Bakan, lac.

I’m reading Boborykin’s best-known novel, the 1882 Китай-город [Kitay-gorod], which is full of detailed descriptions of the central part of Moscow (in those days sometimes simply called город ‘the City’) before the renovations that began in the late 1880s (and of course the massive destruction of Soviet times). In Book I ch. XXXI he’s portraying one of the minor characters, the somewhat feeble-minded Mitrosha, who is sorting the materials used in the family business: “марену, кубовую краску, буру, бакан, кошениль, скипидар, керосин” [madder, indigo paint, borax, crimson lake, cochineal, turpentine, kerosene]. A number of these words are interesting — марена ‘madder’ is from a term of unknown etymology which “terminally ousted the other Slavic word for madder, *broščь, by the end of the Early Modern Age,” and бура ‘borax’ is from Persian بورهbure (and an earlier term tincal has its own complex etymology) — but what I want to focus on is that word бакан (bakán, with final stress as opposed to the more common бакан ‘buoy’). Wiktionary gives no etymology, but elsewhere I found it’s from Ottoman Turkish بقم‎ bak(k)am, from Arabic بَقَّمbaqqam, which that Wiktionary entry says is “From Persian بکم‎ (bakam)”… but things appear to be more complicated (“I now see how this name بَقَّم‎ […] came to the Near East, though not when, and I will not be able to write out all forms and make out whether it came from Sanskrit into the Dravidian languages or originally from Dravidian or even from Austronesian”).

And the English word I used in the translation, lake, “a pigment of a reddish hue, originally obtained from lac,” is (per the OED) a “variant or alteration” of lac “a dark red resinous substance produced as a protective coating by certain scale insects”; that latter entry, happily, was revised in 2017 and provides this extensive and complicated etymology:
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Nordmand  Can Stay.

Miranda Bryant has an encouraging Guardian story about a Danish dictionary:

The Danish language does not officially carry a male equivalent for the (often pejorative) term “career woman” or a female equivalent for the male-gendered noun “financier”. But after a major review of all keywords ending in -mand (man), -kvinde (woman) and -person (person), soon the terms karrieremand (career man) and finanskvinde (female financier) – as well as many new gender-neutral terms – will officially join the ranks of the Danish spelling dictionary, the Retskrivningsordbogen.

In its first review in 12 years, the Dansk Sprognævn (the Danish Language Council) has embarked on a new edition focusing on gender equality and making words and descriptions more gender neutral and less stereotyped. The council has also analysed the use of he, she, his and hers in the dictionary’s example phrases. The new edition, to be published next year, adds to afholdsmand, the existing word for someone who abstains from drinking alcohol, which has a male-gendered suffix, a female version: afholdskvinde. Financier, finansmand, now also has a female equivalent in the form of finanskvinde. […]

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Memory is a strange thing. I was looking at a loaf of bread when my mind suddenly tossed up a word I hadn’t thought of in decades: skalk. This is what we called the heel (the end slice) in my family when I was growing up, and since once I left home and went off to college I never heard anyone else use it, I must have let it slip to the deepest recesses of my wordhoard… but now there it was, so I googled, and found Maryn Liles’ webpage What Do You Call the End of a Loaf of Bread? Sure enough, after a few paragraphs we get:

The word “skalk” was popular among users from Norway. However, it seemed that this term could be seen as dated, as responders said that skalk was a term their grandparents used.

My mother was Norwegian-American, so that explains that. And Wiktionary has skalk ‘rind, crust,’ though oddly they only have it for Swedish and don’t give an etymology beyond “Doublet of skal and skilja,” which isn’t really satisfactory — it’s a Norwegian word in good standing, and the Norske Akademis ordbok suggests it may be from a Middle Low German word meaning ‘small piece.’

Kalasmaic, a New IE Language.

A report from Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg:

An excavation in Turkey has brought to light an unknown Indo-European language. Professor Daniel Schwemer, an expert for the ancient Near East, is involved in investigating the discovery. The new language was discovered in the UNESCO World Heritage Site Boğazköy-Hattusha in north-central Turkey. This was once the capital of the Hittite Empire, one of the great powers of Western Asia during the Late Bronze Age (1650 to 1200 BC). […]

Yearly archaeological campaigns led by current site director Professor Andreas Schachner of the Istanbul Department of the German Archaeological Institute continue to add to the cuneiform finds. Most of the texts are written in Hittite, the oldest attested Indo-European language and the dominant language at the site. Yet the excavations of this year yielded a surprise: Hidden in a cultic ritual text written in Hittite is a recitation in a hitherto unknown language.

Professor Schwemer, head of the Chair of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Julius-Maximilians-Universität (JMU) Würzburg in Germany, is working on the cuneiform finds from the excavation. He reports that the Hittite ritual text refers to the new idiom as the language of the land of Kalašma. This is an area on the north-western edge of the Hittite heartland, probably in the area of present-day Bolu or Gerede. The discovery of another language in the Boğazköy-Hattusha archives is not entirely unexpected, as Prof. Schwemer explains: “The Hittites were uniquely interested in recording rituals in foreign languages.” […]

Being written in a newly discovered language the Kalasmaic text is as yet largely incomprehensible. Prof. Schwemer’s colleague, Professor Elisabeth Rieken (Marburg University), a specialist in ancient Anatolian languages, has confirmed that the idiom belongs to the family of Anatolian-Indo-European languages. According to Rieken, despite its geographic proximity to the area where Palaic was spoken, the text seems to share more features with Luwian. How closely the language of Kalasma is related to the other Luwian dialects of Late Bronze Age Anatolia will be the subject of further investigation.

Thanks go to Trevor, Dmitry, and Trond, all of whom alerted me to this find.

Animals Talking.

We’ve discussed it before (e.g., Mole-Rat Dialects, Whale Talk), but animal communication is a perennially interesting topic, and Sonia Shah’s NY Times Magazine article (archived) has plenty of good stuff in it. After an intro about mouse songs, Shah continues:

Inside these murine skills lay clues to a puzzle many have called “the hardest problem in science”: the origins of language. In humans, “vocal learning” is understood as a skill critical to spoken language. Researchers had already discovered the capacity for vocal learning in species other than humans, including in songbirds, hummingbirds, parrots, cetaceans such as dolphins and whales, pinnipeds such as seals, elephants and bats. But given the centuries-old idea that a deep chasm separated human language from animal communications, most scientists understood the vocal learning abilities of other species as unrelated to our own — as evolutionarily divergent as the wing of a bat is to that of a bee. The apparent absence of intermediate forms of language — say, a talking animal — left the question of how language evolved resistant to empirical inquiry.

When the Duke researchers dissected the brains of the hearing and deafened mice, they found a rudimentary version of the neural circuitry that allows the forebrains of vocal learners such as humans and songbirds to directly control their vocal organs. Mice don’t seem to have the vocal flexibility of elephants; they cannot, like the 10-year-old female African elephant in Tsavo, Kenya, mimic the sound of trucks on the nearby Nairobi-Mombasa highway. Or the gift for mimicry of seals; an orphaned harbor seal at the New England Aquarium could utter English phrases in a perfect Maine accent (“Hoover, get over here,” he said. “Come on, come on!”).

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Every once in a while I find myself trying to disentangle the history of a familiar but complicated word, and this time it’s post — not the long piece of wood but the (“Chiefly British”) term for the mail. What I doubtless once knew but had forgotten is that it originally referred to a person, or to quote the OED (entry updated 2006):

Any of a series of men stationed at suitable places along appointed post-roads, the duty of each being to ride with, or forward speedily to the next stage, the monarch’s (and later also other) letters and dispatches, and to provide fresh horses for express messengers riding through. to lay posts: to establish a chain of such riders and horses along a route for the speedy delivery of dispatches. Obsolete.

These chains were at first laid only temporarily, when occasion demanded direct communication with a distant point, but eventually they were established permanently along certain routes. From the 17th cent. the men were also known as postmasters (see postmaster n.¹ 1b, 2), and were the precursors of the postmasters in charge of local post offices. In the 16th and 17th centuries, they usually had also the exclusive privilege of providing ordinary travellers with post-horses, and of conducting the business of a posting establishment (as a posting-house or inn), which was later separated from that of the Post Office.

It then became “A person who travels express with letters, dispatches, etc., esp. along a fixed route,” “A vehicle or vessel used to carry letters and other postal matter,” “A single collection or delivery of mail,” and finally “A national or regional organization for the collection, transportation, and delivery of letters, parcels, etc. (= post office n.¹).” All clear enough, but what I want to complain about is the etymology. As is usual now that the online status of the dictionary allows near-infinite discursiveness, it is quite full:
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The Punan Batu of Borneo.

Brendan Borrell’s NY Times story (archived) about a once elusive people of Indonesia doesn’t have a great deal about language in it, but there’s a fair amount about genetics, which I know is of interest to a formidable group of Hattics, and it’s quite a story in general, so I thought I’d post it. The Punan people were thought to have abandoned their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle:

And so in 2018, when Stephen Lansing, an anthropologist at the Santa Fe Institute, and Pradiptajati Kusuma, a geneticist at the Mochtar Riady Institute for Nanotechnology in Tangerang, Indonesia, said they had learned of a clan of about 30 Punan families who sheltered in limestone caves and rarely, if ever, emerged from the forest, many experts were skeptical. But with funding from the National Science Foundation, the scientists made contact with the nomadic group in 2018, and began collecting data with the aim of ensuring their health and welfare.

After that first trip, Dr. Lansing returned to Santa Fe with photographs of a man wearing a loincloth made of bark fiber, along with recordings of a song language he believed resembled no other. His initial description of these people, who call themselves the Cave Punan or Punan Batu, was published last year in the journal Evolutionary Human Sciences. Press reports in the Indonesian media catalyzed the local government to declare the Punan Batu as regular users of their forest, a first step toward obtaining the right to manage it under national laws.

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Agogo, Lampopo.

Two funny-sounding and assonant words that have struck me recently:

English agogo ‘An agogo bell, a bell used in Yoruba and Brazilian music and typically played in pairs’ is from Portuguese agogô, from Yoruba agogo ‘bell, gong; clock, timepiece,’ “possibly onomatopoeic,” which has given rise to loanwords in Baatonum, Hausa, Edo, Portuguese (and thence English, Japanese, and Russian), Spanish, and Mandarin.

Russian лампопо (with final stress: lampopó) is “a Russian alcoholic drink popular in the 19th century, the main ingredients of which are rusks, lemons, sugar and beer.” It is an anagram of the word пополам (popolám) ‘in two; half and half’; various hypotheses have been adduced for the name, which the curious can find provided in the linked Wikipedia article (with the assistance of translation software as needed). It’s a fun word, but I don’t think I’d care for the drink.

Past Lives.

My wife and I saw the new movie Past Lives, which is in every way excellent — we hope it wins All The Awards. But what brings it here is the linguistic element of the story: the heroine, Nora, emigrated with her family from South Korea to Canada when she was twelve, and in the present of the movie she is completely fluent in English, but her childhood friend Hae Sung stayed in Korea and hardly speaks any English. By the time he visits, she is a playwright living in New York and married to a white American, who is trying to learn Korean to communicate with her family but is still at a basic level. The scene where the three of them get together to have dinner is a fascinating study in the difficulty of crossing boundaries, and as she explains in the Guardian, it was the genesis of the movie:

This might be the most explicitly autobiographical moment in Past Lives, a film which follows Nora as she reconnects with Hae Sung multiple times across multiple decades and continents. Less a love story than a meditation on what-ifs, it has propelled its debut director Celine Song to a rarefied strata of acclaim, accruing both rave reviews and early, frantic Oscars buzz since its Sundance premiere earlier this year. The idea for the film came to Song when she too was sitting in an East Village cocktail joint, sandwiched between an old flame from Seoul, who spoke only Korean, and her husband, the screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes, who spoke only English.

“I was translating between these two people,” she recalls. “And at one point, I realised that I wasn’t just translating between their languages and cultures, but also translating between these two parts of myself as well.” The experience, she says, “settled in me as a very special thing”. Song had previously spent a decade as a playwright. Now she knew she wanted to trade theatre for film.

I must say, the East Village no longer looks like the shabby neighborhood I remember; le vieux Paris n’est plus. Also, I think I’ve mentioned in some earlier thread the time when I was on a bus in London and found myself carrying on a three-way conversation with the guy on my left, who spoke only Spanish, and the guy on my right, who spoke only French. It gave me a deeper appreciation for the difficulty of the work simultaneous interpreters do!

Indo-European Languages Quiz.

A reader sent me a quiz written for a trivia website, saying “It was mostly intended for a general audience […], so I expect most of the questions should be easy for you, though perhaps one or two will be tougher.” The only one that was actually hard for me was #2, though after a few minutes of hard thinking I figured it out. I can imagine some of the rest being hard even for hardened Hatters, depending on which bits of trivia they happen to know. Anyway, enjoy it, and a tip o’ the Hattic hat to Will! (I expect there will be spoilers in the comments, so take the quiz before clicking through.)