How Did Proto-Indo-European Reach Asia?

Dmitry Pruss sent me this press release from Leiden University:

Five thousand years before the common era (BCE), Proto-Indo-European, the mother of many languages that are spoken today in Europe, Central Asia and South Asia, originated in eastern Europe. PhD candidate Axel Palmér has combined a 175-year-old hypothesis with new techniques to demonstrate how descendants of this proto-language ended up in Asia. […]

‘Proto-Indo-European was probably spoken five thousand years ago between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea, north of the Caucasus,’ says Palmér, pointing to the blue area on the map. ‘We know it was subsequently also spoken in the area around the Ural Mountains, shown here in pink, and we suspected that it then spread further towards the south.’

This means that the languages would have made a large loop, instead of taking a more direct route through present-day Turkey. This hypothesis is partly based on DNA evidence. In 2015 researchers compared the DNA of people who lived along the route that Proto-Indo-European may have taken, with the DNA of human remains from the steppe where it first originated. ‘They also saw a pattern of people who did not go to Asia directly through Turkey, but first migrated towards the west and north,’ explains Palmér.

A problem with this DNA evidence, however, is that it doesn’t show which language the genetically related people actually spoke. Palmér therefore unearthed a different hypothesis, from 175 years ago. ‘The idea already existed that the Indo-Iranian language family was closely related to the Balto-Slavic language family, both descendants of Proto-Indo-European.’ A kinship of this kind between these language families would mean that there was indeed language contact between people living along the ‘loop’, which runs from the present-day Balkans to present-day India.

Palmér therefore scrutinised the vocabulary of both Balto-Slavic and Indo-Iranian and arrived at a list of 55 words that are only found in these families. […] Palmér also found another indication in favour of this hypothesis in the meaning of words. ‘In both Indo-Iranian and Balto-Slavic, I found words relating to agriculture,’ he says. ‘In the blue area you don’t find any evidence of agriculture.’ This would again suggest that the speakers of Proto-Indo-European migrated around the blue area in present-day Ukraine.

Dmitry is curious about Hatters’ thoughts on this, as am I. (The map referred to is at the link.)

Blooming Balderdash!

I picked the post title at random from the top row of words at this site, which features “Swear words and profanities from around the world,” because the apparent page title, &$!#%, didn’t work for me. The “Questions & Answers” section at the bottom says:

It’s a celebration of swearing. Because swearing is great!

Choosing the right swear word is one of life’s great pleasures. Perhaps it’s a muttered “dickhead” when you see that guy on the telly, or shouting “MOTHERFUCKER” with tears streaming down your face when you stub your toe on the bed for the third time in one morning. But the right word at the right time is a uniquely human joy.

I know the best swear word! Can you add it?

I would love to add your rude words. I’d especially like to hear more non-English swear words (so I can swear around the kids without them knowing) and obscure or regional vulgarities.

How did you decide how rude a word is?

Rudeness is complicated. In one sense, rudeness is highly subjective: what offends me might not offend you. But swearing is based on the breaking of taboos that are created by society at large, so there’s definitely a hierarchy of sorts, even if it’s unspoken and vague.

I reckon we in the UK could all agree that bonk is less rude than shag, which is less rude than fuck — the difficulty would be in putting an exact number on how vulgar a word is. So I’ve intentionally chosen a format that’s imprecise, and leaves room for your interpretation.

Obviously, this is my kind of site; I found it at MetaFilter via another post by the indefatigable and irresistible chavenet. …And on preview I discover that there is a different row of words at the top — I guess it changes constantly — so consider my title a snapshot of one magic moment in &$!#% history.

Caterva: The Summing Up.

When I first learned about Juan Filloy’s novel Caterva, I was intrigued, and now that I’ve finished it I’m glad I tackled it, even though for quite a while it looks like it’s a road to nowhere, just a jovial group picaresque. Paul Pickering describes it well in the TLS review quoted in that LH post (and available in full here):

As the book opens, a ragbag of magnificent drifters appears under a road bridge: “Not clustered in a heap like stones and boulders that just come rolling randomly along… but rather washed there by virtue of a secret current”. The wind blows like “a swarm of flies” and the glowering clouds “smell of sex”. There are seven drifters in total, a number that occurs throughout Filloy’s work, it being the number of letters in Joyce’s Ulysses, a novel that had a profound influence on Caterva with its bittersweet encyclopedic comedy and epic sweep. But this book is more uncompromising than Joyce’s novel, more akin to the gallows humour of Samuel Beckett.

These vagabonds travel under assumed names: Aparicio, “spectre”, is a veteran of the Uruguayan civil war; Dijunto, “dead man”, is a Spanish dirt farmer; Abd-ul “Katanga” ben-Hixem, “dung beetle”, is an exile from the Armenian massacres; Fortunato is from Prague; Longines is a Swiss cryptographer; Lon Chaney a Parisian jack-of-all-trades; and Viejo Amor an increasingly embarrassing Italian satyr. There is a tremendous energy to the vicious humour but also a lightness of touch as the rebel, left-wing band travel in box cars across the stark, forbidding Pampas, accused of giving money to striking miners, letting off bombs and incompetently fomenting revolution. They set out as “purposeful beggars” on “an ideal tour for the sake of others”. But Filloy is more concerned with his characters’ farcical inner lives than their political ones. On one level, the efforts of the gang to make good are a satire on Argentina and the South American condition: both travel great distances to arrive at the same place.

Spiky dialogue pinballs back and forth, sometimes obscene, sometimes philosophical. “There ought to be something like a poste restante for the soul! Places where the emotions of mysterious metapsychic correspondents can be rescued from oblivion or silence”, says Katanga, a “nudist by nature” who does exercises that “mimicked the beauty of the Muslim liturgy”. Occasionally, they are seduced by the scenery: “The pleasure produced by nature left them speechless. They turned their heads in slow, lingering delight. They drank it in. Perfumes of spearmint and peppermint. Warm exhalations from the nearby cliffs”.

There are a multitude of demented sub-plots on the journey, swirling around matters as disparate as the newly invented Swiss Army knife and a Nazi intrigue that involves the British Entomological Society and a very strange code–but these are not the point. It is the impossible solidarity of individuals that is important, as seen at Fortunato’s wake, which echoes a hospital drinking scene in Ulysses.

That should give you an idea of whether this is your sort of thing; if it is, I recommend you give it a try. I’ll add some passages of particular LH interest; first, a bit on cursing:
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I’ve almost finished Filloy’s Caterva (see this post), and I’ll be reviewing it soon, but at the moment I’m focused on a word that was new to me and that I originally thought must be a misprint. On p. 368 of my paperback edition I read the sentence “Death is an epiphonema” and thought “epiphenomenon” must be intended (the book is far from free of typos), but on investigation I discovered that it’s a real word. Wiktionary defines it as “(rhetoric) An exclamation or reflection used to summarise or round off an argument or discourse” and says it’s “From Latin epiphonema, from Ancient Greek ἐπιφώνημα (epiphṓnēma), from ἐπιφωνείν (epiphōneín, ‘call to’)”; the pronunciation is, as one would expect, /ˌɛpɪfəˈniːmə/. The OED (entry from 1891) has the following first and last cites:

1579 Such end, is an Epiphonema, or rather the moral of the whole tale.
E. K. in E. Spenser, Shepheardes Calender May 304 Gloss.
1870 The epiphonema to the daughters of Jerusalem has a subordinate significance as a refrain.
W. H. Green, translation of O. Zöckler, Song of Solomon 75/2 in P. Schaff et al., translation of J. P. Lange et al. Comm. Holy Script.: O. T. vol. X

Is anyone familiar with this recondite word?

Close Enough.

At some point this morning — I’ve already forgotten the context (it’s hot!) — I muttered “Close enough for government work,” and it occurred to me (not for the first time) that I have three such phrases in my quiver, identical in meaning and equivalent in usage (in other words, the choice on any given occasion is essentially random): “close enough for government work,” “close enough for jazz,” and “close enough for rock & roll.” That’s very odd, it seems to me; idioms may have variants, but a given person usually adopts and uses only one. Of course, I may simply not be remembering other similar cases (it’s hot). Wiktionary has close enough for government work and good enough for jazz (a variant I don’t think I’ve heard and wouldn’t use — to me, it sounds more contemptuous than “close enough”); in this Sax on the Web thread, the question is about where the saying “close enough for jazz” comes from, and 1saxman responds:

I never heard it that way before. I know it as ‘Close enough for rock & roll’. And in my ‘day’ career, it was ‘Close enough for government work’. You see, every field of endeavor has it’s own version. As to where the original version started, I have no idea, but it probably was involved with the Army. OTOH, the ‘government work’ version might be the original.

So there you have the result of my languid researches; all thoughts are, as ever, welcome. I’m going to go make some iced tea.

Pullet Surprise.

Yes, this is silly stuff, and it’s four decades old to boot, but it’s hot and muggy for the umpteenth day in a row and I can’t come up with anything serious, so enjoy Jack Smith’s “‘Pullet Surprise’: Years later, student’s coincidence is still, uh, malapropriate” (L.A. Times, Feb. 18, 1985; archived):

I have been troubled by an Associated Press story out of Orange Park, Fla., reporting what seems to me an incredible coincidence. I wasn’t going to take note of it here, but several clippings of it have been sent to me, from various newspapers, and I feel obliged to comment.

The story said that Jim Mattson, an English teacher at Orange Park High School, had been collecting his students’ malapropisms over a period of four years–both at Orange Park and during his previous assignment in Exeter, N.H., and it gave some examples. […] What troubled me, though, was a student’s malapropism that Mattson gave as one of his favorites: “In 1957, Eugene O’Neill won the Pullet Surprise.”

“I literally fell out of my chair laughing,” he said. “I was laughing so hard I was crying. I showed it to my wife and tears came down her cheeks.”

Alas, a dedicated schoolteacher named Amsel Greene, years before, and way out in Helena, Wyo., had had pretty much the same reaction when the same sentence turned up in one of her students’ papers: “In 1957, Eugene O’Neill won a Pullet Surprise” (the only difference being an a instead of a the). Like Mattson, Miss Greene was fascinated by these strangely logical errors, and had been collecting them with the idea that someday she would publish them in a book. But what to call it?

“Here was the term,” Amsel Greene wrote in her preface, “for which I had been groping. I had jotted down hundreds of classroom misinterpretations for which I had found no name. The terms boners, bloopers and booboos imply stupidity or inadvertence, whereas student errors are often marvels of ingenuity and logic. But Pullet Surprises sparked a Eureka response. Its rightness had the impact of revelation!”

See the link for more examples and the rest of Smith’s story; I generally roll my eyes at such lists, as I wrote here:

[…] bullshit forms reminiscent of those “Kids say the darndest things!” pseudo-mistakes some people e-mail lists of (Old-timer’s disease, a blessing in the skies, Carpool tunnel syndrome—this is the title of a book, and it’s a deliberate pun, for Chrissake!, Heineken remover—which they as good as admit is bullshit, &c &c)

But I have to admit, “Pullet Surprise” made me laugh. Thanks, Trevor!

Their About page says:

Why share untranslatable words?

They’re fun! They shed light on other cultures, reveal different patterns of thought, and spark our curiosity. Sometimes, they influence how we analyze and classify the world around us.

When they compiled their dictionary of Nootka, Edward Sapir and Morris Swadesh need not have included šiˑšaˑwiɬtaqyo “powered by a monstrous supernatural porcupine-like creature” because its meaning is predictable from its parts. But we think Sapir and Swadesh knew what they were doing as lexicographers, and that they chose to include this word because its meaning is so comical to westerners, and because it teaches us that “The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached” (Sapir, 1929, The status of linguistics as a science, p209). So, following the example of Sapir and Swadesh, the linguists contributing to this site want to share more of these `untranslatable’ words, and in the process, show why these small languages are distinctive, valuable, and powerful, each one a treasure for all the world.

After a couple of quotes about “Shamelessly exoticising others,” they say: “We walk a fine line: we celebrate popular interest in the exotic and while challenging the racism that lies behind it. This fascination with the exotic is the hook. We go further and invite visitors to this site to learn about real words, and the careful scholarship of the linguists who work so tirelessly to collect them.” The blog itself is here, and it’s very well done. The top entry at the moment is warr! [wa:] ‘an exclamation of surprise, to draw attention to something,’ from palawa kani, “the revived language of Tasmanian Aboriginal people,” and it includes a succinct description of how the language came to be and the history of the word. It’s nice to see someone doing something interesting with the tired concept of untranslatability; thanks, Y!

War Words.

A generous Hatter was kind enough to send me a birthday gift that arrived today and immediately demanded to be posted: a copy of War Words: Recommended Pronunciations (Pub. for the Columbia Broadcasting System by Columbia University Press, 1943), by W. Cabell Greet. You can see a HathiTrust copy of this first edition here (read-only) and an Internet Archive copy of the greatly expanded 1944 second edition here (Full text). It’s a kind of reference work I dearly love, done by a single person with care and a vigorous, sometimes cantankerous, style. From the Introduction: “The boldness and good humor of Australian pronunciations will please most Americans.” (The NY Times review gives as an example: “Their town of Wagga Wagga is to them simply Wogga.”) Under “The English Pronunciation of Foreign Names”:

Just as the names of the older countries and the principal regions of Europe have English variants — as Germany, Italy, and Spain for Deutschland, Italia, and España — many European cities, provinces, and rivers have, during the centuries, acquired English pronunciations and even English spellings, which are commonly preferred in English contexts. But of course for the most formal occasions and for musical programs, and also in the case of foreign speakers, the nuance of foreign pronunciations may be desirable. Announcers should know both.

Although the English forms are stable, there is here, as in all other aspects of language, the possibility of change. Nowadays the “French” pronunciations of Marseille and Lyon are probably better American usage than the Anglicized Marseilles and Lyons. We now pronounce Prague in the French style, ignoring the time-honored English variant, as well as the Czech and the German. One sign of the falling off of classical studies is a general ignorance of the English pronunciation of Greek place names. The press reports usually give English spellings which don’t quite make sense if they are pronounced as modern Greek, as, for example, Piraeus and Athens. If the classical traditions grow even weaker, such forms may be displaced. Piraeus, especially, gives trouble now.

News announcers when faced with the necessity of choosing between English and foreign pronunciations should of course use the pronunciations commonly employed in the comfortable English of educated people acquainted with the place and the subject. Names that are not on these lists probably have no English pronunciation, and they should be pronounced in foreign style. We cannot be so conservative (or so radical?) as the English family who, according to Mr. Calmer, spoke of happy holidays in Brittany and pronounced Saint Michel as if it were English Saint Mitchell.

One does not, of course, go to an eighty-year-old guide for help with current usage, but it’s an endless source of fascination if you want to know how things were said in earlier days, and Greet’s obiter dicta make great reading. Some examples:
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The Pittsburgh second person pronoun yinz has come up here before (e.g., in this 2005 thread); now Ed Simon has a whole LitHub essay about it (apparently an excerpt from his The Soul of Pittsburgh: Essays on Life, Community, and History), tying it to the Glaswegian yins:

The city center of Glasgow, Scotland—that iron-and-glass-forged, cobblestoned fortress of a hilly, rainy, foggy metropolis—is bisected by the dueling high streets of Buchanan and Sauchiehall. There are any number of landmarks to draw your attention if ambling down either of these bustling thoroughfares as the last squibs of Caledonian light fight their losing battle of attrition during a brisk November afternoon.

For six months in 2006, Glasgow was my home across the Atlantic, and I often spent those glum Scottish afternoons in precisely this sort of aimless wandering […] Glasgow, I thought, is kind of like Pittsburgh. And then, walking through Glasgow again, I hear it: “There was a couple other of yins as well.” What? […]

There is more than a spiritual congruence between Glasgow and Pittsburgh, as Kelman’s “yins” would indicate, the s that ends that word so perilously close a sibilant to the z in yinz and the words so nearly used identically. For those unfamiliar with yinz—though I imagine if you’re currently reading this book, you most likely know what it means, albeit it’s becoming increasingly rare in usage—it’s simply the Western Pennsylvania second-person plural, the Pittsburgh equivalent of y’all down South or youse in Jersey and New York.

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Alexander Germano.

Alex Foreman, in a Facebook post, linked to Elena Marushiakova and Vesselin Popov’s “Beginning of Romani literature: The case of Alexander Germano” (Romani Studies 5, 30.2 [2020]: 135-61), and said:

This is the article in which I learned that Alexander Germano, the famous Russian Romani poet, was not a Rom. […] Not only was he not a Rom but the Roma around him apparently didn’t care and were completely unbothered by him participating in Romani literary and cultural life as a non-Rom. Even the one private negative remark from Pankov that Marushiakova and Popov found seems like it could just as easily be a negative assessment of his writing rather than his choice to write in Romani. He seems to have just felt no need to claim such an identity. It was a non-issue. A Rom identity was constructed for him after his death. […]

The situation with Romani in the early Soviet Union reminds me a bit of Yiddish in the US today in that there are prominent non-Jews who do things like perform in Yiddish theater, and no Yiddish-speaking Jew seems to have a problem with it. There was a level of security and self-confidence that Roma enjoyed in the early Soviet Union (complete with using Romani as a vehicle of primary education) whose attempt to incorporate them while respecting their difference was briefly pretty successful. Such a thing has simply never happened anywhere else, at least not on that scale. I think Macedonia may get there though.

I think one legacy of this brief period is the fact that the traditional exonym for the Roma, Tsygan, is generally not considered offensive in Russian, and is the term typically preferred by Russian-speaking Roma in Russian. Even attempts to use the terms “Rom” and “Romskiy” in Russian may be mocked. Lera Yanysheva has a very funny satirical poem “The Activist” where her Russian-language self-translation puts the term “Romskiy” in a guy’s mouth to make him sound ridiculous.

On the “briefly pretty successful” attempt to incorporate them while respecting their difference, see this 2010 post describing the brief heyday of linguistic korenizatsiia; Alex expanded on his feelings about the Romani situation in a comment:
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