Capturing the Castle.

I was struck by Anatoly Vorobey’s post on Dodie Smith’s well-known novel I Capture the Castle (which I will have to read — he calls it замечательный ‘wonderful, remarkable’). He says that the title, which at first seems straightforward, is anything but:

At first glance, it simply means “I’m taking over the castle.” But when you read the book itself, you notice that Cassandra [the teenage girl who’s writing the diary that forms the text of the novel] often uses capture with a different meaning in her diary, when she says that with her diary entries she hopes to “capture” the characters of her relatives, the atmosphere of life in the castle, etc. It’s like when they say that a photographer or artist “captured” a moment, a mood, a facial feature.

It gradually becomes clear that the title I Capture The Castle is meant in this sense. At the same time, it is interesting that the author does not impose this on the reader. Firstly, for a native speaker, the title, until you read the book itself, is clearly read as “I capture [in the usual sense] the castle”; another reading does not come to mind (I believe). Secondly, the title is not repeated within the text. If you don’t pay attention to the word capture, you might think that something metaphorical is meant by “capturing.” But if you pay attention to the “capture” in the text, and think about the fact that according to the plot, by the end of the novel the heroine does not “capture” the castle even in a figurative sense (does not become the main person in it, for example), then there is no doubt.

He is certainly right about the “native speaker” issue; it never would have entered my mind that capture was used in the sense he explains. He then goes on to say that he doesn’t know how to render the title in Russian: “Я ухватываю/охватываю/схватываю/ловлю/ замок” all sound wrong. The official translation is “Я захватываю замок,” but that uses the expected but incorrect sense. Translations in other languages avoid the issue: Le Château de Cassandra, Ho un castello nel cuore, Spiel im Sommer. A fascinating problem!

Fa:m’ Ahniesgwow.

In the grand tradition of “Prisencolinensinainciusol,” I bring you Fa:m’ Ahniesgwow by the experimental poet Hans G. Helms. You can hear the author reading excerpts in this YouTube clip; as @magicmulder says in a comment, “So klingt Deutsch für Leute, die kein Deutsch verstehen. :D” I have no idea how the title is meant to be pronounced or what meaning the reader/hearer is expected to extract from the piece, but it’s fun in small doses.


As occasionally happens, I came across a mention of Edmond Jabès, one of those many famous French literary persons I have not tried to read, and this time I thought “What kind of name is Jabès?” So of course I hied me to Wikipedia, where I found:

Edmond Jabès (French: [ʒabɛs]; Arabic: إدمون جابيس; Cairo, April 14, 1912 – Paris, January 2, 1991) was a French writer and poet of Egyptian origin, and one of the best known literary figures writing in French after World War II.

Which then led to the question “If he’s of Egyptian origin, why isn’t it Gabès? And, again, what kind of name is it?” I tried Arabic Wikipedia, which told me (with the help of Google Translate) “The truth is that his family name is not Western, as some imagine, as it is the Western writing of the word ‘frowns,’ which is a Hebrew name. Its Arabic meaning is ‘furrowing his eyebrows,’ but writing the name in Latin letters required pronouncing it this way: ‘Jabis.’” Then I searched Google Books, where I found this dubiously enlightening passage from Lavish Absence: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabès, by Rosmarie Waldrop (pp. 91-92):

And now, [Rabbi Braude] looked over at Edmond and asked himself, “Jabès. Jabès. What does that name mean?”

I stuck my foot in again by noting that, in the Old Testament, it is said to mean he will cause pain (a derivation which Rosmarie, while translating — only while translating – finds convincing). Braude, to my amazement, pooh-poohed the idea.

“Impossible,” he said, going off to his library to consult authorities.

Over the next hour, he came up with many conjectures, one as likely as another. He appeared happy engaged in these speculations, and finally sorry to see us go.

Later that evening, Rabbi Braude calls. He calls again the next day and, at widening intervals, for several weeks. Each time it is to report that he has worked out another etymology, something else the name Jabès might mean.

Finally, I tried Hebrew Wikipedia, which said “ז’אבס (יעבץ),” and following that link led me to the Hebrew equivalent of this page: “Javitz, Javits, Jawitz, Yavetz, Yawitz, or variation, is a Jewish surname. For the Biblical sources of the name see Jacob Emden.” That last link tells us: “The acronym Ya’avetz (יעב”ץ, also written Yaavetz) stands for the words Yaakov (Emden) ben Tzvi (his father’s name, יעקב (עמדין) בן צבי).”

Can anyone make sense of this tangle?


I was reading and enjoying David Sedaris’s latest piece for the New Yorker (archived), about a trip to Kenya, when I got to this passage:

He was giving us a tour, and was leading us from the hydroponic vegetable garden—the “shamba of goodness,” it was called—to the recreation area. I looked at the man whose job it was to guard the pool we were passing. “What do hippos smell like?” I asked.

Steven thought for a moment. “Cows.”

There were nine tents in all. “Are there many other guests at the moment?” I’d asked the woman who checked us in.

“We have no guests here,” she told me, smiling so broadly I could see her gums. “Only family.”

Oh, no, I thought, for doesn’t a person go on safari to escape that kind of talk? Ditto “shamba of goodness.”

I was, of course, amused, but also frustrated: what was shamba? The internet being at hand, I promptly visited Wiktionary, where I found that it means “garden, farm (any land that is cultivated), field, plantation.” But no etymology was given, and the OED (entry revised 2022) said “< Swahili shamba (plural mashamba), of uncertain origin.” Just for completeness, and not expecting anything useful from such an ancient source, I turned to Johnson’s Standard Swahili-English Dictionary (a 1986 reprint of the 1939 first edition, itself based on Madan’s 1903 dictionary) and found this delightfully chatty entry:

Shamba,* n. ma- (1) a plantation, an estate, farm, garden, plot of cultivated ground; (2) the country as opposed to the town. Enda shamba, go into the country. Toka shamba, come from the country. Mtu wa shamba, a rustic, peasant. Kimashamba, also kishamba, n. and adv. anything belonging to the plantation or country; countrified, rustic, boorish, rude (unpolished) of language, and manners, &c. (Cf. kiunga, and konde, and mgunda, which are the Bantu words in use. French champ—it is very probable that cloves came to Zanzibar from Mauritius where the French introduced them in 1770, as they were introduced to Zanzibar about 25 years later and French ships passed frequently on their way from India. It is also probable that the Arabs learnt, directly or indirectly, how to cultivate cloves from the French. This cultivation would no doubt involve more orderly and extensive agriculture than had been done before, and the French word would be adopted for the plantations. (Cf. French girofle for clove, which is undoubtedly connected with the Ar. karafuu, also divai, which is from the French du vin.)

The French etymologies sound loony to me (well, I guess the divai one less so), but they doubtless seemed plausible back in the days of pith helmets and gin on the verandah.


Via Laudator Temporis Acti, a quote from Clive James, “Gianfranco Contini”:

There is an untranslatable Italian word for the mental bank account you acquire by memorizing poetry: it is a gazofilacio. Contini believed that an accumulation of such treasure would eventually prove its worth even if it had to begin with sweated labour. He confessed that not all of the teachers who had made him memorize a regular ration of Tasso’s epic poetry had been inspired. Some of them had held him to the allotted task because they lacked imagination, not because they possessed it. But in the long run he was grateful. Most readers of this book will spot the sensitive point about modern pedagogy. Readers my age were made to memorize and recite: their yawns of boredom were discounted. Younger readers have been spared such indignities. Who was lucky? Isn’t a form of teaching that avoids all prescription really a form of therapy? In a course called Classical Studies taught by teachers who possess scarcely a word of Latin or Greek, suffering is avoided, but isn’t it true that nothing is gained except the absence of suffering? In his best novel, White Noise, Don DeLillo made a running joke out of a professor of German history who could not read German. But the time has already arrived when such a joke does not register as funny. What have we gained, except a classroom in which no one need feel excluded?

Clive James is always lively reading, but the burden of this (even though I agree that memorizing poetry is a Good Thing) is sheer curmudgeonry. However, it is worth sharing for the word gazofilacio, which (astonishingly) he does not delve into beyond calling it (sigh) “untranslatable.” Wiktionary provides the essential details: it means ‘the treasury in the temple of Jerusalem’ and is from Late Latin gazophylacium, from Ancient Greek γαζοφυλάκιον, derived from γάζα ‘treasury, treasure’ + φυλάκιον, a later diminutive from classical φύλαξ ‘guard.’ And γάζα is from Old Median *ganǰam ‘treasure.’ Isn’t that more interesting than kvetching about kids these days?

Oh, and a visit to the OED shows that the word gazophylacium “The box in which offerings to the Temple were received; a strong-box or treasure-chest,” though long obsolete, does exist in English and was used from 1377 (Haued nouȝt..the pore widwe [more] for a peire of mytes Than alle tho that offreden in-to gazafilacium, W. Langland, Piers Plowman B. xiii. 197) to 1697 (Blood who made that bold Attempt on the Royal Gazophylacium in the Tower, J. Evelyn, Numismata viii. 266).

The Emergence of Old Irish.

In this comment, Lameen linked to “The Conversion of Ireland and the Emergence of the Old Irish Language, AD 367–637” (Emania XIII [1995]: 39–50; Google cache) by John Koch, saying it argues

that the incredible apparent rapidity of change from Primitive to Old Irish is actually an illusion: the conservatism of Primitive Irish, he claims, is because it was “a far more conservative and less localised learned language, which stood closer from the point of view of linguistic evolution to the fragmentarily attested Old Celtic of Iron Age and Roman mainland Europe and Britain than to Old Irish” – a sort of Druid Sanskrit to the Prakrit of the wider population, basically.

I thought that was an exciting idea and decided to give it its own post. After describing the striking gap between the Primitive Irish of the ogam inscriptions and “the manuscript Old Irish known from texts of the seventh to ninth centuries,” Koch says:

The thesis of this paper is that the conversion and the transformation of Irish speech during the period c. AD 367-637 are causally linked as follows. In the final centuries of the pre-Christian Iron Age, Ireland possessed a Q-Celtic language with two markedly different registers. […] In late ancient Ireland, the more basic register was the universal colloquial language, a fairly evolved and dialectal form of Celtic speech, out of which Old Irish (the literate vernacular of the seventh to ninth centuries) was subsequently to arise. The second was a far more conservative and less localised learned language, which stood closer from the point of view of linguistic evolution to the fragmentarily attested Old Celtic of Iron Age and Roman mainland Europe and Britain than to Old Irish. This higher register was originally, like the lower, a purely oral medium, but by some point in the fifth century (or perhaps earlier) it had come to be used as the basis for inscriptions in both the ogam and Roman scripts. This educated language was mastered by only a relatively small minority of the Irish population, including prominently the pagan priesthood called in Old Celtic dru(u)ides, in Old Irish druïd, and the allied professions in the native verbal tradition. In the fifth and sixth centuries, a second religion spread vigorously in Ireland, bringing with it a second learned tradition and a second learned language, namely Latin. At a pivotal early stage in the conversion, many of the leaders of the missionary church were foreigners, mostly British, and would not have been competent in all levels of the native language and learning. For a time (the fifth century and probably well into the sixth), the two religions, educational establishments, and learned classes co-existed, perhaps competing in some situations and finding accommodation at others. During the course of the sixth century, Christianity at last effectively overwhelmed any organised native religion, and with that, Latin Christian learning and the Latin language replaced the native educated standard within its social domain, that is, it superseded the variety of Old Celtic which is called by linguists ‘Primitive Irish’. At this point, there was no longer a Celtic learned register to act as a check on popular speech, and a number of heretofore substandard tendencies were able to bubble up to surface rapidly. Then, in the mid sixth to mid seventh century, when for its own purposes the unchallenged church chose to cultivate a vernacular literary language alongside Latin, it had only the more evolved register of the illiterate monoglot masses upon which to base the new medium. The system of pagan linguistic learning, like organised pagan Celtic learning in general, had faltered during the conversion. The result was the written Old Irish well known to us from texts of the Early Middle Ages.

He goes on to problems of dating and a discussion of Christian Latin Loan-words in Irish:
[Read more…]


Dmitry Pruss, indefatigable researcher into genetics ancient and modern, linked on Facebook to a PNAS paper by Qian Tang, Edward L. Vargo, Intan Ahmad, et al., “Solving the 250-year-old mystery of the origin and global spread of the German cockroach, Blattella germanica” (tl;dr: “We confirm that B. germanica evolved from the Asian cockroach Blattella asahinai approximately 2,100 ya, probably by adapting to human settlements in India or Myanmar”) and e-mailed me to say “I just wrote a short fb post about the solved mystery of origin of the cockroaches, and realized that there are only so-so lame etymologies of the Russian word. Maybe the LH audience can step in & help?” For your convenience, here’s a webpage gathering the fruits of the etymological dictionaries, primarily Vasmer; there seems to be a general idea that it came from Turkic (either a root tar- < taz- ‘flee’ or “from the derogatory use of Turk. tarkan ‘dignitary’”), but as Dmitry says, that’s pretty lame. Any ideas?


Balashon has a very interesting and extensive post on the etymology of tallit טַלִּית ‘prayer shawl,’ prompted by watching a video called The Revival of Hebrew? (1879-1908):

To get a better perspective on the Hebrew language, Sam brought on Yair from the Che Languages YouTube channel. At 2:20, they mention words originating in Egyptian, Persian, Greek, and Latin. Many of those words I’ve written about here before. But one word caught my eye – tallit, which they claimed had a Greek origin.

I had never heard such a suggestion before. I was only familiar with the etymology provided by Klein […] But where was this Greek origin theory from?

It turns out that Yair had found the Greek origin for tallit on the Wiktionary page for טלית. The page provides two possible etymologies. One the one that I had heard, and the other claiming Greek origin: […] From Ancient Greek στολή (stolḗ, “garment”).

The only source given on that page was a 2001 post on the Avodah email discussion list by Rabbi Dr. Seth Mandel entitled Tallit/talles (a follow up from an earlier post of his and in response to a Philologos column). […]

[Read more…]


My wife read in a newspaper story that the word “farce” comes from comic insertions in religious plays and asked me if it was true; I said I didn’t know but would find out, and so it is, as Merriam-Webster explains:

From Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, many of us are familiar with farce in its dramatic sense. However, when farce first appeared in English, it had to do with cookery, not comedy. In the 14th century, English adopted farce from Middle French with its original meaning of “forcemeat”—that is, a highly seasoned, minced meat or fish often served as a stuffing. In the 16th century, English imported the word again, this time to refer to a kind of knockabout comedy already popular in France. French farce had its origins in the 13th-century practice of “stuffing” Latin church texts with explanatory phrases. By the 15th century, a similar practice of inserting unscripted buffoonery into religious plays had arisen. Such farces—which included clowning, acrobatics, reversal of social roles, and indecency—soon developed into a distinct dramatic genre and spread rapidly in various forms throughout Europe.

An unexpected medieval survival! And kudos to the NY Times (I’m pretty sure that was the newspaper in question) for providing an etymology that was factual as well as piquant.

Also, I have a question that I’m unlikely to get an answer to, but if not here, where? I recently saw the movie Lingui, The Sacred Bonds (Lingui, les liens sacrés) by the Chadian director Mahamat Saleh Haroun (you don’t get many chances to see movies from Chad); it was powerful and well acted, but of course I wondered about the word lingui, which occurs in the dialogue when the protagonist’s sister asks her (in translation) “What about the sacred bonds?” and you can hear what sounded to me like /linɟi/ on the soundtrack. Now, most of the dialogue is in French (I wondered why the mother and daughter spoke in French, but one would have to know the local sociolinguistic situation to make a decent guess), some is in Arabic, but a bit is in one of what Wikipedia calls “over 120 indigenous languages,” and this is one such bit; alas, I have no way of knowing which it is and thus no way to investigate the word. If anyone has any ideas, I’m all ears.

Philippine Language Relations in a Map.

I’m always on the lookout for useful visualizations of linguistic relationships, and Nathaniel P. “Nath” Hermosa posted one back in 2013, Philippine language relations in a map. He writes:

First things first: I am not a linguist and I am not a geographer/ cartographer. I am a physicist who is in dire need of a stress reliever. Mapping this is therapeutic while in the thick of preparing a manuscript for submission. […] This map is my rendering of data used by ref [2] where they propose an algorithm whose goal is to reconstruct the ancient proto-Austronesian language. The proto-Austronesian language gave birth to the modern Austronesian languages. Comprised of 1000 to 1200 languages, the Austronesian language family is the largest language family in the world. Geographically, it is spoken from Madagascar to the Easter Islands, and as far North as Taiwan and Hawai’i, and as far South as New Zealand. The languages of the Philippines are part of this large family.

The authors of course, tested their algorithm with what the Linguists have and they say that their reconstructed relationship between languages does not differ much from what the linguists have obtained. They just have a different goal when they study the language relationship.

I specifically chose the results of the paper above because it listed 77 languages from the Philippines, the most number in recent studies about the Austronesian languages.

There are more maps and many further details, and a bunch of comments to which he responded both in the thread and in a later post, Philippine language relations: Reply to comments. We’ve discussed the Austronesian languages a number of times, e.g. in 2014 and 2016.