A Dialectal Squirrel.

I ran across a reference to Mandelstam’s 1922 essay Конец романа [The end of the novel] and wound up rereading it; it’s a short and fairly boring analysis of how the novel, which flourished in the 19th century with its focus on individual psychology, was now passé because individual psychology was no longer important. In the first place, that’s a silly way to look at literature; in the second place, most of the essay is written in a formulaic style barely recognizable as Mandelstam’s prose; and in the third place, the novel never died, so the whole idea is moot. (He says the swan song of the classic European novel was Romain Rolland’s Jean Christophe, which was wildly popular a century ago; anybody know if it’s still worth reading?) However, it comes alive at the very end:

Очевидно, силою вещей современный прозаик становится летописцем, и роман возвращается к своим истокам, к “Слову о полку Игореве”, к летописи, к агиографии, к “Четьи Минеи”. Снова мысль прозаика векшей растекается по древу истории, и не нам заманить эту векшу в ручную клетку.

Clearly, by the force of circumstance the contemporary prose writer has become a chronicler, and the novel is returning to its sources, to the Lay of Igor’s Campaign, to chronicles, to hagiography, to the Chet’i Minei. Once more the thought of the prose writer hastens like a squirrel over the tree of history, and it is not for us to lure this squirrel into a cage.

The last line refers to a very famous passage from the opening of the Lay of Igor’s Campaign:

Боянъ бо вѣщій, аще кому
хотяше пѣснь творити,
то растекашется мыслію по древу,
сѣрымъ волкомъ по земли,
шизымъ орломъ подъ облакы

For the vatic Boyan, when he wished to make a song for anyone, hastened in his thought over the trees, like a grey wolf over the earth, like a dusky eagle beneath the clouds.

We discussed this passage back in 2011, and there is much back-and-forth in the comment thread about a common but unfounded suggestion that мыслію ‘in thought’ is an error for мысью ‘like a squirrel,’ and Mandelstam is clearly working from that reading — except that he replaces мыс(л)ью with векшей, where векша [veksha] is a dialect word for ‘squirrel.’ He must have liked that word, because he also uses it in the last stanza of a 1937 poem:

И век бы падал векши легче,
И легче векши к мягкой речке —
Полнеба в валенках, в ногах…

The age could fall lighter than a squirrel,
lighter than a squirrel to the soft stream.
Half of the sky is wearing winter boots.
  (Translated by Richard and Elizabeth McKane.)

So my question for Russian-speakers is: how does the word векша sound to you (if it’s familiar at all)? Is it rustic, amusing, quaint, what? And my question for English-speakers is: are there any English dialect words for ‘squirrel’? You’d think there would be, but I haven’t turned up any. (We discussed the older word aquerne, from Old English acweorna, here.)


  1. (I assure you, it is pure coincidence that there are two squirrel posts in a row. I once had three Latin-titled posts in a row, equally unpremeditated.)

  2. Red squirrels are called “boomers” in the Appalachian mountains. I’m surprised there aren’t more words for such common little animals.

  3. 45 years ago I attempted to read Jean-Christophe in English translation several times, and abandoned it each time. I haven’t looked at it since. I assume that it belonged to my mother.

    In Le Guin’s essay “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown” (1975), she restates this view thus:

    So then let me play my own enemy for a little, and try to argue the other side: the antinovel, or postnovel, point of view, which says that science fictioneers will never be novelists, and a good thing too.

    From this point of view, the novel, the novel of character, is dead — as dead as the heroic couplet, and for the same reason: the times have changed. Such writers as [Edmund] Wilson and [Margaret] Drabble are mere epigones, draining the last dregs of an emptied cask; such writers as Bhattacharya and Garcia Marquez flourish only because their countries are marginal to the place of origin of the novel, which was late in arriving at the periphery and correspondingly late in dying there. The novel is dead; and the task, the hope, of a new form such as science fiction is not to continue the novel, or to revitalize it, but to replace it.

    There is, really, no Mrs. Brown anymore. There are only classes, masses, statistics, body counts, subscription lists, insurance risks, consumers, randomly selected samples, andvictims. Or, if somewhere beyond all the quantification some hint of quality remains, some wisp of Mrs. Brown, she is not to be reached any longer with any of the traditional tools of fiction. No one can catch her. She has been too profoundly changed by our life, and too rapidly changed. Mrs. Brown herself has attained the speed of light, and become invisible to our finest telescopes. What is “human nature” now, who dares talk about it seriously, in 1975? Has it any recognizable relation to what was called “human nature” in the novel a century ago, which we now see as one tiny, limited fragment of the vast range of human variety and potentiality?

    The subject matter of the novel was the conscious, articulate portion of the minds of certain Europeans and North Americans, mostly white, mostly Christian, mostly middle class, mostly quite unaffected by science and, though affected by technology, totally uninterested in it; a handful of natives intensely interesting to the to the ethnologist because of their elaborate developments of manners, and their extraordinary absorption in interpersonal relationships. They thought their nature was human nature; but we don’t, we can’t. They thought themselves a norm; we have no norm. Through technology, which lets us travel and converse, and through such sciences as anthropology and psychology, we have learned too much about the complexity and variety of human behavior and the even vaster complexity of the human mind, conscious and unconscious; we have learned, that is, that we really know almost nothing at all. Nothing solid is left, nothing to take hold of.

    [Comparison of Dickens’s character Mrs. Gamp with a hard-to-delineate 1975 American analogue omitted.] She doesn’t amount to enough. She is a drifter, a pawn, a fragment, jagged bits of a person never annealed, never grown to a whole. Is there enough of her, indeed, to enter a novel as a real character, enough to paint a portrait of? Isn’t she, aren’t we all, too battered, too changed and changeable, too whirled about, future- shocked, relativized, and inconstant, ever to sit still for a painted portrait, ever to stay still long enough that the slow, clumsy art of the novelist can catch up with us?

    Click, the camera-eye — a moment, not a person, not a portrait, only a single moment implying nothing before or after, no continuity, click. And the whirr of the movie camera, catching the moment as it dissolves into the next, unrelated moment. These are our arts. The technological arts, dependent upon an incredible refinement of machinery and a vast expense of mechanical energy, expression of a technological age. There is poetry, still, but there is no more Mrs. Brown. There are snapshots of a woman at various moments. There are moving pictures of a woman in various places with various other persons. They do not add up to anything so solid, so fixed, so Victorian or medieval as a “character” or even a personality. They are moments; moods; the poetry of flux; fragments of the fragmented, of the changing of the changed.

    Do we not see this foreshadowed in the art of Virginia Woolf herself?

    And what is science fiction at its best but just such a “new tool” as Mrs. Woolf avowedly sought for fifty years ago, a crazy, protean, left-handed monkey wrench, which can be put to any use the craftsman has in mind — satire, extrapolation, prediction, absurdity, exactitude, exaggeration, warning — an infinitely expandable metaphor exactly suited to our expanding universe, a broken mirror, broken into numberless fragments, any one of which is capable of reflecting, for a moment, the left eye and nose of the reader, and also the farthest stars shining in the depths of the remotest galaxy?

    If science fiction is this, or is capable of being this, a true metaphor to our strange times, then surely it is rather stupid and reactionary to try to enclose it in the old limits of an old art — like trying to turn a nuclear reactor into a steam engine. Why should anyone try to patch up this marvelously smashed mirror so that it can reflect poor old Mrs. Brown — who may not even be among us anymore? Do we care, in fact, if she’s alive or dead?

    Well, of course Le Guin does.

  4. I think векша was the name of the smallest coin in ancient Russia. Didn’t know it actually meant a squirrel.

  5. I don’t know whether the New England Transcendentalists count as dialect, but Thoreau told us that the red squirrel was also called chickaree and Emerson’s “Fable” about the mountain and the squirrel gave the latter protagonist as bun (the non-diminutive of bunny, I suppose).

  6. January First-of-May says

    And my question for English-speakers is: are there any English dialect words for ‘squirrel’? You’d think there would be, but I haven’t turned up any.

    I’m not really an English speaker, but a Google search attempt turned up scug or skug (supposedly “Hants.” – whatever that means – according to an 1840 dictionary; shows up in many other places), con (said to be “Cumbrian” on one website, but I was unable to find more references – it didn’t help that the word is very common in other meanings), and chickaree (apparently a common term, of onomatopoeic origin, for some North American squirrel species; might not really count as “dialectal word for ‘squirrel'” as such because it appears to be limited to those two or three species).
    Oh, and apparently bun used to refer to squirrels as well as rabbits (as also noted by the commenter above).

    There are apparently also surprisingly many dialectal and otherwise local terms for assorted “ground squirrels” (Marmotini) – which might or might not be included in your “squirrel” category.


    I think векша was the name of the smallest coin in ancient Russia. Didn’t know it actually meant a squirrel.

    I wondered why that word seemed familiar! IIRC, веверица is another contemporary synonym (i.e. an even more archaic Russian word for “squirrel” that also referred to a small trade value).

    To clarify, both terms comes from the period where coins, as such, were not minted in Russia (or, at least, not in any significant quantities), and foreign coins and assorted other objects were used for trade; so far as I understand, there is some considerable debate whether the low-value trade objects denoted by векша and веверица were actual squirrel skins or not (IIRC, modern opinion is on the “not literally squirrels” side).

  7. Hants. is Hampshire.

  8. The OED historical thesaurus includes cat-squirrel (grey s.), picket-pin (ground s.), mountain boomer (American red s.) and the obsolete calaber (originally the fur, ultimately named after Calabria).

  9. January First-of-May says

    Hants. is Hampshire.

    That’s what I thought it was, but I wasn’t sure enough to say it definitely.

  10. Native Russian speaker here, Leningrad/SPb born (1969) and bred. To me, векша feels archaic or dialectal (Siberian?), something one may stumble upon in Dal’s dictionary for instance; definitely not a part of one’s active vocabulary. Then again, there exists a surname Векшин (if memory serves it was used in the hugely popular miniseries “Место встречи изменить нельзя”), so there.

  11. To me, векша feels respectably old-fashioned, archaic perhaps; if dialectal, then Northern, from the woods rather than from the steppes. It’s more or less obvious (although possibly wrong) that белка used to denote some other furry animal – squirrels are seldom if ever white.

    I suspect that I learned веверица from Nabokov, who hypothesized its affinity with “vair” (which I had only seen in a poem by Edith Sitwell).

  12. Trond Engen says

    The equation “small coin” = “squirrel hide” is very old. There’s an ancient Germanic borrowing in Finnish that shows this brilliantly

    (No references or further details. It’s Christmas Eve and I’m cooking.)

  13. To me, векша feels archaic or dialectal (Siberian?), something one may stumble upon in Dal’s dictionary for instance; definitely not a part of one’s active vocabulary.

    To me, векша feels respectably old-fashioned, archaic perhaps; if dialectal, then Northern, from the woods rather than from the steppes.

    Thanks, that gives me a good sense of it! And thanks to those who supplied English dialect words; the problem with them is that all of them are meaningless except to speakers of the dialect, whereas векша, though archaic/dialectal/old-fashioned, is apparently well enough known to Russian-speakers to be usable in literature. I was hoping for some way to translate it without using “squirrel,” but apparently not.

  14. It’s Christmas Eve and I’m cooking.

    What are you making?

  15. You also hear “tree-rat” sometimes. I don’t know if that helps.

  16. What are you making

    I’m afraid I must disappoint the Norwegian-American. We eat turkey on Christmas Eve. With rødkål, peas, prunes, and potatoes — and my wife’s waldorf salad. But we’ll have ribbe tomorrow.

    Merry Christmas to all!

  17. Thanks, and god jul to you all!

  18. I thought I’d look into the question of English dialect words for ‘squirrel’. Unfortunately, the EDD Online is now the EDD Offline, and the versions at the Internet Archive are hard to use. I found that Amazon is selling the whole work as an e-book for two bucks, but it’s not searchable. So no luck.

  19. A sad off-topic: it was announced today that Andrei Zaliznyak (Андрей Зализняк) died aged 82. He was a wonderful linguist (who proved inter alia that the abovementioned “Слово о полку Игореве” was a genuine 12th century text rather than a later forgery), and his yearly reports on newly found and deciphered birch bark manuscripts, fortunately still available on YouTube, are a delight to watch.

  20. The equation “small coin” = “squirrel hide” is very old.

    So I guess a hundred squirrel hides are worth a deer hide, or buck.

  21. E. M. Forster wrote an appreciation of the recently deceased Romain Rolland for The Listener. Forster aims to explain why Rolland had been forgotten since just before the first world-war. (What he has to say about Germany and heroes is no doubt colored by this being written in March ’45, in the midst of the second.)

  22. At one point, DARE queried its respondents about the word “squirrel,” but the results suggest that for the more part a squirrel is a squirrel is a squirrel. http://dare.wisc.edu/survey-results/1965-1970/fishing-hunting-wildlife/p27

  23. marie-lucie says

    January: chickaree (apparently a common term, of onomatopoeic origin, for some North American squirrel species

    “Onomatopoeic origin” is often blamed for the lack of possible cognates. I think it is more likely that the word is of American Indian origin. Onomatopoeia, an imitation of a sound or sound sequence is common for names of birds with distinctive cries, but not so much for mammals, even small ones.

  24. A sad off-topic: it was announced today that Andrei Zaliznyak (Андрей Зализняк) died aged 82.

    Damn, I’m sorry to hear that. Thanks for sharing the news.

    So I guess a hundred squirrel hides are worth a deer hide, or buck.


  25. The Comparative Siouan Dictionary shows various Siouan languages with ‘squirrel’ words such as Omaha-Ponca sį́ga, and warns, “it looks as if this is a diffused form more than a collection of cognates. Look-alikes in Tunica and Keresan would tend to confirm this latter analysis.”

  26. “Flickertail” is a name for the Richardson’s Ground Squirrel, and North Dakota is called the Flickertail State.

    And California Ground Squirrels are sometimes known as “beach squirrels,” at least in coastal San Diego, due to their dwelling on and in the coastal cliffs.

  27. Thanks, I can see using “flickertail” even if it’s not known to many readers as a word, because it’s transparent enough to give a general idea!

  28. January First-of-May says

    Damn, I’m sorry to hear that. Thanks for sharing the news.

    Me too. I just barely missed his annual lecture a few years back, and wanted to visit one eventually.
    I think I got to meet him in person at least once, but I’m not even sure of that…

    I think it is more likely that the word is of American Indian origin.

    This is effectively my default conjecture for weird words limited to North America, but all the sources I consulted said “onomatopoeic”, so I went with that.
    (Mind you, there are plenty of other sources for weird North American terms – both bison and grizzly have perfectly fine European etymologies…)

  29. The one thing about chickaree is that it’s attested as early as 1829 (Fauna boreali-americana, or, The zoology of the northern parts of British America: containing descriptions of the objects of natural history collected on the late northern land expeditions, under command of Captain Sir John Franklin, R.N.). That limits the languages from which the word could have come. That book considers the word an onomatopoeia, based on the squirrel’s call, and lists two native words, neither of which resembles chickaree (“Aroussen. Hurons” and “Annekcootchas. Cree Indians.”)

  30. January: Mind you, there are plenty of other sources for weird North American terms – both bison and grizzly have perfectly fine European etymologies…

    These two are not what I would call weird: le bison is a French word with nothing odd about it, of Germanic origin according to the TLFI; and grizzly is probably based on grizzled, referring to the silvery tips of some grizzlies’ fur.

    Y: the squirrel’s call
    I will have to bow to the opinion of persons who have heard a squirrel, I haven’t, although I have seen many.

    Chickaree is very similar to chickadee, the onomatopoetic name of a bird.

  31. Grizzly, at least, is perfectly transparent in English.

  32. David Marjanović says


    Blaukraut bleibt Blaukraut und Brautkleid bleibt Brautkleid.

    (Ten times fast.)

    Called -kohl in the north and -kraut in the south, and Rot- or Blau- in a bewildering patchwork depending on how much acid is involved in the traditional local way of preparing it. If you add apples, as they do in Vienna for example, it turns a redder shade of purple than otherwise.

  33. We call it czerwona kapusta ‘red cabbage’ in most varieties of Polish, but here in Wielkopolska (“Greater Poland”, including the urban dialect of Poznań) it’s modra [mʷɜdrɔ] kapusta ‘blue cabbage’.

  34. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says

    Also in (Upper) Silesia modro kapusta.

  35. Allan from Iowa says

    My boyfriend’s family (from the West Coast, with roots in Utah and Oklahoma) says “squinny” for the striped ground squireel.

  36. It seems they’ve got squinnies (Ictidomys tridecemlineatus) in Des Moines, too.

  37. A great word — I have to admit I’d be tempted to use it to translate векша!

  38. marie-lucie says

    Wikipedia has squinney for the singular.

  39. Russian Wikipedia gives векша as a synonym of белка обыкновенная (Sciurus vulgaris). Strangely, it indicates final stress in this word (векша́), which I’m pretty sure is a mistake, perhaps showing that whoever put it there was not really familiar with its pronunciation.

    In Poland we have four species of sciurid rodents: the alpine marmot or świstak (Marmota marmota), found only at high elevations in the Tatra Mountains, two rare and critically endangered ground squirrels (sousliks) of the genus Spermophilus (Pol. suseł, Russ. суслик), and the Eurasian red squirrel or wiewiórka (= белка обыкновенная). The last one, being common, eminently cute and synanthropic, is one of those wild animals that practically every child has seen. I don’t know of any dialectal synonyms (the Old Polish variant wiewierzyca originally referred to the squirrel itself but survived longest in the sense ‘squirrel skin’). The word has been covered here on LH.

  40. Strangely, it indicates final stress in this word (векша́), which I’m pretty sure is a mistake
    This dictionary says you’re right.

  41. David Marjanović says

    I’ve been bold and fixed it. (It still has to be approved.) I had to cite this page, though, because academic.ru is blacklisted as spam…!

  42. I had a vague feeling that I had seen something similar somewhere. As it turns out, it was an inscription saying “Towarzystwo Akcyjne Warszawskiej Fabryki wyrobów Metalowych – Marcin Weszicki” on an old mess tin. (Well, the original inscription is in Russian, which the software won’t let through).

    And now back to linguistics:

    Here are some of the lexicons people are making available to be viewed online or downloaded.
    Please let us know when you put your lexicon online or if you know of others that exist by emailing support1@lexiquepro.com.

  43. My grandma called вЕкша my little step sister when she behave bad.

  44. January First-of-May says

    and his yearly reports on newly found and deciphered birch bark manuscripts, fortunately still available on YouTube, are a delight to watch

    Finally got around to watching them this week, and yes, they’re a delight!

    (Though I only seriously considered posting about that on LH when I happened to notice him, in the 2017 report, giving “Slavomir” as an example of a pre-Christian name [31:31 on the video, phrase starts a few seconds earlier], and found it a sufficiently interesting coincidence to be worth posting here.)

  45. The equation “small coin” = “squirrel hide” is very old.

    History and Etymology for tiyn
    Kazakh tiɨn, tɨyɨn kopeck, literally, squirrel, squirrel skin (formerly used as currency)


    From Proto-Turkic *dEgiŋ (“squirrel”).

    IPA(key): /tijin/
    تىيىن • (tiyin)

    1. squirrel (mammal)
    2. kopeck (one-hundredth of a ruble)


  46. David Eddyshaw says

    The equation “small coin” = “squirrel hide” is very old

    Similarly with cowries in West Africa:


    In many languages “cowries” remains the ordinary word for “money” (e.g. Kusaal la’af “cowrie”, ligidi “cowries, money.”) Yoruba has a whole series of numbers for counting money based on owó “cowrie.”

    The conversion rate when cowries ceased to be legal tender was 20,000 cowries to five shillings. According to Teach Yourself Yoruba, older people (as of 1969) still used ẹgbàá “2000 cowries” for “sixpence”, and ọkẹ kan “one sack” for “five shillings.”

    Presumably by inflation, Kusaal yɔlʋg and Hausa jaka “sack” mean “£100” (or 100 Ghanaian cedis, which was very much less than £100 by the time I lived in Ghana.)

  47. Kusaal la’af “cowrie”, ligidi “cowries, money.”

    I’m almost afraid to ask, but are those related?

  48. David Eddyshaw says

    Oh, yes. I’m glad you asked! So glad!

    The whole noun class is moribund in Kusaal, but still pretty robust in some other Oti-Volta languages. The umlaut of /a/ to /i/ before pl -i is regular, at least insofar as it makes sense to call any member of such a small class regular; so also naaf “cow”, pl niigi, waaf “snake”, pl wiigi. In some words the pl vowel has been backported into the sg, eg miinf “okra seed”, pl miini beside ma’an “okra plant”, pl ma’ana.

    The sg la’af “cowrie” (which can also mean “very small coin”) is the regular outcome of *lagfʊ by rules which delete *g after low vowels, with laryngealisation of the vowel if it is short; these rules are still synchonically active.

    The -d- of the pl ligidi actually is exceptional, but not unparalleled (cf wief “horse”, pl widi; insertion of d turns up within a number of noun paradigms, sometimes as a repair strategy when a stem ending in a vowel adds a flexion beginning with a vowel.

    The prehistory of the noun class plural ending -i in Oti-Volta is unclear; like the much commoner pl ending -a, it has almost certainly lost an original initial consonant, but it’s not clear what that consonant originally was, or even what its position of articulation was. The various different Oti-Volta branches have adopted different strategies for the case where these endings are added to stems ending in vowels. There’s evidently been a whole lot of levelling and analogy.

  49. I love that stuff, so I’m glad I bit the bullet and asked!

  50. Trond Engen says

    There should be a map dividing the world into pre-monetary currency areas.

    How and when did Cowrie money spread to West Africa?

    Synchronity: Also, how do commodity money fint into Graeber’s accounr of the money/barter dichotomy?

  51. David Eddyshaw says

    This paper, linked form the one I linked above, is quite forthcoming:


  52. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s an interesting question what the various West African words for “cowrie” meant before there were cowries for them to refer to. (I never thought about this before.)

    The *lag- etymon which shows up in Kusaal must surely itself be old*. Its flexion is certainly of an ancient type, and AFAIK there isn’t any other obvious candidate with the same sg/pl patterning that might have served as a template for analogical remodelling of a loanword (a thing which is in general pretty widespread: elsewhere I’ve mentioned the highly irregular Kusaal lɔr “lorry”, plural lɔɔm; motor cars were probably not a feature of early Oti-Volta culture, nevertheless.)

    Moreover, the same etymon is extremely widespread within all of Oti-Volta, and the forms look as if they were all inherited from the protolanguage. Still, even before this particular question occurred to me, I noticed some oddities: for example, Waama, which is about as remote as can be from Kusaal within Oti-Volta, has díkítífā sg “cowrie.” This looks obviously remodelled from the plural: but Waama doesn’t have umlaut before the plural noun class suffix -i, so this suggests that the word is actually borrowed from Western Oti-Volta (cf Kusaal ligidi: the initial d for l and devoicing of the stops are areal features of the Atakora département of Benin where Waama is spoken.)

    Word for “money” are obviously good candidates for borrowing on first principles, after all.

    *It is homophonous (including tone) with the stem that turns up in Kusaal as lauk “item of goods”, pl la’ad “goods, merchandise”; as one of the two semantic fields associated with the noun class that la’af ~ ligidi belongs to is “small round things that usually come in large numbers”, I suppose that it’s conceivable that the primary meaning might have just been “seed-like things used in commerce.”

  53. Trond Engen says

    David E.: This paper, linked form the one I linked above, is quite forthcoming:

    Whoops, I missed your link, so thanks! Very interesting.

  54. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s a very interesting account both in economic and human terms. There are also numerous passages which appeal to my vicarious pride in the independent and enterprising spirit of the vigorous peoples of French West Africa, e.g.

    An additional influence can be discerned in the administrators’ reactions to the rejection of the franc. Reading the periodic reports of the province, one cannot avoid the impression that, for the administrators, the stubborn refusal of the local population to abandon the shells was an affront to their vision of the world, to their authority,and even to their male ego. For many second-generation administrators of colonial West Africa, the cowry was a symbol of a primitive life style. How could such an insignificant shell stand in the way of their desire to steer the “big children” under their care toward the course of better existence? The preference for the cowry was an unambiguous contradiction of their understanding of civilizing mission, which threatened the wished-for meaning of the colonial conquest. Finally French suspicion of gender insubordination may have also arisen. The fact that women vendors refused to accept in the marketplace the French coins brought by their subordinates to buy food may have wounded their pride as Frenchmen.


    The population found this piece and the similar two-centime piece too light. The centime pieces that had been distributed immediately returned, because the people of the province made all the payments to the administration in them, to rid themselves of the coins. In response, in 1908 the administration declared that it would not accept the centime coins back, except as a small proportion of payments that were made mostly with larger denomination coins. Thus, the centime piece turned from being special-purpose money to having almost no purpose at all. Realizing that this economic policy did not inspire confidence, in 1909 the administration reversed its decision and declared that it would take all the centime pieces without limit. This time it ended up quickly with a much larger number of centime pieces than it had issued.

    Interesting about how the five-franc piece, specifically, was eventually successful. To this day, people in Burkina Faso and Togo count francs in fives, so that (for example) in Mooré a hundred-franc piece is called a pisi “twenty.”

  55. Stu Clayton says

    one of the two semantic fields associated with the noun class that la’af ~ ligidi belongs to is “small round things that usually come in large numbers”, I suppose that it’s conceivable that the primary meaning might have just been “seed-like things used in commerce.”

    What’s the other semantic field ? “Large non-round things that usually come in small numbers” ? Or perhaps “any kind of serrated leaf” ?

    What would be an analogy in English ? Let’s take the class of nouns that have only one form for singular and plural (ie have neither a singular nor a plural). Does this class have more than one “semantic field” associated with it ? What advantages derive from thinking about word forms and meanings in this way ?

  56. January First-of-May says

    What would be an analogy in English ? Let’s take the class of nouns that have only one form for singular and plural (ie have neither a singular nor a plural). Does this class have more than one “semantic field” associated with it ?

    Well, if it’s the class I think it is, it does have at least one semantic field, as witnessed by the relatively recent (Algonquian) loanword moose being placed into that class precisely because it fell into an appropriate semantic field (as discussed previously on LH).

    That said, African noun classes are usually treated as if they were genders rather than declensions; I’m not sure to what extent this is an appropriate way of thinking about them in (what I understand to be) a typical West African situation where there’s about a dozen (or more) different ones and none of them really correspond all that well to what we think of as noun gender.

  57. John Emerson says

    On squirrelskins (above): Susan Sontag’s birth father, Jack Rosenblatt, dealt in furs in Inner Mongolia but died there in on 1938!when she was 5. Since I’ve known that I’ve thought that the world would be a better place if she had spent a couple of her teen years in Mongolia helping out, but fate would not have that.

  58. David Eddyshaw says

    What’s the other semantic field ?

    Large animals.
    There have been spirited attempts to bring this together with “small round things usually seen in large numbers”, which boil down to making the singular suffix “singulative” and proposing that the animals are of sorts normally seen in flocks/herds, but frankly that doesn’t really work (e.g. “cow”, sure, but not “horse” for example.)

    It seems much more likely that two originally distinct classes have simply fallen together formally, a process which has demonstrably happened elsewhere in Oti-Volta.

    As January says, Niger-Congo noun classes are basically genders, except that there are normally many more of them than three, and sex is the one thing that they don’t mark. Like grammatical genders, noun classes correlate with semantics but very imperfectly, to the degree that the meaning of a noun only predicts its class accurately in relatively marginal cases. It works a bit better the other way round with two of the classes in Oti-Volta, one of which has exclusively human membership, and another of which is nearly all liquids, substances, and abstractions. Otherwise, the bigger the class, the less correlation with meaning (though there is always some correlation.)

    Kusaal, like most of Western Oti-Volta, has given up grammatical agreement, so the classes no longer function like grammatical genders; but they’re still a thing for noun morphology.

  59. David Eddyshaw says

    The correlation of noun class with meaning is robust enough that it is exploited in noun derivation, as, for example, siinf “bee” beside siind “honey”, or Kʋsaas “Kusaasi people” beside Kʋsaal “Kusaal language.”

    So specialisation of the stem *lag- “item for trade” into “small round item for trade, usually seen in large numbers” by inflecting it with the fu/i class suffixes, is in accordance with how these languages work.

    It would imply that all the Oti-Volta languages other than the Western group have actually borrowed the word for “cowrie” from Western Oti-Volta (because of the umlaut thing), but that is historically quite plausible in view of the fact that the dominant precolonial kingdoms in that area used Western Oti-Volta languages.

  60. David Eddyshaw says

    The paper I linked above also points out that the cowrie performed much better in the end with respect to inflation than either the French franc or (even) gold. Anybody who changed all their francs into cowries and held their nerve up until the final demonetisation of the cowrie* would have made a huge financial killing. Bitcoin, nothing.

    *And beyond: they are so valuable now that it would be (as the author says) it would probably be worthwhile for some entrepreneur to reestablish the import trade in cowries to West Africa.

  61. Fascinating!

  62. John Cowan says

    Grizzly, at least, is perfectly transparent in English.

    So much so that I have seen it in edited print for grisly (a grizzly horror is not one caused by the sight of a bear) and in Dhalgren for gristle-ly, where it is used to describe the tactile quality of a human clitoris.

    at least insofar as it makes sense to call any member of such a small class regular

    Come, come: most of the surviving members of the n-declension in Modern English has perfectly regular plurals: ox:oxen, box:boxen ‘generic computer’, VAX:VAXen, Macintosh:Macintoshen. It’s true that child:children is a double plural, and fox:vixen, well, ….

  63. January First-of-May says

    I like to joke that “chicken” is actually the plural – the singular being “chick”.

    Bitcoin, nothing.

    The point with bitcoin, as I understand it, is that it had a microscopically low value for a while; anyone who bought bitcoins in 2010 and still has them would be ludicrously wealthy now, because at the time they were routinely traded in hundreds and thousands for nominal amounts in regular currency.

  64. David Eddyshaw says

    surviving members of the n-declension in Modern English

    A couple of centuries ago, when cowries first came on the scene in West Africa, the fu~i noun class and its umlauting plural were very likely fully productive in Western Oti-Volta languages. Even now, in the two Western Oti-Volta languages which still have the whole system of grammatical agreement by noun class, Farefare and Boulba, the class keeps its own separate 3rd person pronouns and so on. So, historically, it’s much less of a relic than the “ox(en)” type in English. Even in Kusaal, there are at least a couple of dozen words which always or sometimes show endings from this class (including malif “gun”, loaned ultimately from the Arabic midfaʕ, which has got assimilated to the pattern of mɔlif “gazelle” and makes its plural as mali, though sadly not *mili. The equivalent of “boxen”, I guess.)

  65. John Emerson says

    The noun classes of those African languages reminds me of the differences in classifiers/measures in Chinese. Sometimes the Chinese is similar to the English, as when you say “a pound of beans” or “ a quart of water”. And in general you use the empty classifier “ge” which just is grammatical :” yige dongxi “ = “one thing”. But many classes of nouns have designated classifiers, so you say “yizhi yu” which means “a length of fish”, like “a length of rope”, since most fish are sort of long. There are quite a number of such classes with designated classifiers, and usually they’re hard to make real sense of. Unfortunately, it’s been 35+ years and that’s all I remember; Classical Chinese, which I mostly study, doesn’t use classifiers.

    The jokes come easily, though I doubt that the Chinese find them very funny. I once showed my class a picture of a flat fish and asked if it would be called “yizhang yu”, with the measure for flat things. They liked me and were polite, and they would have been polite anyway because I was The Teacher, but I had the idea that they thought that it was a dumb joke, and that if they laughed they were just humoring me.

    The jok

  66. January First-of-May says

    The noun classes of those African languages reminds me of the differences in classifiers/measures in Chinese.

    I wanted to mention East Asian classifiers as a comparison, but didn’t recall the correct term for those and wasn’t sure if “count words” would be understood correctly.

  67. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s true that child:children is a double plural

    It’s just occurred to me that the mysterious -d- in ligidi “cowries” and its Western Oti-Volta cognates is also very likely to go back to a double plural (the analogy I drew with wief “horse” pl widi above doesn’t really work, because the -d- there is stem-final, and has been lost in the sg via a consonant cluster assimilation rule df -> ff.) The first pl suffix is the of the gʊ/dɪ class to which Kusaal lauk “piece of goods”, la’ad “goods” belongs, and the fʊ/i plural suffix has been added after that.

    This is actually not at all farfetched for Oti-Volta; there are a good many examples within the family of stem-plus-class-suffix combinations being reinterpreted as bare stems, with further suffixes being superadded; it’s a fairly natural consequence of the way that bare noun stems constantly occur as complete (though right-bound) words before adjectives and demonstratives. Furthermore, vowel-initial flexional suffixes get reinterpreted by taking stem-final consonants as part of the flexion, consonant-initial flexions get reinterpreted as vowel-initial by resegmenting the consonant as belonging to the stem, and hilarity ensues.

    @JE, JFoM:

    Greenberg himself hypothesised that Niger-Congo noun class systems originated from something like a classifier system, and there are indeed a lot of analogies even synchronically, though NC noun classes are much closer to grammatical gender in terms of apparent arbitrariness.
    There’s quite a literature about the whole grammatical-gender/noun-class/classifier thing; Alexandra Aikhenvald, in particular, has written whole books about it.

    From an Anglophone standpoint (though not so much from the Welsh) it’s remarkable just how very popular more or less arbitrary grammatical gender systems are among the languages of the world. Must fulfil some basic human need …

  68. PlasticPaddy says

    Clearly you did not absorb enough vitalist/animist principles whilst in Africa and remain an unrepentant Calvinist, hardened against the syllogism:

    All things have life.
    Living things are not eternal.
    Since there is life, life must be maintained by reproduction or spontaneous generation.
    There is evidence for reproduction but no clear evidence for spontaneous generation.
    Therefore most things we observe result from reproduction.
    Reproduction is most commonly sexual.
    Therefore most things have sexes.

  69. David Eddyshaw says

    And yet, in Ghana, nothing has a sex, including people (linguistically.) Even the Hausa have abandoned their beloved masculine/feminine grammatical gender, inherited from the legendary Proto-Afroasiatics, the People Without Vowels.

    These are deep waters.

    “God” is one of the very few Maasai nouns which is always feminine gender (along with “meat”, “milk” and “fire.”) They do these things differently in East Africa.


  70. David Marjanović says

    and fox:vixen, well, ….

    That’s just vowel reduction gone a little bit too far: it corresponds precisely to Fuchs : Füchsin. …OK, there’s also a Northwest Germanic u/o mess in there.

    “yizhi yu”

    No, zhī is the one used for land animals; the one for “elongate objects like ‘street’, ‘fish’, ‘pants'” is tiáo.

    Must fulfil some basic human need …

    Looks like it’s a surprisingly stable sink for various entropic processes.

    They do these things differently in East Africa.

    Does remind me of “women, fire, and dangerous things”.

  71. Does remind me of “women, fire, and dangerous things”.

    Exactly what I thought of.

  72. John Emerson says

    Thank you David. I had forgotten and was too lazy to look it up.

  73. Unfortunately, the EDD Online is now the EDD Offline

    It appears to be online again and searchable.
    The dialect words included for squirrel are:

    Cat-swirrel; Coggy; Con (also conn); Pug; Puggy; Scopperil (also scopperel, scopperill, scawprel, scop-a-diddle, scoperal, scoperel, scoperell, scoperil, scopper, scopperalt, scopperdil, scoppril, scoprel, scopril, skoperil, skopperdiddle, skopril); Scropel; Scrug; Scug; Squib; Squog; Swirrel; Vair

  74. OK, there’s also a Northwest Germanic u/o mess in there.

    Well, that gets us to OE fox:fyxen, but then when /y/ changed at the end of the OE period, the feminine form became /vɪksən/ in West Midlands ME, but /fʊksɘn > fʌksən/ in East Midlands.

  75. John Cowan says

    Perhaps the objection to fuxen was that it sounded too much like a ME infinitive.

    One of Larry Niven’s intelligent species are the fuxes, where the allusion is plainly deliberate. Their lifecycle is “virgin female with six legs” > mother with four legs > male with two legs”, with the two litters of eggs gestated in the dropped hindquarters.

  76. David Eddyshaw says

    Just happened to be looking at the Kusaal malif “gun” (ultimately from Arabic, as I said above) when it occurred to me to wonder why such a recent invention has such a nice short word for it in English; and discovered that it seems to be from the girl’s name “Gunnhild”:


    Who knew? (Well, not me, obviously.) Like “Big Bertha” avant la lettre.
    What is it with artillerymen and girls?

  77. David Marjanović says

    Well, a girl with an unusually fitting name, very much unlike Bertha (*Berhta).

  78. It is rude to tell a lady she’s a pleonasm.

  79. David Eddyshaw says

    True. The young lexicographers of today have no manners.
    At least it’s better than being called a nonce form.

  80. Trond Engen says

    You shouldn’t discuss a lady’s forms at all, let alone the compounding elements.

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