Anglish Redivivus.

Back in 2017 I posted about a crackpot theory of the Germanic presence in Britain called “Anglish and English: Why our language is 750 and not 1,500 years old”; Yvy tyvy commmented: “When I saw the word ‘Anglish,’ I thought this was going to be about modern English without borrowings. I am saddened.” Well, let the unsaddening begin, because that’s the point of anglish.org:

What is Anglish?

Anglish is a kind of English which prefers native words over those borrowed from foreign languages. Anglish is linguistic purism applied to English.

For example:

Dictionary > Wordbook
Famous > Nameknown
Native > Inborn
Decide > Choose
Computer > Reckoner

This is achieved by simply choosing to use a native word over a borrowed word, or if there is no modern native word for a given concept, Old English words can be revived and updated to modern spelling and phonology to be used for a modern meaning.
[…]

More recently in the 21st century, author David Cowley has released his book called “How We’d Talk If the English Had Won in 1066“, among others, that goes into depth on the vocabulary and sound changes that happened to English as a result of Norman influence. Cowley is not the only one making new writings in and about Anglish, there are many online communities from YouTube to Reddit to Discord that generate new Anglish works on a regular basis. Many creators see this form of constrained writing as inspirational and challenging to their creativity.

As long as it’s just a stimulus to creativity and not a claim of superiority, I see nothing wrong with it. But I suspect the good people of the Anglish project (who sent me the link) expect more from it than it will give, and I’m also pretty sure that if the English had won in 1066 their language would have borrowed a lot of words anyway. That’s what languages do.

Gazabo II.

Back in the first year of this blog, I posted about the odd and enjoyable term gazabo, which came to prominence in the 1890s. Having revisited the post, I did a little googling and came across this early discussion of the word, a letter to the editor of The Book Buyer (Vol. XIII No. 12, Jan. 1897, pp. 954-55); it was so long and interesting I thought I’d give it its own post rather than include it as an addendum to the old one.

“GAZABO”

To the Editor of The Book Buyer

Dear Sir: It has been stated (with what gravity I cannot say) that on the announcement of the coming of Ian Maclaren, people began to form classes in Scotch, with a view to the fuller enjoyment of the order of literature which he represents. If, as I suspect, the movement had its origin with members of the same cult that organized the Browning Clubs, the fact would go to prove not alone our intellectual hospitality, but that craving for novelty which animates the reading public, even the more fastidiously critical. And where else can be found such novelty as in the untamed languages whose literature is mostly oral? I refer to Celt and Gael. In their familiar speech are words whose very sound might make us laugh or weep. Take, for instance, the pathos and pitying passion in the rhythm and cadence of the Celtic lullaby:

    ”Aziu, bye baby, Aziu, Aziu!”

I have seen paragoric-proof infants put to sleep in a few minutes by the magic iterance of those crooning syllables.

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Grandpa Moe’s Books.

Sadie Stein has an amusing and sobering (for us book hoarders) piece in the NY Times (archived) that begins:

When Grandpa Moe died, it took months and several rented skips to clear out the piles of rotted paper and the millions of printed words left behind. About a thousand books were salvageable. A guy my grandfather had met somewhere came and picked these up, and made them into “Moe’s Bookmobile” — a sort of performance-art-piece-cum-public-service that was, we all felt, very much in Moe’s spirit.

That spirit could be summed up in the slogan “So many books, so little time.” Indeed, the first time my grandfather saw these words, on a faded mug in the Goodwill’s homewares section, he was as electrified as a man encountering divine golden tablets. Here, in red Comic Sans, was his life philosophy.

Whether rooted in his unconventional childhood, his engineering training or something more mysterious, Grandpa Moe’s reading habits were … bizarre. He read incessantly, fanatically and promiscuously. He read, terrifyingly, behind the wheel of his jalopy; he read, constantly, against a corduroy Dutch Husband in a corrugated “book shed” — probably a valiant attempt by his wife to keep the chaos at bay — in his yard; he read multiple volumes at once, one in each hand, while he watched procedurals in his bedroom.

Did he “love to read”? Did he savor the smell of books? Almost certainly not; after a few California winters, most of his library just smelled like mildew and rats. The point — if there was one — seemed to be to cram in as many books as possible before meeting the nothingness his militant atheism mandated; his reading was frenzied and restless.

She goes on to talk about “opting for a touch of self-care: after a lifetime of climbing, I’m happy to stop and just enjoy the view,” but of course I’m fixated on Moe. I read a lot, but not — I think — “incessantly, fanatically and promiscuously.” Still, I’ll be leaving a lot of books for my heirs and assigns to deal with. What’s bothering me at the moment, however, is the phrase “Dutch Husband.” Neither my wife nor I was familiar with it; Urban Dictionary tells me it is “a long, usually rectangular shaped body pillow,” but it barely seems to exist in that sense — the vast majority of the hits are for actual husbands (“You want to find a Dutch husband, there are living millions Dutch husbands here”). Anybody familiar with the phrase and its history? (I also don’t think “husband” should be capitalized, but that’s on the Times copyediting staff, if they still have one.)

Through a Copyeditor’s Eyes.

Jeff Reimer at the Bulwark has one of the best descriptions of my former occupation that I’ve come across, The World Through a Copyeditor’s Eyes:

In general, there are four types of editing in the book world. Developmental editing takes place at the level of the big picture and organizing concepts. In line editing, an attentive editor will help a writer to say what they mean in a voice that best expresses the spirit of their ideas. Copyediting, my own domain, involves cleaving to the precepts of one style guide or another while making precise adjustments to word choice, order, rhythm, and so forth. And proofreading is a safari hunt for any last remaining typos and solecisms.

Because of the apparent overlap between the work of copyediting and line editing, some people conflate them, but those with correct opinions see them as distinct. Developmental editing and line editing both take place early in a book’s development, and they are both messy and more involved. Copyediting and proofreading come into play nearer to the end: They are the finish carpentry of the publishing process. The house is already built; we copyeditors arrive when the tarp is still on the floor to make sure joints and seams are properly aligned, that corners are sharp, and that there are no devils hiding in the details. […]

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Stray Phytotoponyms.

Via Laudator Temporis Acti, a quote from Gustaf Sobin’s Ladder of Shadows: Reflecting on Medieval Vestige in Provence and Languedoc:

For just as the flora has left its ghostly imprint embedded in so much fossilized matter, so, too, its memory has been sprinkled across the surface of innumerable church cartularies, bullaria, monastic records; been buried within the archival wealth of countless wills and testaments, marriage contracts, notarized deeds; or, occasionally, been inscribed across the surface of cadastral survey maps, outlining the limits of given properties. Within such documents, a stray phytotoponym—an oblique reference, say, to some olive grove offered up as part of a medieval dowry—gives researchers, on occasion, an invaluable aperçu of the floral environment of a particular locale at a given historical moment.

Fagus sylvatica, or common beech, is a perfect example in point. For the expanse that that tree once occupied can still be measured today, either by the lingering presence of ancient place-names in current usage or by the detection of such names in medieval records. In toponymic form, the tree appears under a variety of synonyms: Fage, Fau, Fagette, Fageas, Fayard, and so on. In each and every case, these place-names testify to a vanished environment. Infallibly, they indicate the exact location of forests that—in retracting—have left nothing for memento but their own estranged vocables. Among the many eloquent examples cited by Aline Durand, one in particular—drawn from a medieval cartulary— refers to a certain Faja oscura located in the Causse du Larzac. Faja signifies the tree itself, with all the nutritive oils inherent in its woody fruit, whereas oscura evokes the darkness, and thus the density, of those once-flourishing beeches. Long since converted into pastureland, that arboreal stand endures in a lone microtoponym: Lou Fagals. Mnemonic marker, it designates little more than a tiny ramshackle hamlet in the commune of Les Rives (Hérault).

The word—along with its residual counterpart, the fossil—bears witness to those vanished landscapes. Properly interpreted, its seemingly inconsequential particles, buried in so much somnolent documentation, allow one a glimpse—at least—of that lost ecology. It’s as if the word, as a token of human consciousness, had withstood the retraction and ultimate disappearance of that dense sylvatic canopy—that Faja oscura—in order to preserve the wood’s very memory. Even more, it serves to preserve our very own. For in that retraction and ultimate disappearance, the interface between culture and nature—cultum and incultum—has vanished as well. Only the word, it would seem, has withstood that spoliation. Having done so, it reminds us of a time in which the woods—the earth itself—hadn’t yet been sacrificed, alas, for the sake of ourselves alone.

Of course it’s wildly overstated (“In each and every case,” “Infallibly,” “exact location”), but it describes something real, and I confess I like that sort of thing even if I’m not a tree-hugger.

Amorite-Akkadian Bilinguals!

Andrew George and Manfred Krebernik have an article in Revue d’assyriologie et d’archéologie orientale (116 [2022]:113–166), “Two Remarkable Vocabularies: Amorite-Akkadian Bilinguals!” Here’s the abstract:

This article presents two previously unpublished Old Babylonian tablets on which are inscribed similar bilingual vocabularies. The language in their right-hand columns is Old Babylonian Akkadian. The language in their left-hand columns is mostly North-West Semitic, with some admixture of Akkadian. Editions of the two tablets are accompanied by a commentary which finds parallels for this language in the grammar and vocabulary of other Semitic languages. Evaluation of the results of this enquiry lead to the conclusion that the language of the left-hand columns is a variety of Amorite. The main part of the article concludes with consideration of the two vocabularies’ content, composition and intellectual background. An appendix offers an edition of a Middle Babylonian synonym list related in part to Malku V. It contains a passage on domestic and wild animals which collects mainly North-West Semitic words for domestic and wild animals and probably provides several further items of Amorite vocabulary. Finally we add an index of the words in the Amorite columns of the two Old Babylonian vocabularies.

The article itself is paywalled, but there’s a popular summary at Haaretz, “Two 3,800-year-old Cuneiform Tablets Found in Iraq Give First Glimpse of Hebrew Precursor“:

The two tablets were found in Iraq during the Gulf War and were transferred (some would say stolen) from there to a safe place overseas. However, they subsequently got swallowed up among thousands of other documents and archeological findings from the field. Only recently, more than 30 years after their discovery, did they catch the eye of two researchers. “Andrew George of the University of London and Manfred Krebernik of Germany’s University of Jena are the Ronaldo and Messi of the archeology world,” says Wasserman, as a way of making his field of scholarship more relatable for the wider public. […]

Cohen transcribed the Amorite/Canaanite text from cuneiform into Hebrew letters and presented a modern Hebrew translation. The result speaks for itself. The line ti -nam me -e la – a – i -de -ni translates to ten mayim al yadenu (“Give water on our hands”); ia – a – a -nam si -qí-ni – a -ti becomes yeinam shiqiniti (“Pour us wine”); si – ḫa šu -ul – ḫ a -nam is have et hashulhan (“Fetch the table”); la – a ḫ -ma -am bi -lam na – a -NAM is have lehem eleinu (“Bring us bread”); and bi -ik -ra -ti -ia za -ba – a – ḫa a -na DI ĜIR -ia la -am – [ti] -in equals et zevah bikurai lo eten le’eli (“I will make a sacrifice to my god”).

Thanks, Y and Dmitry!

A Syntactic Tangle.

I’m currently reading Спокойные поля [Peaceful fields] by Alexander Goldstein (or Goldshtein; see this post); it’s a real struggle because of his uniquely difficult prose. It’s not only that he uses unusual words and obscure cultural references; as Stanislav Lvovsky’s preface to my edition says, “все усложняющийся от книги к книге синтаксис в «Спокойных полях» временами совсем сходит с ума и отказывается говорить, сходит на бормотание, почти ремизовскую хлыстовскую скороговорку” [the syntax, increasingly complex from book to book, in Peaceful Fields at times goes completely out of its mind and refuses to speak, descending into mumbling, almost Remizovan Khlyst patter]. (Remizov had a notoriously complex style, but I don’t know what the Khlysts are doing here — perhaps a reference to his 1906 novella Чертик [The Little Devil], which features a very similar sect, or is there a Khlystov I’ve never heard of?) Here’s a sterling example, from the chapter На тропе [On the path]; I’m giving a substantial chunk for context, but the phrase that baffled me is in the last sentence (I’ve bolded it):

Месяца через три, через шесть, через девять, время имело иное значение, не мерилось привычной мерой, месяцы были иные, подвижные, яркие, с ящеричной повадкой, о них нельзя было знать, с какой скоростью, почтовой, курьерской, побегут минуту спустя, а взбрыкнут — совсем остановятся, что будет крайней, опаснейшей прытью, гнетущим сердцебиением и одышкой, выпаденьем то марта, то прериаля, то сентября, обморочной перетасовкой всей дюжины, ничего, обошлось, он сидел на прогретом камне в лесочке, босой, холщовые штаны, кобзарская рубаха, летатлин-бандурист. Складской запас маскарадный, личина телесного сокрывания, послеполуденный дремного отдыха театр — нет, не так, все не так: вещного мира, в котором одежда, не замечающий, вышел в первом, что приглянулось для пешего хода.

I’m not even going to try to translate it, but if you know Russian, you might take a moment to try to figure out why that phrase is in the genitive and what it depends on. In desperation, I wrote to the always helpful Anatoly, and his response is after the cut.
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Thy More Thy Merrier.

Frequent commenter ktschwarz made a Wordorigins post about the construction “the more the merrier,” pointing (with a sigh) to a meme that’s going around claiming that “the” here is “not the article […] it is a different word” meaning either ‘when’ or ‘then’: “‘The more, the merrier’ literally means ‘when more, then merrier.'” This is not even a little bit true; kts quotes a Twitter thread by linguist Danny Bate that begins:

‘The more, the merrier’ is an example of a comparative correlative.

The construction is formed through the pair ‘the… the…’ in Modern English – the two come from Old English ‘þȳ… þȳ…’ and are therefore relics of the instrumental, an extinct grammatical case of English.

That is to say, the ‘the’ in phrases like ‘the more, the merrier’ and the definite article come from different forms of the same word (Old English sē, sēo, þæt). The fact that the two are now identical in modern spelling and pronunciation is due to a later accident of history.

This is a nice similarity between English and Czech – the same construction also makes use of the instrumental case, which in Czech is alive and well. For example, the phrase ‘čím více tím lépe’ (‘the more, the better’) relies on the words čím and tím, both in the instrumental.

The OED has an entry the, adv. (updated June 2018), “Used with a following comparative adjective or adverb to emphasize the effect of circumstances indicated by the context”:
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Nabu-kusurshu.

This BBC Future piece by Sophie Hardach has a typically silly thumbsucker premise (“Here’s what they can teach us about crafting an immortal message”), but I liked the focus on one particular beer-brewing scribe. Here’s the start:

More than 2,000 years ago, in a temple in the city of Borsippa in ancient Mesopotamia, in what is now modern-day Iraq, a student was doing his homework. His name was Nabu-kusurshu, and he was training to be a temple brewer. His duties involved brewing beer for religious offerings, but also, learning to keep administrative records on clay tablets in cuneiform script, and preserving ancient hymns by making copies of worn-out tablets. These daily tasks, and his devotion to beer, writing and knowledge, made him part of an extraordinarily resilient literary legacy.

Cuneiform had already been around for roughly 3,000 years by the time Nabu-kusurshu picked up his reed stylus. It was invented by the Sumerians, who initially used it to record rations of food – and indeed, beer – paid to workers or delivered to temples. Over time, the Sumerian texts became more complex, recording beautiful myths and songs – including one celebrating the goddess of brewing, Ninkasi, and her skilled use of “the fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound“. When Sumerian gradually slid out of common use, and was replaced by the more modern Akkadian, scribes cleverly wrote long lists of signs in both languages, essentially creating ancient dictionaries, to make sure the wisdom of the oldest tablets would always be understood. 

Nabu-kusurshu’s generation, who would have spoken Akkadian or maybe Aramaic in everyday life, was among the last to use the cuneiform script. But he probably assumed that he was just one ordinary young writer in a long line of writers, preserving cuneiform for many more generations, under the benevolent eye of Nabu, the god of writing and “scribe of the universe”. He faithfully copied the old tablets, noting down for example that a Sumerian sign pronounced “u”, could mean marriage gift, burglar, or buttocks. He wrote on the tablets that he copied them “for his own study”, perhaps as practice or scholarship, and placed them in the temple as an offering.

“He’s learning how to write, and learning these lists, alongside other things, and then dedicating his work to the god Nabu and the temple,” says Jay Crisostomo, a professor of ancient Near Eastern civilisations and languages at the University of Michigan, who has studied Nabu-kusurshu’s tablets in depth.

It was these humble lists, quietly written in the shadow of a giant ziggurat – a pyramid-shaped stepped temple tower – that would earn Nabu-kusurshu immortality.

I’ve reproduced a couple of the links, but there are more at the original article, along with passages on Linear B and Mayan and a continuation about how you too can ensure that your message will last through the ages. Thanks, Trevor!

Language and Myth.

Via Laudator Temporis Acti, a quote from Stephanie W. Jamison, The Ravenous Hyenas and the Wounded Sun: Myth and Ritual in Ancient India (Cornell University Press, 1991), p. 39:

I assume that the language in which a myth is told is an integral part of the telling, not a gauzy verbal garment that can be removed without damage to the real meaning of the myth. The clues to contemporary understanding of myth often lie in its vocabulary and phraseology, which have complex and suggestive relationships with similar vocabulary and phraseology elsewhere. Examining other instances of the same words and phrases will often allow us to see these associations.

I think this is probably true of all mythology: that the verbal expression is of major importance and that abstracting themes or archetypes or patterns from their verbal expression does violence to the ‘meaning’ of the myth.

I am in hearty agreement. In general, it’s a bad idea to ignore the words in which people express things.