Archives for February 2004


The heart of things has been silent since the end of last year and has been hibernating since October, but I’m pleased to report that both Jonathon and Renee have chosen the bissextile day to return to the fray. Renee has not one but two new entries, 29th Feb (“I am planning to enjoy Spring while it lasts”) and Komi and Mansi links (just what it says, with special focus on alphabets):

When I lived in Komi ASSR (in Vorkuta) as a child, the only Komi that I heard came from the local Komi radio station. The station and its broadcasts were much ridiculed by the non-Komi population. These broadcasts had about 30% of recently borrowed Russian lexicon, perhaps much more. This was in the late eighties. It’s a pity they didn’t teach Komi in schools, I would love to know it. My mother, too, wanted to learn the language when she moved to Vorkuta; she was told by some embarassed Komi nationals that nobody spoke it in the city.

And Jonathon has a meditation on blogging, drinking, stavrosthewonderchicken’s much-commented-on recent blogrant, and his finally managing to escape the trap of kankei ga nai (‘that’s nothing to do with me’) and reconnect with “this thing we were all in love with.”

Addendum. PF points out in the comments that Cinderella Bloggerfeller has returned as well, under the guise of February 30. Good things come in threes.

Welcome back, both all of you; you’ve been missed!


I recently had occasion (in a Wordorigins thread) to make the point that virus has no Latin plural, whereupon the excellent aldiboronti linked to a page that has an exhaustive discussion of that very matter. For practical purposes, all you need is the first line: “The plural of virus is neither viri nor virii, nor even vira nor virora. It is quite simply viruses, irrespective of context.” But the rest is lots of fun.

[Read more…]


Like Mark Liberman, I am a fan of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, so I was intrigued by his Language Log post investigating the term marthambles, an unspecified illness “known as the marthambles at sea and griping of the guts by land.” O’Brian claimed to have taken the word from “a quack’s pamphlet of the late 17th or early 18th century,” but it turns out he may instead have taken it from Dorothy Dunnett’s historical novel The Ringed Castle (1971). Not only do I appreciate the wordsleuthing involved, I am glad to be told about Dunnett’s “exciting, literate, carefully-researched works, full of accurate historical detail and historically accurate specialized terminology,” set in 16th-century Muscovy; I will check the Mid-Manhattan Branch’s catalog for them next time I’m there.
Update. Mark Liberman has gotten a note from Lisa Grossman, co-author of Lobscouse and Spotted Dog, indicating that there actually was such a quack’s pamphlet, written by a Dr. Tufts circa 1675, and it seems likely that Dunnett and O’Brian read The Quacks of Old London independently. Grossman also mentions the wonderful term Hockogrockle, another alleged disease which O’Brian inexplicably failed to use.


Gentium — a typeface for the nations:

Gentium is a typeface family designed to enable the diverse ethnic groups around the world who use the Latin script to produce readable, high-quality publications. It supports a wide range of Latin-based alphabets and includes glyphs that correspond to all the Latin ranges of Unicode.

[Read more…]


Languagehat doesn’t normally concern itself with the news pages (except as sources of linguistic tidbits), but two recent stories should be troubling to anyone who cares about the free flow of information.
1) Publishers Face Prison For Editing Articles from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya or Cuba:

The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control recently declared that American publishers cannot edit works authored in nations under trade embargoes which include Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya and Cuba.
Although publishing the articles is legal, editing is a “service” and the treasury department says it is illegal to perform services for embargoed nations. It can be punishable by fines of up to a half-million dollars or jail terms as long as 10 years.

Commentary at Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s Making Light; a bold countermove at Shanna Compton’s Rebel Edit, whose first post says:

So welcome to Rebel Edit. Edit a poem or short piece by a writer from one of these countries and send to rebel edit at shannacompton dot com. I will post it on this blog, which in effect will become both an act of protest and a petition.

Addendum. Bill Poser at Language Log has gone into more detail about both why the Treasury Department’s interpretation of the law is wrong and why it’s counterproductive.
2) Charges have been dropped against translator Katharine Gun—not in itself bad news, but Gail Armstrong has some extremely cogent remarks about the implications of the case for translators:

I expect that in the UK at least, this episode will lead to more careful screening of potential in-house translators in government offices, and perhaps even to recruits being questioned on their political stance (and an unspoken policy of hiring only those who toe the incumbent party line).
Translators have traditionally been viewed with some suspicion by those unable to grasp a divided devotion to two or more cultures, and by those baffled by such dedication to words.


A fascinating story by Edward Cody about nüshu (sample with Chinese equivalent here), a form of writing developed by women in the southwestern corner of Hunan province:

It was a delicate, graceful script handed down from grandmother to granddaughter, from elderly aunt to adolescent niece, from girlfriend to girlfriend—and never, ever shared with the men and boys.
So was born nushu, or women’s script, a single-sex writing system that Chinese scholars believe is the only one of its kind.
“The girls used to get together and sing and talk, and that’s when we learned from one another,” said Yang Huanyi, 98, a wrinkled farmer’s widow who learned as a girl and whom scholars consider the most accomplished reader and writer among a fast-dwindling number of nushu practitioners. “It made our lives better, because we could express ourselves that way.”

Read the article for more details about the murky history of nüshu and its discovery by outsiders and the regional custom of “sworn sisterhood” it reflects, and go to Adam Morris’s Brainysmurf entry for further links and a gorgeous image of the writing. (Thanks to Adam and to Pascale Soleil for alerting me to this story.)
Addendum. Laura Miller has written a stern critique of Cody’s article over at Kerim Friedman’s Keywords.
[April 2010: Sorry about the broken links!]


Almost a year and a half ago I posted a teaser about Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, which is now causing such a brouhaha; my interest, of course, was and is in the use of Aramaic and Latin—particularly the former, since now that I know the Latin is spoken in modern Italian church pronunciation I can’t say I have much interest in it (and it should, of course, be Greek anyway). Now the NY Times has an article by Clyde Haberman on that very subject, leading off with a modern Aramaic speaker:

George A. Kiraz can hardly wait [to see the movie]…
“I want mainly to see if I understand any of the Aramaic, and what form of Aramaic it is,” said Dr. Kiraz, director of the Syriac Institute in Piscataway, N.J. His organization promotes the study of Syriac, an Aramaic dialect that is the liturgical language of the Syrian Orthodox Church and some other churches with Middle Eastern roots.
“I call it BBC Aramaic—the standard form that continues to be used today,” said Dr. Kiraz, 39. He began speaking it as a boy in Bethlehem (as in Little Town of Bethlehem, not the place in Pennsylvania). He uses it today with his daughter, Tabetha.
“Since she was born three years ago, I’ve only spoken the classical Syriac, which is Aramaic, to her,” he said. “Now when she speaks to me, it’s always in Aramaic. It’s mostly a language used among bishops and priests. It would be like someone speaking Latin to his kid.”

I hope there will be further quotes when he’s seen the movie.

The Syriac Institute (Beth Mardutho) “seeks to promote the study and preservation of the Syriac heritage and language” and has published Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies since January 1998; it looks to be a good resource for anyone interested in the language.

The link to the Times story is via Classics in Contemporary Culture, a new (since December) blog whose creator says:

[…in this weblog, my interest is in:]

It too looks worth following.

Addendum. The Guardian has published a glossary of Aramaic phrases for filmgoers.

Aykaa beyt tadkeetha? Zaadeq lee d-asheeg eeday men perdey devshaanaayey haaleyn!
Where is the loo? I need to wash my hands of this popcorn.
Een, Yuudaayaa naa, ellaa b-haw yawmaa laa hweeth ba-mdeetaa.
Yes, I’m Jewish, but I wasn’t there that day.

Silly but amusing. (By the way, they’re using ee to indicate a high front vowel, more or less as in English see.)


Margaret Marks has a post called “Resp. and other non-existent English words,” about Germans transferring usages from their own language to English, where they cause befuddlement. She mentions “the word furtheron, which seems like a combination of weiterhin and furthermore” and says, “Recently I saw a.o., clearly meaning among others. Of course, German unter anderem really means inter alia or among other things, not among others, so that too was misused.” But the main part of her entry concerns a word that always vaguely puzzled and annoyed me back when I had to plow through German linguistics journals:

Now I have read a query from someone on a forum with a German member whose English is very good. However, he keeps including the abbreviation ‘resp.’ in his postings, and English speakers can’t make sense of it. Here are two examples:

There are two kinds of suitable Polyurethane foam. One is single component. Works well, only requires some water moisture resp. wetness to react and set.

And I see that the vast majority of users resp. members still would like to post ‘Wanted’ ads here.

To quote the questioner:

I thought at first it meant “with respect to”, but I think he’s actually using it to offer an alternative word for the one he has just used. I suspect he’s using a literal translation of a German abbreviation, but it doesn’t quite get his meaning across in English.

This is interesting, because every time I read resp. I know from German what the writer means. Beziehungsweise usually means and or or. But respectively has a narrower meaning: ‘each separately in the order mentioned’, to quote the Longmans Dictionary of Contemporary English. Example:

Classes A, B, and C will start their exams at 9.30, 10.00 and 10.30 respectively.

Beziehungsweise can mean this, but more often it is used the way the German uses resp. above: water or wetness, members or users.

It makes me wonder what mistakes are typical of English-speakers writing in other languages.


So I’m reading the first chapter of From The Land of Silent People, a 1942 book by the American journalist Robert St John, a remarkable man who spent fifty years as a war correspondent while remaining a lifelong pacifist and died last year at the age of 100. The scene is Belgrade, March 1941; the Yugoslav government has just signed a shameful pact with Nazi Germany and the assembled reporters are packing their bags and arguing over “where the next crisis was likely to break out,” when St. John gets information (at 2:30 AM) that army tanks are taking up positions around the city. He hops in his car and heads downtown to see what’s happening, but he and his chauffeur are stopped by soldiers “with bayonets held at belly level,” dragged out, and “marched into a small park” where they are told to sit down and shut up.

The little park was filled with a select gathering. It was nearly three o’clock… Two night club entertainers in backless dresses that swept along the ground. At least a dozen women of easy virtue, groggy from their night’s work. A few girls of semipro status in various stages of intoxication. One man in spotless evening dress with a beautiful French girl who insisted: “You can’t do this to us.”…

Just then I saw a squad of soldiers bringing in a familiar figure. Milan! Good old Milan, our favorite barman at the Srpski Kralj Hotel. Milan was one of my best sources of information. If anyone knew the answers, he did. We went off into the bushes and had a hooker or two…

Alas for salacious speculation, the sentence goes on: “…out of a bottle of slivovich Milan always carried in his hip pocket for emergencies, and then he opened up.” I was unfamiliar with that usage of “hooker,” and this was certainly a dramatic way to discover it. It’s in the Cassell Dictionary of Slang as [19C+] (US) ‘a drink, a measure of liquor,’ and it’s even in the American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s; I don’t know how I missed it. I’m wondering if it’s still current. Any of you readers know/use it?


A new look for English grammar:

The U.S. Grammar Guild Monday announced that no more will traditional grammar rules English follow. Instead there will a new form of organizing sentences be.

U.S. Grammar Guild according to, the new structure loosely on an obscure 800-year-old, pre-medieval Anglo-Saxon syntax is based. The syntax primarily verbs, verb clauses and adjectives at the end of sentences placing involves. Results this often, to ears American, a sentence backward appearing.

“Operating under we are, one major rule,” said Joyce Watters, president of the U.S. Grammar Guild. “Make English, want we, more archaic and dignified sounding to be, as if every word coming from the tongue of a centuries-old, mystical wizard, is.”

I this supporting am. Language change must!

(Link this plep via is.)