaulieu Convent School, a private Catholic school in Jersey’s capital of Saint Helier, she chats to seven-year-olds in Jerriais. “Comment qu’tu’es?” (How are you?) The children shoot their hands up, eyes glowing. “J’sis d’charme” (I’m well) or “J’sis magnifique” (I’m great), they answer. […]

Schools in Jersey began integrating Jerriais into their curriculums last year, and teachers are trying to teach children about their cultural heritage, even if they are unlikely to speak the language at home. “It’s kind of getting to the stage where the number of native speakers is below 800, and that’s critically endangered… so we’re working really, really hard to revitalise it,” Parker says.

We discussed Jerriais in 2010, and I’m happy to say that Geraint’s blog L’Office du Jèrriais, which I linked to in that post, is still going strong. Thanks, Trevor!

Protactile 2.

Sage Van Wing tells the story of a new language for OPB:

It’s not often a new language emerges. But in the last 15 years, a new language was born right here in the Pacific Northwest. It’s called Protactile, and it was created by a group of DeafBlind people who prioritize touch.

One of the people at the center of creating this new language is Jelica Nuccio. She recently moved to Monmouth, Oregon, where Western Oregon University just received a grant for $2.1 million from the U.S. Department of Education’s Rehabilitation Services Administration, or RSA, to help train Protactile language interpreters.

DeafBlind people like Nuccio have traditionally used variations on sign language to communicate, but it can be easy to miss important details in a language that is designed to be seen. “We can’t grow if we always are only getting things secondhand from other people who are seeing them in the world firsthand because people are uncomfortable shifting to a tactile ground,” Nuccio said. “There have been years and years and years of isolation for DeafBlind people.”

Protactile was born when Nuccio first took over the Deaf-Blind Service Center in Seattle. At that point, she began to advocate for DeafBlind people to communicate with each other without the use of interpreters. “I said no, we don’t need interpreters between us in our midst 24/7. We can run this thing ourselves directly in contact with one another,” Nuccio said. “The original intention was not to create a language: it was simply to be in communication with each other directly.

“Once we got in touch we realized that we were happening upon some different communication practices,” Nuccio said. “So we brought in some other DeafBlind people and we started interacting using those communication practices. We got a linguistic anthropologist involved. We basically created a space where everyone is DeafBlind and Protactile and asked: ‘If the world was just full of DeafBlind people — there were no hearing or sighted people on the planet — what would we do? How would we do it?’”

There’s more at the link, where you can also listen to the piece as it was broadcast; unfortunately, it doesn’t give much of a sense of what Protactile is — for that you’ll want to go to their website. Thanks, JC!

Update. It turns out I posted about Protactile a year ago. I have added a “2” to the title of this one and will flog myself vigorously. Unless I forget to.