Crackpots and Language Preservation.

Alice Gregory’s “How Did a Self-Taught Linguist Come to Own an Indigenous Language?” (cached) is a classic New Yorker article — well written, thoroughly researched, alternating an account of facts and events with the stories of the people involved. And yet it annoyed me and made me feel (once again) painfully out of step with the times I find myself living in. I’ll summarize it for you.

Carol Dana is trying to revive the Penobscot language; she “learned most of what she knows of Penobscot not from her tribal elders but from Frank Siebert, a self-taught linguist who hired her, in 1982, as a research assistant.” Siebert started studying the language as a twenty-year-old college student in 1932; he was obsessed with Native Americans and (even while training as a doctor) studied with Boas and Sapir. He was also pretty nuts: “In Vermont, Siebert became neurotically frugal, eating food out of the trash and not allowing Marion to buy formula for the babies. As Marion nursed and cooked and cleaned, Siebert thought aloud, in a booming voice, about Custer’s Last Stand. […] He wandered around in stained shirts and suits shiny with wear. He monitored his bank account obsessively and subsisted on canned tuna and beans.” After his divorce, he moved to Maine and started working with the few remaining Penobscot speakers, eventually getting a grant to produce a dictionary. Unfortunately, he was a prescriptivist in a language that wasn’t even his own:

“Frank was so interested in Penobscot, but he also had a certain view of it,” she said. “He couldn’t stand that certain people spoke the language differently.” Once, Dana recalled, Siebert corrected the pronunciation of an elder speaker in front of a large group.

Finally, he completed his dictionary:

It was twelve hundred and thirty-five pages long, with a forty-nine-page introduction. There were close to fifteen thousand entries, collected in the course of a half century and transcribed using an alphabet that was partly of his own design. Algonquian linguists consider it a masterpiece. “Without that dictionary, we wouldn’t have anything,” Dana told me.

Still, the project was flawed. Alphabetized in Penobscot, it was written for an imagined audience of fluent Penobscot speakers—a population that barely existed while Siebert was working on the dictionary, and which now doesn’t exist at all. “It’s not user-friendly,” Dana said. “Say you want to look up ‘morning star’—well, how can you if you don’t know the Penobscot word for it?” There was no English-to-Penobscot section. This deficiency made the dictionary an imperfect tool for reviving the Penobscot language; Dana was one of the few people who could conceivably use it, and that was only because she had been instrumental in its assembly.

When he died of bladder cancer in 1998, his collection of books, manuscripts, maps, prints, newspapers, pamphlets, and photographs was auctioned off at Sotheby’s and brought in more than $12.5 million:

As stipulated in Siebert’s will, his daughters split the sum. Each bought a house for herself, and together they bought one for Marion. No provision was made for the Penobscot people.

His dictionary and field-work materials went to the American Philosophical Society, which has restrictive rules about access:

U.S. intellectual-property law, established as an economic incentive for inventors, privileges people who can write. In copying down the grammar, the stories, and the vocabulary of the Penobscot, Siebert made them his. In dying, he made them the American Philosophical Society’s.

Since Siebert’s death, Carol Dana has continued to study the language and has been given the title of language master, “a position created by the Penobscot Nation’s recently founded Cultural and Historic Preservation Department.” The dictionary is being revised and the Penobscot Nation is working to gain “cultural authority over their language.” And people are studying the language, though its survival is very much in question.

All of which is well and good, but the thrust of the article (it seems to me) is that Siebert was a Bad Man who did Bad Things, another Dead White Male who took advantage of people of color and absconded with their property. Here’s a quote from Conor Quinn: “It was a giant pain for everyone. Why did this white guy come in and introduce such a nonintuitive alphabet? It was really off-putting. Like, ‘This is the language my grandmother spoke, and now there’s all this technical stuff I have to learn?’” Here’s one from Darren Ranco: “He studied dead things [referring to Siebert’s career conducting autopsies]. That was his approach to everything.” Bernard Perley, a member of the Tobique First Nation, has called methodologies like Siebert’s a “ghoulish” kind of “mortuary linguistics.” And here’s the crux of the matter:

[Jane] Anderson [a legal scholar at NYU] sees Siebert’s approach as archetypal of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century anthropological research, which tended to cast indigenous people not as participants but as objects of study, and rarely aspired to benefit them. Siebert’s work had been crucial, she told me, but he also engendered significant community shame. […]

Anderson, whose work frequently grapples with the problem of whether instruments of colonial dispossession can be used to fix problems of their own making, wants the Penobscot people to retain cultural authority over their language, even if they cannot technically hold its copyright. […] Indigenous rules around how knowledge is disseminated are often incompatible with copyright law. Some of the oral narratives in the A.P.S. archive, for example, are meant to be shared only by women, or only in winter, or only by elders. Behind the modest-sounding scope of the labels, Anderson told me, is a “radical proposition”: an explicit acknowledgment that “there’s something really serious here that the law can’t necessarily contain.” […]

When I spoke with James Francis, who was in attendance, he explained that, ideally, the tribe would have approval over the content and the expression of any piece of writing that relies on Siebert’s research. But implementing such a system would be onerous, he admitted. He wondered about the feasibility of asking tribe members to read hundreds of pages of graduate students’ unedited dissertations. “I mean, even Carol really shouldn’t be talking to you without tribal approval, but we’re still trying to figure all that out,” he said. “It’s prickly.” I wondered what my editor would say if I told her that every sentence of this article required approval from the Penobscot Nation. When I raised the subject with Darren Ranco, from the University of Maine, he acknowledged that the idea of such a system—which is at odds not only with the spirit of the First Amendment but also with journalistic ethical standards, which prohibit reporters from sharing drafts with sources—strikes many people as illiberal. Still, he said, “if colonization had never happened, and we had never been forced to unlearn our language, we wouldn’t have to have this sort of precious relationship with it.”

It seems to me that this is the attitude that now prevails: in a perfect world, everything would be perfect, so how dare this world and its people be so screwed up? Yeah, if colonization had never happened, preservation efforts wouldn’t have been necessary, but the fact is that in this world colonization did happen, and this is the only world we can live in, and in this world, if crazy old Siebert hadn’t gotten obsessed with the language, it would have been gone beyond recall. Is that what these people would prefer? Because there isn’t some repository of politically correct scholars you can replace him with; it was Siebert or nothing. It’s too bad he was so nuts and so hard on his family, his assistants, and everybody he came into contact with, but that has exactly zero to do with the value of his scholarly work. And the whole idea of a language being owned by its speakers, in the sense that nobody else should be allowed to study or use it, seems nuts to me. That may well be because I’m a white guy who speaks a world language in no danger, but that’s who I am, and that’s how I feel. Yes, the speakers of minority languages should be treated with respect, but we should all be studying each other’s languages and learning each other’s ways of thinking and being in the world — how else are we to escape solipsism? Once upon a time such an article would have focused on Siebert as a great man who did heroic work rescuing a language and it probably would have pretty much ignored the actual Penobscot people, and that would have been wrong — but that doesn’t make it right to go to the other extreme and treat him as a villain.

I liked this comment by zaelic (who occasionally comments here) in the MetaFilter thread:

Down East Magazine published a similar story by Brendan Wolfe about Siebert and the revival of Penobscot back in 2001. It confirms Siebert’s reputation as an ornery old coot, but Siebert was actually a very active non-affiliated linguist, publishing his studies in recognized journals throughout his life. Frank G. Speck, Siebert’s mentor at U Penn, was another eccentric more dedicated to his native “subjects” than to his position as an academic department head.

American linguistics has always attracted some uniquely bizarre characters. John Peabody Harrington dedicated himself to recording the declining languages of Native California for the Smithsonian. He was deeply paranoid of other linguists, and after his death in 1961, as Smithsonian curators began cataloging his papers, they discovered over six tons of boxes stored in warehouses, garages and even chicken coops throughout the West. Communities such as the Chumash are now using Harrington’s material to revive their languages.

Jaime de Angulo was born in Paris, came to America in 1905 to become a cowboy, medical doctor and psychologist, and ethnomusicologist. He studied linguistics with Alfred Kroeber at Berkeley but went on to despise academia. preferring the company of impoverished Achomawi people to hobnobbing with professors. He became a prototype character in the development of Beat counter culture in Big Sur.

It’s a screwed-up world full of screwed-up people; let’s be grateful that a few of them devote themselves to preserving knowledge, however imperfectly. (Thanks, Ariel!)

Comments

  1. Here’s a quote from Conor Quinn: “It was a giant pain for everyone. Why did this white guy come in and introduce such a nonintuitive alphabet? It was really off-putting. Like, ‘This is the language my grandmother spoke, and now there’s all this technical stuff I have to learn?’”

    Uh oh, nobody tell Conor about IPA. Or that reading scholarly works about any language isn’t a walk in the park for a non-expert, even English and native speakers.

  2. Dmitry Pruss says

    I like your sense of balance, Hat. A thread about the imperfect geneticists is matched by the very next post about the imperfect linguists :). ( In the case of the New Yorker piece, I even thought to suggest it to you when I read it, but then I figured that it doesn’t need my recommendation, that you’ll surely notice it)

  3. ə de vivre says

    I don’t think anyone in the article is saying Siebert’s documentation is bad and should be destroyed or that they wish he’d never done it. They seem to be saying they wish the language had been documented in a way that respected the community more and point out the contemporary problems related to the use of this non-ideally collected material.

    The author of the article seems a bit confused about what the message she’s trying to convey is, and I do find its focus on Siebert’s personal idiosyncrasies to be distracting, but my take away was, “the legacy of colonialism under which indigenous languages were documented now puts members of those indigenous communities in difficult situations with no easy answers,” which I’d say is a pretty accurate statement.

  4. This rather reminds me of the ambivalence Kipling expressed about the impact of colonialism when he wrote:

    Go bind your sons to exile
    To serve your captives’ need;

  5. The idea that you wouldn’t collect scientific information (like traditional stories) because someone fifty years later would object to a research repository including “winter stories” or “women’s stories” is so bonkers, I don’t even know where to start. This habit is doing great damage to anthropology, incidentally – see this story of how deference to activists from local indigenous groups with *no known genetic link* to the very old artifacts and bones in question are being allowed to halt scientific research because, essentially, it conflicts with traditional origin myths. https://quillette.com/2021/03/29/the-campaign-to-thwart-paleogenetic-research-into-north-americas-indigenous-peoples/

    We are going down a very dangerous road. And as ‘hat mentions, the endgame here is that we just won’t have serious research into languages/histories/etc. in places like this, and the language will just have disappeared. We don’t give evangelicals veto power over research into the nature of society in the Middle East 2000 years ago. And for good reason!

  6. I didn’t read the article, but if the problem is that some stories have to be told only by old wives in winter and then someone comes in and collects them and prints them in a book and that sort of excusivity is lost, then there is no cure for it. If the book is printed, anyone can read it at any time of the year. No matter how much we respect Penobscot people we are not going to change who reads books and when.

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    Kenneth Andrews’ Shawnee grammar reports that many older speakers outright said that they would rather have the language die than let the Longknives (sic) learn it.

    Kimball’s Koasati grammar says that in the past, if outsiders asked to learn the Koasati language, they taught them Mobilian Jargon instead; they’d loosened up on that, but still refused to discuss any other aspects of their traditional culture with outsiders.

    Myself, I find these attitudes deeply regrettable (obviously), but also highly understandable.

    … came to America in 1905 to become a cowboy, medical doctor and psychologist, and ethnomusicologist. He studied linguistics with Alfred Kroeber …

    Role model! Especially the cowboy part.

  8. I don’t think anyone in the article is saying Siebert’s documentation is bad and should be destroyed or that they wish he’d never done it. They seem to be saying they wish the language had been documented in a way that respected the community more and point out the contemporary problems related to the use of this non-ideally collected material.

    No, they didn’t say that explicitly, because it would sound stupid, and if you asked them point-blank “should Siebert’s documentation be destroyed?” they’d presumably say no, but that’s the logical consequence floating above what they do say. Of course they wish the language had been documented in a way that respected the community more; I wish all sorts of things, but if wishes were horses… Focusing on Siebert’s unfortunate methods is pointless, and insisting on the tribe’s exclusive right to the language is both absurd and destructive.

    my take away was, “the legacy of colonialism under which indigenous languages were documented now puts members of those indigenous communities in difficult situations with no easy answers,” which I’d say is a pretty accurate statement.

    Yes, and I wish the author had focused on it.

  9. ə de vivre says

    The idea that you wouldn’t collect scientific information (like traditional stories) because someone fifty years later would object to a research repository including “winter stories” or “women’s stories” is so bonkers, I don’t even know where to start.

    The idea is that you obtain informed consent when you collect information from human subjects, including information about how the information they share will be stored and used. This is standard practice now; it was not during Siebert’s time. No one is saying that non-indigenous people can’t study indigenous culture, only that indigenous communities should have some say in how the culture they share is documented and preserved.

  10. No one is saying that non-indigenous people can’t study indigenous culture

    Actually some people are saying that, but fortunately they don’t have power to make it happen. (In general it’s a bad idea to say “No one is saying…,” because there’s no idea so stupid or extreme that no one endorses it.)

  11. Just to be clear: I totally support respectful use of indigenous cultural material and consultation with those whose culture it is, and I regret that scholars were historically so cavalier about such things. And I can certainly understand how those affected by colonialism and racism would have extreme ideas in reaction, just as I can understand how someone whose child was killed would want the death penalty for the killer. But outsiders are not required to adopt the worldview of those they interview or report on.

  12. Christopher Culver says

    “The idea is that you obtain informed consent when you collect information from human subjects, including information about how the information they share will be stored and used.”

    Sometimes demands can be stricter than just that. I have seen some North American linguists really emphasize assigning copyright of materials to informants and explicitly crediting them and their communities, as a necessary ethical step. If you are working in the North American context, then no problem, right? But this clashes with the way field linguistics is carried out in authoritarian countries, where indigenous informants can get into trouble with the authorities by interacting with foreigners, and so the right thing to do is let them stay anonymous.

    There are a lot of socio-cultural-political expectations in linguistics and academia more generally that are clearly coming from North America. Sometimes academics elsewhere enthusiastically pick them up and try to enforce them over the spaces they have authority. Often (more often?) the response is much like Hat’s here, yet people may feel hesitant to openly reject these ideas, because they fear that there is a response already ready-made and lying in store for them, i.e. their being tarred as racists, colonialists, etc.

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    non-indigenous people can’t study indigenous culture

    This seems to have been John Morris-Jones objection to Joseph Loth, so far as any rationale is discernible at all.

    Plus ça change, as Loth might say …

    The author of a very good Ojibwe grammar specifically says in the work itself that he left out interlinear glosses at the request of the speakers because they were concerned about “data mining.” When I pointed this out in an Amazon review (relevant, as it significantly reduces the usability of the work – for anyone, including Ojibwe), he denied it (I had evidently touched a nerve) and claimed it was done simply to save space.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    So the concern about the Am. Phil. Soc’y’s role is not that it’s being too restrictive in allowing access to Siebert’s unpublished stuff but that it’s being less restrictive than the tribal authorities would if they had control? Or am I missing something?

    Part of the problem may be that there was (apparently) during the relevant decades only one person from outside focused on the Penobscot language. If there had been multiple interested scholars (of whatever varying degrees of eccentricity or crackpottery), they might have taken different approaches, with one being more into documentation and analysis and another being more focused on preservation/revitalization; one trying to use Penobscot data to validate Chomskyan theories, another not, etc etc. I guess that Siebert got the NEH grant meant that probably no one else was going to get that grant, but did he somehow scare off potential competitors?

  15. I doubt it. I think you may be significantly overestimating the likely pool of people interested in spending years documenting this particular tiny dying language.

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    I don’t know to what extent this has ever been tested in court (don’t know if the monetary stakes would have been high enough*), but some of the invocation of who-owns-the-copyright in this discourse seems like it might involve some magical thinking. I feel like if some outside linguistic anthropologist curious about the mysterious tongue known as American English interacted with me, many/most of the things I would say that would be useful data to a linguistic anthropologist would not actually be protected by copyright (as it exists in current American law), either because they were not sufficiently original or if they were in some relevant sense “original” (e.g. a proverb that gives some interesting insight into the culture above and beyond showing that a particular verb is/isn’t ditransitive) I wasn’t the “author.”

    That is maybe the broader issue that Alice Gregory was focused on before getting sidetracked into the story of this particular colorful eccentric – many activists and spokespersons (self-appointed or otherwise) for marginal or indigenous cultures seem to want someone to be able to exercise ownership or control over things that seem analogous to things that, in mainstream modern Western societies, no one owns or controls. It’s like the flipside of the (perhaps sometimes unreliable and/or romanticized) stories that certain indigenous North American societies did not have anything conceptually comparable to the European idea of ownership of land so that when they executed agreements purporting to sell land to settlers/colonists they didn’t understand what they were doing.

  17. Also, Conor Quinn definitely knows about the IPA. I bet he’s referring to the fact that Siebert’s orthography uses (for example) a schwa symbol to represent schwa (it also uses alpha, to represent another vowel). It doesn’t have to do that; the orthography doesn’t use the letter ‘u’ at all, for instance. And it isn’t much of a hurdle for a linguist. But if you’re a tribal member who wants to learn your traditional language, there are already a lot of difficult things that you’re going to have to learn, and having a writing system with unfamiliar symbols in it is one more obstacle to overcome–and it’s an obstacle that was put there by Siebert, who didn’t care enough about making his work accessible to develop a practical orthography.

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    To hat’s point, I think the problem is not mine but that of the Penobscot, for whom it is more humiliating to have to reflect that their patrimony was not of sufficient interest to draw careful attention from anyone other than one weirdo with a particular set of pluses and minuses that weren’t going to be offset by anyone else’s different pluses and minuses.

  19. J.W. Brewer says

    @Norvin: the funny thing about Conor Quinn is that the article says he first became interested in linguistics by teaching himself his own ancestral language of Irish out of a textbook one of his relatives had, yet Irish is not really a very positive role model when it comes to simple and intuitive orthography for Anglophones interested in learning their ancestors’ tongue.

    But it’s not like there’s such a critical mass of people who currently know Siebert’s orthography that those interested in reviving the language can’t pick some other orthography of their consensus preference, is it? You’d need someone who knew both to transcribe those of Siebert’s materials you wanted to use into it, but it’s not like a QWERTY keyboard layout where people have already invested the cost of learning a theoretically suboptimal system and are going to be aggrieved by being told they now need to learn a different one.

  20. and it’s an obstacle that was put there by Siebert, who didn’t care enough about making his work accessible to develop a practical orthography.

    But this is by no means peculiar to Siebert; it’s a tradition (infuriating to everyone else) among linguists of previous generations, who seemed to take pride in using the most outlandish symbols available and making their alphabet as distinct as possible from all others. The idea of usability and learnability seemed completely outside their mental realm. You can blame Siebert for a lot of things, but not for using unusual symbols.

  21. Hamid Ouyachi says

    To escape solipsism, one has to move out of the space of “That’s how i feel!” (since the retort from the other side is often in kind) and look to carve out a space for understanding. Not speaking to Siebert’s case specifically, just a general comment.
    Knowledge collection and organization, in general & particularly in contexts of asymmetrical power, are fraught with ideology. When Marcel Griaule chose to divulge the secret knowledge of the Dogon (Mali), without their consent, he treated them as “objects of knowledge” but not as “subjects endowed with agency”. Anthropology and linguistics (ethno) have historically been structured from within by this type of extractive relationships, framed by the othering practices of colonial contexts.
    When a linguist says about a people that they are incapable of abstraction and their language is grounded in material culture, and later that linguist’s production (grammar & dictionary) is used to study the language, the bias is passed on and shapes future study. Is flawed knowledge better than no knowledge at all? It depends. Historically, flawed knowledge has been used to cause enormous harm.

  22. UNESCO tried to explore the copyright model for protecting the intangible heritage of the humankind, and backed out of this idea. As I understand, the problem is that you impede derivative art by enforcing copyright, and it stands in the way of organic development of a living culture. Copyright model of intellectual property works better in the situations where the culture is essentially dead (no evolving to expect), and especially where it’s getting commercialized (copyright doesn’t help anything to stay alive, but it does help with commercial rip-off). I have some pointers / links in an essay written on a totally unrelated subject, but they may still be useful:
    https://humilitan.blogspot.com/2016/12/tango-mankinds-most-unusual-heritage.html

  23. groups with *no known genetic link* to the very old artifacts and bones in question are being allowed to halt scientific research because, essentially, it conflicts with traditional origin myths. https://quillette.com/2021/03/29/the-campaign-to-thwart-paleogenetic-research-into-north-americas-indigenous-peoples/

    This story may be more fitting for the Reich criticism thread, as a good counterpoint
    http://languagehat.com/the-reich-backlash/

    BTW there is a good review of DNA advances in the Native American palaeoanthropology in the upcoming issue of Scientific American
    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/genomes-reveal-humanitys-journey-into-the-americas/

  24. i’m not going to be attending much to this thread, because there’s so much straw-man-ing going on already, but i want to make sure that someone says in here that the issue is not about (imaginary) “neutral” outsider researchers. it’s about how communities dealing with ongoing attempted genocide relate to researchers whose approach and interests (including, as siebert’s will illustrates, economic interests on a scale that could transform any north american indigenous community) are more closely aligned with the perpetrators of that genocide than with the targeted communities.

    thinking about siebert in any responsible way is the same as thinking about linguists like franz beranek, the nazi collaborator who (after the usual laundering by the allies & their clients) became the leading figure in yiddish studies in the Bundesrepublik. kalman weiser’s done some very interesting research on how beranek was received by the major post-war yiddishists: here at academia.edu or here on youtube.

  25. PlasticPaddy says

    Instead of a copyright, why not try a trademark model? So Penobscots can call their productions Penobscot (if they like they can create a standards board to remove the rating from inauthentic Penobscots or grant it to authentic non-Penobscots), while others must content themselves with a label of methode Penobscoise.

  26. Here is a great discussion of various IP protection modalities and how they work for the native heritage in the global world:
    http://lsolum.typepad.com/legaltheory/2015/12/farah-tremolada-on-intangible-cultural-heritage-ip-rights-human-rights.html

  27. i’m not going to be attending much to this thread, because there’s so much straw-man-ing going on already, but i want to make sure that someone says in here that the issue is not about (imaginary) “neutral” outsider researchers. it’s about how communities dealing with ongoing attempted genocide relate to researchers whose approach and interests (including, as siebert’s will illustrates, economic interests on a scale that could transform any north american indigenous community) are more closely aligned with the perpetrators of that genocide than with the communities.

    Not sure what straw-man-ing you’re talking about, but it’s absurd to equate Siebert with Nazis and to treat a man leaving his stuff to his daughters as perpetrating genocide. It’s exactly that sort of overheated rhetoric that’s driven me away from MetaFilter. Surely we can deplore the insufficient awareness of our predecessors without treating them all as irredeemable criminals.

  28. cuchuflete says

    How-did-a-self-taught-linguist-come-to-own-an-indigenous-language

    The dramatic, breathless title of the essay is sensational enough to entice potential readers—me for example—but it doesn’t reflect I.P. law or reality. Neither Siebert nor the A.P.S. “own” the language of the Penobscot people. Copyright applies, if claimed, to Siebert’s own writings about the language, its vocabulary and grammar. Unless one invents a new language and claims copyright, one cannot “own” a language.

    Any person, Penobscot or not, may speak or record the language without infringment of copyright. If, and it is a major IF, Siebert and his successors at the American Philosophical Society have staked a claim to Siebert’s invented orthography, that in itself may or may not present IP law obstacles to the use of said orthography in recording the Penobscot language. Intellectual property lawyers are quite good at wrapping themselves and their clients around such axels.

  29. Well said. And in this case, it seems like it would be a good idea all around to simply use a different, and more approachable, orthography that would neither violate copyright nor turn off eager learners. Win-win!

  30. To escape solipsism, one has to move out of the space of “That’s how i feel!” (since the retort from the other side is often in kind) and look to carve out a space for understanding.

    I’m sorry if my phrasing misled you; I wasn’t talking about my feeeelings, I simply meant “That’s my take on things.” I understand the other side perfectly well, I just disagree.

  31. J.W. Brewer says

    I must say that I’m not aware* of any successful attempt to “own” (whether by copyright or patent or what have you) an orthography, such that no one could use it to write the language in without someone’s permission. (A sufficiently novel typeface or font for an existing script is often protectable, but that’s in part because of the background assumption that there are a plethora of other adequate ways to print text in that language without anyone’s permission if you don’t want to pay royalties to whoever owns the rights to the new typeface.)

    *It does seem that causes like spelling reform attract so many cranks and crackpots that there may well be an instance of one who tried to claim ownership even though doing so would seem fundamentally inconsistent with the theoretical goal of getting as many people as possible to adopt your innovation such that it becomes the new standard. I just don’t happen to know of one.

  32. There are a lot of things that need to be unpacked here.

    First of all, Frank Siebert’s treating native speakers of Penobscot as sources of data/objects of study was typical of ALL linguistic research of that time. I very much doubt a linguist studying a dying local language in France, Italy or Germany (and there were plenty!) at the time would have been in any way concerned with making the resulting dictionary and/or reference grammar transparent/user-friendly to later generations, including descendants of the speech community members whose language was being described.

    One is free to call this “ghoulish” or “mortuary” linguistics, but there was nothing whatsoever about Frank Siebert’s work or about studies on the indigenous languages of North America which deserved either label more than descriptive linguistics as practiced world-wide did.

    In this light, the quoted statement that-

    “It was a giant pain for everyone. Why did this white guy come in and introduce such a nonintuitive alphabet? It was really off-putting. Like, ‘This is the language my grandmother spoke, and now there’s all this technical stuff I have to learn?’””

    -exhibits a truly gargantuan level of ignorance. Such a complaint could be made anywhere in the world (leaving aside “white” linguist) today, including Europe. The tacit belief that racism is at the root of Siebert’s work being so user-unfriendly to non-linguists simply will not fly.

    I suspect part of the misperception involves racism on activists’ part: I think they assume that, because Penobscot is “their” language, it should be trivially easy for them to learn it/learn about it. I have already mentioned here at Casa Hat that I witnessed, when I was teaching in the Canadian West, numerous instances of students of Cree or Ojibwe ancestry taking a Cree or Ojibwe language course, unthinkingly assuming that learning “their” language would be easy, because (INSERT ACADEMICALLY FASHIONABLE BUZZWORDS SUCH AS DECOLONIZATION, COUNTER-HEGEMONISM, CRITICAL RACE “THEORY”, INDIGENOUSNESS AND OTHER ASSORTED THOUGHTSTOPPERS HERE)…and dropping out of the class in SUCH massive numbers that it became sadly predictable: on day 1 a majority of the students in Cree and Ojibwe language classes were indigenous, and by the last day the vast majority were non-indigenous.

    A very similar dynamic is at work here, I think. The blunt fact is that, if my experience is any guide, most young ethnic activists in North America are even more shockingly ignorant about language and linguistics than the average non-linguist. In particular, all too many ethnic activists flatly refuse to acknowledge their own ignorance, not only about their ancestral language, but about languages and linguistics in general, and claim ownership/knowledge of their ancestral language/culture solely on the basis of a kind of debased JUS SANGUINIS ideology (which is seemingly as ubiquitous as it is uncritically internalized by practically all individuals involved in such matters) that would be considered utterly beyond the pale by all hatters if it were openly preached by more powerful groups in society.

  33. David Marjanović says

    Uh oh, nobody tell Conor about IPA.

    Sure, but there’s worse. Way worse. Especially in the linguistics of North American languages. I have no idea of Siebert’s transcription system, but it’s easily possible that it’s less intuitive than the IPA.

    (Or Irish.)

  34. Exactly!

  35. >the fact that Siebert’s orthography uses (for example) a schwa symbol to represent schwa (it also uses alpha, to represent another vowel). It doesn’t have to do that;

    Oh cripe. I had at least thought there was a real issue in the orthography. I’m pretty sure every schoolkid who was taught English for three quarters of the 20th century learned schwa. Everyone Siebert could possibly have anticipated reading his work would have known schwa.

  36. cuchuflete says

    Leaving the arcane world of IP law for a moment, I’ve been reading about my Penobscot neighbors.

    Wikipedia tells us that there are still a few who have “Abenaki” as their primary language, yet following the footnote to its source, “Abenaki” becomes “Penobscot”. That led to a series of now forgotten links to pages that claim Abenaki as the source of the English word Skunk.

    skunk (n.)
    1630s, squunck, from a southern New England Algonquian language (probably Abenaki) seganku, from Proto-Algonquian */šeka:kwa/, from */šek-/ “to urinate” + */-a:kw/ “fox.” As an insult, attested from 1841.

    source: https://www.etymonline.com/word/skunk#etymonline_v_23631

    How the Abenaki came to be considered southern New England, as Maine is as far north as one can travel without illegally entering Canada, is a mystery for another day.

  37. J.W. Brewer says

    Without disagreeing with the empirical validity of Etienne’s observations, I think the assumption that it ought to be easier to learn something your own great-grandparents knew than it would be for someone without that ancestry to learn it is probably extremely common cross-culturally. It is empirically false (once you control for all the other variables not necessarily controlled for in actual experience), but many widespread folk beliefs about language are false without being moral defects. I would assume that people interested in learning a given language out of filial piety and/or guilt are sufficiently differently situated from people wanting to learn it without an ancestral connection that it may well be the case that a pedagogical strategy that works well for one group won’t work well for the other.

    Beyond that, I think that if Etienne is a sufficient glutton for punishment to read UNESCO documents and the other sort of stuff that Dmitry P. referenced he will learn that blithely condemning ius-sanguinis-type thinking is considered an oppressive and exploitative practice when the sanguis in question can be placed into the “indigenous” category. The whole point of the modern discourse of indigenous rights is rejecting the notion that come on everyone’s a human being and the only legitimate values are universal ones abstracted and unmoored from the particularistic facts of ancestry and place so we should all just be happy to assimilate into the same deracinated global culture and have flame wars in Esperanto.

  38. And I am stout in my disagreement with that aspect of the discourse. That doesn’t make me a racist Nazi colonialist exploiter.

  39. “It was a giant pain for everyone. Why did this white guy come in and introduce such a nonintuitive alphabet? It was really off-putting. Like, ‘This is the language my grandmother spoke, and now there’s all this technical stuff I have to learn?’”

    Can be read as:

    “It was a giant pain for everyone. ‘Why did this white guy come in and introduce such a nonintuitive alphabet‘? It was really off-putting. Like, ‘This is the language my grandmother spoke, and now there’s all this technical stuff I have to learn?’””

    And there is a quite a range of interpretations, as to his actual tone and attitude to the white guy.

  40. David Eddyshaw says

    As far as I can make out from this fragment

    http://www.conormquinn.com/Quinn2013ProblemsAndProspectsInThePenobscotDictionary-PRESENTATION-20131019draft.pdf

    the most egregiously offending symbols in Siebert’s system are

    ə
    α (representing IPA /ɤ/)
    č
    ʷ (presumably marking labialised consonants, though the text does not say)

    The text says this is not an exhaustive list, but none of these choices is bizarre or peculiar in any way for a mid-twentieth century linguistic account. Nor would they prove difficult for a Penobscot learner with a genuine desire to put in the work to actually learn the language; the real difficulties would lie quite elsewhere.* The symbols are impossible on a standard typewriter keyboard, but experience in Africa shows that this is nowadays a much less important matter than it was; the Kusaal orthographic reform of 2016, for example, introduced ɛ ɔ and ʋ, previously represented ambiguously by e o u. Nobody thinks this is a colonialist plot to overcomplicate their grandmothers’ language.

    *I’ve read in the context of more than one indigenous American language that efforts to maintain it are highly politicised within the community, often in ways detrimental to the prospects for actual language survival. Moreover, no language is easy, and most of these languages are spectacularly not easy from the point of view of an L1 English speaker. Failure of all but a few to learn them at all adequately is hardly surprising in these unpropitious circumstances; but it is (alas) also hardly surprising that people should look for scapegoats for such failure.

  41. >I think they assume that, because Penobscot is “their” language, it should be trivially easy for them to learn it/learn about it.

    Etienne,

    That’s possible, and the experience you mention is relevant.

    But in this case, we aren’t sure because we don’t even hear from them. We hear from academics, including academic natives. There are quotes from Ranco at the Univ. of Maine. He is Penobscot, though strangely that’s not mentioned, his academic credential seeming more important to the author. And we hear from two cultural officials of the tribe. We hear about how hard the orthography is from Conor Quinn, an academic who isn’t native at all. Other Penobscots who are interested in learning their language aren’t included. In an article about respecting the Penobscot people, even Carol Dana’s adult students remain nameless and quoteless.

    The article makes an assertion of fact that the Penobscot lived and spoke their language for more than 300 generations on the Penobscot River. Setting aside issues of language change or identity, is it consistent with the archaeology of the region that a cultural group remained there for 6 millennia without any signs of discontinuity or rupture?

  42. Thank you, Ryan! You said what I’d meant to. Ironically, the article filters what purports to be The Penobscot View through an outsider journalist. The quotes which are irking people here the most seem to me to be artifacts of her selection. She puts the Penobscot in a worse light than they deserve.

    It was interesting to read about Siebert, though. I had no idea he was such a hot mess.

  43. J.W. Brewer says

    Ryan’s question led me to wonder about the estimated time of the break-up of Proto-Algonquin, and asking the internet turned up this link which, when clicked through, cited the controverted theories (about Urheimat, which is a related issue) of none other than Frank Siebert. That Siebert was apparently being used as a source by Merritt Ruhlen* may be thought by some not to speak well of Siebert.

    https://linguistlist.org/issues/6/6-761/

    *In double-checking the spelling of Ruhlen’s name, I am informed by wikipedia that he died earlier this year, aged 76. Certainly none of his controversial-in-these-parts views about language history and classification were capital offenses. Sit tibi terra levis, etc.

  44. David Marjanović says

    6 millennia? Is Algonquian as a whole even that old, never mind present that far east?

    flame wars in Esperanto

    Esperanto does have two pejorative affixes, fi- and -aĉ-, and I’m sure they’re not limited to nouns…

  45. > You can blame Siebert for a lot of things, but not for using unusual symbols.

    Oh, I think we can blame him for using unusual symbols, if we work at it. Contrary to what a lot of the talk in this thread seems to assume, we’re not talking about the 19th century here; Siebert had contemporaries (Ken Hale springs to mind) who not only did brilliant descriptive work but also made a point of producing things that would be useful for the speakers of the languages they were working on, presented in ways that would be easy for them to understand, using orthographies that were designed to be both accurate and practical.

    A Penobscot who wants to learn their traditional language is going to have to cope with a lot of difficult things; they’ll have to learn about the Algonquian agreement system, about how obviation works, etc., etc. All of that is inherent in the enterprise of learning Penobscot.

    But the fact that they’ve got to learn that č means “ch”? That’s Siebert’s fault. No reason he had to do that, except that (as someone pointed out above, I think) he didn’t care whether non-linguists could read what he was writing. If you think that his ability to document the language would have been affected by his willingness to use symbols that people could type on a QWERTY keyboard, I’d like to hear the arguments.

    (Now, is that an insurmountable obstacle? No, of course not. But why create an obstacle at all?)

  46. Eastern Algonquian has an estimated divergence time of 2000 years, per Ives Goddard, using the method of eyeballing.

  47. J.W. Brewer says

    I agree with Norwin on his point, although maybe there’s an argument that the ideal foreign-language orthography has one minor tweak from an Anglophone QWERTY keyboard, a la the tilde in Spanish or the umlaut in German, just to give the learner the sense of having mastered something very mildly exotic without it actually being particularly difficult to master.

    But are we “blaming” him for not focusing his work in the first place on being useful to learning/revitalization for members of the community or are we assuming he did intend that but blaming him for being too clueless to realize that the orthography would be a barrier in that context? Those are different things. The simplest approach to me remains the assumption that he was just more interested in documentation/analysis than on pedagogy/revitalization and that it’s probably not really his fault that no one interested in the latter ended up working on Penobscot when there were more native speakers around to work with. I take the point that you can do both at once a la Ken Hale, but presumably that takes someone who wants to do both at once and/or someone who can be made to feel an obligation to do both.

    But where does that sense of obligation come from? Again, it’s not like so many different aspiring researchers were clamoring for the chance to do linguistic fieldwork with the Penobscot that access to the native speakers was a scarce and valuable commodity that could have instead been allocated by the Powers That Be to the competitor who promised to do the best job for the long-term interests of the Penobscot community. Hale was himself sort of a self-starter with perhaps more of a sense of obligation to the relevant communities than was standard for academics of his generation, and Siebert was both a generation older and an outsider “gentleman amateur” who had not had occasion to be fully socialized into whatever the this-is-how-we-do-fieldwork norms of his own generation’s academics might have been.

  48. I’ll add that Wôpanâak (Wampanoag) and Miami-Illinois, also Algonquian languages, have advanced their revitalization programs using far worse materials than Siebert’s. I doubt that the Penobscot are hanging the blame for revitalization going slowly on Siebert’s bad attitude, even as they are noting it. I blame a) again, Gregory, the journalist, for unnecessarily stirring shit up, and b) some people, including here, who are falling for it.

  49. Exactly.

  50. David Eddyshaw says

    True enough. All the Penobscot who said “that Siebert was an odd man, but we owe him a lot anyway for all the work he put in to document our language, which is much the most important thing in the end” probably didn’t count as newsworthy.

  51. Conor Quinn, an academic who isn’t native at all

    Ah. So there are natives, literate and educated to varying degrees, who (possibly, mentally or actually) grumble, when they see a professional linguistic work. There is an artstic representation of their grumbling. There is a scholar who produced this representation. And there is an article quoting it. No, the problem is not IPA.

  52. My reaction to the article was pretty similar: it’s got a lot of excellent material, on which the author seems to try hard to impose an a priori narrative making one cranky old linguist the scapegoat for four colonial centuries’s worth of language trauma (what’s the opposite of a White Savior Narrative?), with a sensationalist exaggeration of the legal situation thrown in for good measure. It would have been more informative, if less readable, to centre it on the Penobscot Nation rather than on Siebert.

    But I notice a lot of people jumping on Conor Quinn’s quote, for which I think I can guess the original context: a major interest of his is language pedagogy, and in particular how to teach languages to heritage learners with no particular interest or background in linguistics or even grammar. He’s presumably summarizing the reactions of his students to his first efforts at teaching them to use these materials; he’s certainly not giving his own reaction there (he’s a contender for most polyglot person I’ve met, alongside occasional LH commenter Bulbul).

  53. the fact that Siebert’s orthography uses (for example) a schwa symbol to represent schwa (it also uses alpha, to represent another vowel). It doesn’t have to do that;

    So what? Azeris voluntarily adopted the schwa for their language.

    For that matter “č” is found in Berber, Lakota, and many Slavic languages.

    Isn’t more culturally imperialistic to impose QWERTY on a language that is not English?

  54. What I find insane about Siebert, and also unforgiveable, is that he went around transcribing conversations. Why on earth wasn’t he recording? There seems to be no indication in the article that he ever recorded native speakers. His legacy consists of manuscripts and notes. John Lomax was traveling around the South recording blues musicians in that same era, so Siebert really has no excuse. At this point anyone truly interested in Penobscot would presumably prefer recordings of native speakers conversing and telling stories rather than a dictionary produced by a non-native speaker.

    When you learn a foreign language, you realize how much color and dynamics are lost between speech and the written word. When I read a Russian text, say Dovlatov, and then hear a native speaker read the same text out loud, I understand how much nuance I am missing as a non-native speaker. I can only imagine how much has been lost in Siebert’s transcriptions.

  55. David Eddyshaw says

    Obviously the solution is for the Penobscot to adopt the Cree syllabary. (I believe that some Cree have managed to convince themselves that the script was merely adopted by James Evans, rather than being invented by him, which would be even better, of course.)

    Muslim Penobscot will naturally simply use the Arabic script.

  56. @Vanya, I fully agree, but the same can be said about everyone here.

    Yes, if you think that your materials are going to be used in future (for revitalizing or by linguists), you record.

    But I have no problem with 1 (one) gal/guy who prefers a pensil to tape recorder for some very personal reasons. I have a problem with linguistics as a whole.

  57. He’s presumably summarizing the reactions of his students to his first efforts

    This is how I read it. “This [adjective] guy” is a phrase I see and hear within a very specific genre: an English-speaking guy talking to [mixed] guys in a friendly way, sharing his understanding of how “locals” see him. The phrase is meant to sound informal (“came in and introduced” too). He is drawing a cartoon, not a realistic potrait. The locals in question can be people of any other cultrure, say, Russians.
    It is vocabulary of discussing intercultrual interation in English media:)

    “White” is the default adjective and an identity. The whole culture is very racialized. The current fashion is, as I udnerstand it, institutionalizing race “in a good way”?

    And the hostile interpretion was borrowed by LH from here:

    “For communities like my own,” Ranco said, “where our language was beaten out of us, literally, and discouraged time and time again, having someone like Siebert come in, with an interest only in documenting the language, not committed to reënlivening it—considering my relatives were his sources—this absolutely upsets me, after the hospitality so many Penobscot gave him.”

  58. reënlivening
    Wow.

    However, it is now far less commonly used in words such as coöperate and reënter except in a very few publications—notably The New Yorker[11][12][5] and MIT Technology Review under Jason Pontin.

    Aha. I did not know this.

  59. PlasticPaddy says

    @Vanya
    Siebert seems to have been a prescriptivist. I would speculate that he “improved” the “degraded” or “degenerate” or just “ignorant” speech of his sources within his transcriptions, except when the purpose was to portray a source as particularly wrong-headed or if the source produced what he considered an acceptable alternate form. If he had made recordings instead, his enterprise would be undermined and his legacy would be open to revision by later scholars.

  60. Yes, I think PlasticPaddy has something there.

  61. . If he had made recordings instead, his enterprise would be undermined

    And what will happen to DE’s Kusaal recordings (not that Kusaal is endangered, but anyway)? Either DE made them or not. And if he did, I suspect they live in his tapes. What will happen to these in the next 200 years (assuming we do not start a nuclear war)?

  62. The only solution is to encode the sound waves in stone and store them well underground.

  63. David Marjanović says

    So what? Azeris voluntarily adopted the schwa for their language.

    Eh… for six months, the official spelling for /æ/ – the most common vowel in the language – was ä, then people found themselves collapsing under the weight of the dots, and President Äbülfäz (six dots!) reintroduced the letter Əǝ that everybody was used to from fifty or sixty years of Cyrillic.

    I believe that some Cree have managed to convince themselves that the script was merely adopted by James Evans, rather than being invented by him

    Oh no, much better: some divine entity dropped the script simultaneously at both ends of the Cree dialect continuum. Take that, King Sejong.

    Aha. I did not know this.

    As someone on Tumblr once put it: “Excuse you, The New Yorker is the country’s preëminent publication”…

  64. He made plenty of recordings (with which Conor Quinn has worked IIRC): the APS Library’s Digital Audio Repository has a bunch. (Haven’t checked whether you can listen to them online or not.) That actually exacerbates the IP issues, though; notes are one thing, but how do you feel when the only recordings of your grandmother’s voice legally belong to some settler institution you don’t know or trust?

    “For communities like my own,” Ranco said, “where our language was beaten out of us, literally, and discouraged time and time again, having someone like Siebert come in, with an interest only in documenting the language, not committed to reënlivening it—considering my relatives were his sources—this absolutely upsets me, after the hospitality so many Penobscot gave him.”

    People were rightly shocked that Siebert would dare “correct” an elder speaking his own language; how would they have felt if he had been telling their kids “Never mind what your parents told you, never mind following their example; you need to learn Penobscot even if your parents wanted you to only learn English”? Maybe there were community efforts that he could/should have contributed to, but it certainly would not have been his place to initiate them himself.

  65. @LH, but why ascribe evil intentions to a researcher who did not do what no one is doing (did not give a shit about recordings)? I know, “no one” is an exaggeration. There are exceptions. The rule is though that linguists communicate in print and only find worthy what they can communicate in this form.

    How much time it takes to write a PhD thesis (a grammar)? How about spending half of this time on earning, say, $50000* and the rest of it organizing audio and video documentation – by community members! – and storage?


    *I do not mean, that every young PhD student is able to earn this sum:) It is here only because “making money” is a prototypically “vulgar” (for me, at least) activity, as opposed to beautiful science.

  66. @LH, but why ascribe evil intentions to a researcher who did not do what no one is doing (did not give a shit about recordings)?

    Well, it turns out he did make recordings; as so often, the problem is assuming facts not in evidence. And it was Vanya who said “Why on earth wasn’t he recording?” I don’t know why Vanya assumed that.

  67. @LH, I understood Vanya as sayign that it is recordings that could make the experience of lerning/revitalizing the language more humane, not a proper orphography — because it is what I was thinking myself.

    But I do not care about кто виноват?, only about что делать? 🙂

    Recordings make linguistic study more humane too.

  68. Orthography… it is 21st centruy.

    Digitize it and replace all your schwas with diaeresis or whatever you like with “find and replace” button. Then print the result.

  69. Stu Clayton says

    Recordings make linguistic study more humane too.

    Well, I find it more humane to read high-falutin French books than to decipher what the average Joseph has to say for himself.

    I’m interested primarily in what can be communicated at low cost to myself, not in the many delicious dialects in which it can be conveyed. That has led me to restrict myself to the artificial constraints of Proper French.

    I’m humane enough arreddy. I doubt that listening to grannies on tape would make me a better person than reading transcripts would.

  70. Plus ça change, plus ça reste la même chose:

    In answer to Ryan and David Marjanović’s exchange yesterday on the age of Proto-Algonquian, allow me to play the professor and offer a piece of “selbstzitat” (The consonant cluster within this word must be close to the limit of how many consecutive consonants are possible in German, I imagine): Have a look at the comment of mine in this thread from over a decade ago: just replace “Wampanoag” with “Penobscot”.

    http://languagehat.com/macarthur-grant-for-wampanoag-revival/

  71. Yeah, I just rolled my eyes when I saw the absurd statement about thousands of years. Norvin had a great comment in that old thread; it’s wonderful when people who are involved in a project chime in.

  72. And it was Vanya who said “Why on earth wasn’t he recording?” I don’t know why Vanya assumed that.

    Because the article never mentions them, while explicitly listing manuscripts, notes, transcriptions, etc. But that may well have been part of the strategy of the writer to make Siebert look like someone who only cares about dusty bones, so culpa mea for not diving deeper.

  73. It is a great comment from Norvin, with other interesting things in that comments thread.

    I can’t resist pointing out, though, the idea of criticizing Siebert for schwa while doing this yourself: Wôpanâak.

    A question for those who are doing this work. I had my own minor Siebert phase (or my own phase like Siebert when he was a minor) when I pored over Native American history, and briefly pondered learning a language. When I did, a thought not unlike that expressed by the children of a couple generations ago crossed my mind when they said “it’s not worth it. You can’t do anything with it.” My thought was “maybe I’d learn Ojibway, because there are enough speakers that I might possibly be able to talk with someone one day, and it has a chance of surviving.”

    What I’m wondering is how close some of these language/dialects are? Setting aside the politics that might well make this impossible, were eastern and western Abenaki similar enough that one could create a standardized dialect fairly true to each of them, that would have a bigger pool of potential learners?

    How close are Miami/Illinois and Ojibway? Or Potawatomi and Ojibway, who shared a council ring?

  74. An exmaple: a few days ago DE mentioned Jespersen’s cycle, and I mentioned Berber “triple” negative and linked Lafkioui/Brugnatelli. Page 26, example 41:

    Another example from Kabyle which clearly displays the difference produced by the
    presence versus absence of NEG2 is given in (41).

    (41) a.

    tawṬufṭ ur ţ=nɣiɣ
    ant.FSG NEG1 3FS=kill.PFV.1SG
    ‘I was incapable to kill even an ant.’

    b.

    tawṬufṭ ur ţ=nɣiɣ ara
    ant.FSG NEG1 3FS=kill.PFV.1SG NEG2
    ‘The ant, I did not kill it.’
    (Mettouchi 2001: 218; Kabyle Berber)

    —-
    How I am supposed to read this without knowing anything about prosody or intonation?! For Lameen there is no problem here, but I am only Berber-curious at the moment. If it is not obvious, in Russian:

    a) я муравья не обижу. (idiomatic) “I am incapable of hurting [even] ant”
    б) я муравья не обижу. “I will not hurt ant”

    …differ in intonation. I think in Berber intonation is also different. If so, it is very likely that omission of the second marker has to do with it.

  75. The example was about how audio makes linguistics more humane:)

  76. My best guess at the intonation would be something like:

    [tawṬufṭ H* ur ţ=nɣiɣ]L

    [tawṬufṭ]H [ur ţ=nɣiɣ ara]HL

    But guesses (by someone who barely speaks Kabyle) are no substitute for documentation, and Amina Mettouchi has actually written on Negation and intonation in Kabyle. None of the examples there are perfectly comparable, but they should give a general idea.

  77. > I can’t resist pointing out, though, the idea of criticizing Siebert for schwa while doing this yourself: Wôpanâak.

    What makes you think I did that?

    That orthography was developed by Jessie Little Doe Baird, working with Ken Hale.

  78. David Marjanović says

    The consonant cluster within this word must be close to the limit of how many consecutive consonants are possible in German, I imagine

    That’s a misguided question, I think: unlike in English, in German the components of compound nouns remain separate phonological words*, so the question to ask is how many consonants can be on either end of a word.

    At the end, at least four, as indeed in selbst. One of them can be an affricate, as in du schimpfst.

    At the beginning, one would think three, mostly str-, spr- and at least one case of spl-, but throughout Upper German the prefix ge- has lost its vowel and nonetheless attaches to such words, so you can get to four there.

    * There’s only one primary stress per compound, but it is always the usual stress of the most stressed component, and the other components keep their stresses as secondary stresses. Compounds that are still recognizable as such (usually because their components consist of words that still exist separately) never undergo the reductions seen in English in batman but not Batman.

  79. Stu Clayton says

    There’s only one primary stress per compound, but it is always the usual stress of the most stressed component, and the other components keep their stresses as secondary stresses. Compounds that are still recognizable as such …

    One needs tons more words to speak about German than to speak it. The former does not help with the latter. That’s why I prefer the latter to the former.

  80. [erased some b/c belaboring it seemed harsh to the point of rudeness.]

    I think of trying to find my seat at a Fulham game a decade ago. The rows at Craven Cottage are confusing, and our Row A seats didn’t seem to be the front row as we’d assumed. 6 or 7 rows back, I asked the aging man next to me what row I was in, and he said ‘reoh aiy”. It took me a moment to realize he was telling me I was in the proper row.

    Imagine the difficulty he must have with English orthography, this working class London native! “Oak? Do I pronounce that eoh-aik?”

    My point is that I don’t actually see any genuine difficulty with Siebert’s system, with Hale’s system, nor with a standard of using âa for oa , and explaining to students of the language “we pronounce that like this,” just as the working class Londoner must recognize that his vowel sounds are represented by letters that aren’t necessarily intuitive when he reads them.

    But I have a problem with criticizing anyone for choices they make in trying to grapple with these issues. Siebert did not put up an obstacle, at least not an obstacle any bigger than that chosen by Baird and Hale, or by Sequoyah, for that matter.

  81. January First-of-May says

    so the question to ask is how many consonants can be on either end of a word

    I’m reminded of Russian контрстратегия “counterstrategy”, which technically has six consecutive consonants (also for compounding reasons), though in practice that first р is probably syllabic.
    (I’m not sure how many there are in the German cognate – if there is one, naturally, which I’m not confident of – but it would not surprise me if there are also six.)

    Offhand I’m not aware of any legitimate Russian word with seven (or more) consecutive consonants, though there are multiple whimsical examples.

  82. Stu Clayton says

    My sister told me yesterday on the phone that there is exactly one English word with eight letters, only one of which is a vowel.

    There might be as many as seven consecutive consonants in such a word. In this instance they split into 3 and 4. Just goes to show that “consecutive consonants” is no big deal, even in English.

  83. Stu Clayton says

    контрстратегия “counterstrategy”

    A calque of “contre-stratégie” ?

  84. David Eddyshaw says

    And what will happen to DE’s Kusaal recordings (not that Kusaal is endangered, but anyway)?

    Happily, there are more Kusaal speakers than ever. Long may that continue!

    You can hear the language (for free!) here, drasvi, if you’re interested

    https://live.bible.is/bible/KUSTBL/MAT/1

    though the speakers vary quite a bit in the fluency of their reading, and there are a lot of distracting background musical effects.

    The most fluent readers are those reading the Epistles (including one who I am pretty sure is one of my informants), but the more dramatised bits often involve quite a lot of unnatural pauses (which disrupt the normal tone sandhi, among other things), and some of the readers stumble a bit in places over the orthography, which has some counterintuitive quirks (despite not using any untypeable letters other than ŋ. Just sayin’.)

    Anthony Agoswin Musah says in his grammar that he made recordings, but he doesn’t say what became of them and they don’t seem to be accessible.

    There’s an Android app of someone reading Mark’s Gospel in Toende Kusaal, but unfortunately very far from naturally.

  85. Oh how I hate distracting background musical effects! They’re everywhere, on radio and tv both. Just let us listen to what’s being said and don’t try to stun us into submission or tug at our heartstrings!

  86. J.W. Brewer says

    In terms of the difference between the Siebert orthography and the Baird/Hale orthography, I think regular-latin-letters-with-diacritics-added are less of an obstacle for the reader (coming from a monolingual Anglophone background) than extra-letters-outside-the-usual-26 — at least when it comes to reading – whether the former is an obstacle to typing depends on the technology at hand. The former is more cross-culturally common, both in Europe and outside it, than the latter, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. That said, beyond diacritics the Baird/Hale orthography apparently uses what in conventional ASCII use is considered a numeral, as in e.g. Weeqay8ut (anglicized as the toponym Waquoit).* That strikes me as at least as offputting as Siebert’s schwa and arguably more so. Maybe on balance it is cost-justified – doing an orthography is inevitably about trade-offs and reasonable people can disagree about where the balance ought to be struck.

    Sequoyah was in a whole different situation, where his intended audience were fully fluent speakers of a historically unwritten language who were mostly not literate in English (or any other “ASCII-scripted” language). That’s a very important difference for the cost-benefit analysis, because the costs of deviating from an ASCII-scripted model are much lower if your users aren’t previously familiar with that model.

    *Wikipedia says that the “8” represents “the long vowel /uː/,” which is attested in other languages around the globe which have orthographies that did not need that sort of addition to handle that vowel. That said, it’s a modification of a ligature used in one of the 17th-century missionary orthographies, so to the extent that possible learners find that historical fact cool and interesting, maybe it’s fine and pedagogically helpful — i.e. the incremental cost it imposes is borne gladly because it gives the learners a sense of accomplishment and insiderness, like when I was 14 and learned the German ß.

  87. languagehat: The only solution is to encode the sound waves in stone and store them well underground.

    Is that a Last and First Men reference, or just a general notion?

    Stu Clayton: My sister told me yesterday on the phone that there is exactly one English word with eight letters, only one of which is a vowel.

    In Aha! Insight (chapter 6, “Word Aha!”) Martin Gardner points out that strengths (plural) is actually nine letters with just one vowel. Among words with two vowels, he notes latchstrings, although he does not claim it is the longest.

  88. Is that a Last and First Men reference, or just a general notion?

    The latter, although I loved Last and First Men as a teenager, so it might have bubbled up from that submerged layer of memory.

  89. David Marjanović says

    (I’m not sure how many there are in the German cognate – if there is one, naturally, which I’m not confident of – but it would not surprise me if there are also six.)

    We half-calque it as Gegenstrategie, so we only get to maximally five: -[gŋstr]- with a syllabic [ŋ].

    The prefix Konter- exists, but only the Swiss pronounce that with a syllabic [r]; the rest of us have banned /r/ from the ends of… at least of unstressed syllables, so -er is pronounced [ɐ].

  90. yes, the r is syllabic.

    And zmrzlina is not hard for Russians. Moroccan Arabic looks scary though.

  91. Trond Engen says

    We went to Prague in 2006 or 2007. When we settled in a family room, my wife turned on the TV for the kids, some bright-coloured cartoon. The first thing we heard was a bell, and then the joyful shouts “Zmrzlina!” “Oh, it’s the ice cream car!”, my wife said, and then: “‘Ice cream’ is the first word I learn in any language, but this is a record.”

  92. It is a very interesting mental exercise to go through the article and substitute “Yiddish” for “Penobscot.”

  93. No, it’s not. Yiddish was a well-documented language well before the Shoa and never lacked for either native speakers recording it or the native speakers overall. For once, Jews can be left out of it.

  94. David Marjanović says

    This guy was writing scientific books in Yiddish in the 1920s, as well as a “practical grammar”. In 1925, he co-founded the institute that, among other things, has been trying to develop a written standard form for Yiddish (with some success).

  95. John Cowan says

    I was interested in the ways in which indigenous knowledge, passed down through many generations and often collectively held, is considered essentially authorless by Western intellectual-property law.

    Knowledge from any source is not property in Western law of any kind, with the exception of trade secrets, which must be commercial in nature and must be kept secure by the owner. The idea of knowledge that someone owns is strictly an indigenous concept.

    butter is “milk grease”

    And in another language spoken by a small minority in the U.S, glove is “hand shoe”. But although this is a heritage language of mine (that I don’t speak), I know better than to describe it as a “little poetic picture”.

    There is no word in Penobscot for “goodbye, ” only the more optimistic “I’ll see you again.”

    And in another of those minority languages of the U.S., “I’ll see you again” is the usual, though not the only, way of saying “goodbye’.

    At the time, linguists called such Native collaborators “informants,” as though in admission that their work involved a kind of treachery.

    You make this complaint in the same sentence with collaborator??

    He mocked Daniel Boone, for his poor spelling (“like a four-year-old”)

    Well, yes: “”D. Boon Cilled a. Bar on tree in the year 1760.” But although the tree is extant, the inscription may well be a forgery.

    This seems to have been John Morris-Jones objection to Joseph Loth, so far as any rationale is discernible at all.

    There’s no doubt that M-J was very much against foreign scholars of any nationality, especially those who pointed out his many errors in public. But overall he was wrong far more often than he was right.

    Instead of a copyright, why not try a trademark model?

    The name of a language cannot be trademarked: see The Loglan Institute, Inc., Appellant, v. the Logical Language Group, Inc., Appellee, 962 F.2d 1038 (Fed. Cir. 1992), in which James Cook Brown learned that just because he invented Loglan doesn’t mean he owns its name.

    Unless one invents a new language and claims copyright, one cannot “own” a language.

    Brown didn’t own the Loglan language either; when he tried to claim copyright on all the words, his own lawyers shot him down. By the same token, Paramount doesn’t own Klingon. Anyone can speak or write in either language, and the copyright on their writings belongs to them, not to the language inventor.

  96. Jen in Edinburgh says

    And in another of those minority languages of the U.S., “I’ll see you again” is the usual, though not the only, way of saying “goodbye’.

    Another one? Although actually, neither ‘auf wiedersehn’ or ‘au revoir’ have the personal element, and Norwegian ‘vi ses’ has a different one, so presumably JC is thinking of one I haven’t come up with!

    ‘Goodbye’ fits with the variants on ‘adios’, although I wonder if the others are more transparent to their speakers.

    The more I think about it, the harder it is to say what ‘goodbye’ does mean – I think ‘no word for gooodbye’ would have to mean ‘no set word used as a parting ritual’, which is obviously possible, but not what seems to have been described here.

  97. None of you alligators is familiar with the common American sendoff See you later?

  98. I deny the allegation and I defy the alligator!

  99. David Eddyshaw says

    milk grease

    On one site devoted to one of the indigenous North American languages, I remember the author making a great fuss over the fact that weather verbs lack overt subjects, a feature which, he assures us, reflects the unique philosophy of his ancestors.

    On “Goodbye”: in Kusaal you say “Greet those at home” to someone going home, “God will help you travel” to someone leaving on a trip, and “Stay well” to the people you leave behind. The fact that there is no Kusaal word for “Goodbye” obviously reflects the traditional Kusaasi adherence to the Nietzschean* doctrine of eternal recurrence (just as the absence of Welsh words for “yes” and “no” mirrors our own notorious national love of prevarication.)

    * Nietzsche is regarded as great sage, known locally as Agbeko “Mr Moustache”, for unknown reasons.

  100. David Eddyshaw says

    “Little poetic picture” might be a confused reminiscence of Edward Sapir’s “Single Algonkin words are like tiny imagist poems” (where he is, however, specifically talking about the differing possibilities for elevated or literary diction enabled by differing language structures.)

    However, if the author has read Sapir’s Language she did not greatly profit thereby, it seems to me. Perhaps she should give Bloomfield’s a go.

  101. reflects the unique philosophy

    @David Eddyshaw, when I was 14 the theory that love is a yet another manifestation of adult hypocrisy and a mere stylistic modification of a more vulgar process was very popular. I am more suspicious about debunking of “philosophical” interpretations than I am about those interpretations. I practice something deeply philosophical and in every respect super-natural, that is, thinking. The organ I am using for this shamanistic ritual (my “consciousness”) is mysterious and funny too.

    Another analogy is, for example, a claim that quantum effects are not involved in functioning of a human body. The authors forget somehow that chemistry as a whole is a pure (almost) product of quantum mechanics. Maybe they mean that interesting quantum effects are not involved. It is not what I can sympathize to then: trying to show that the universe is not interesting.

    I am fairly confident that “it” (or its Russian counterpart: 3d person neuter forms of verbs) is associated with a certain sensation in my mind. It is not “mere” grammar. It also, of course, reflect a world view: why else we would need such a form?


    P.S. the proposal is: the author is correct about “philosophy”, but maybe she should also consider the unique philosophy of an English phrase “having a shower”.

    P.P.S. natives and the q.m.

  102. From that link:

    Most of the Native Elders were speakers of the Algonquian family of languages – Cree, Blackfoot, Mic Mac, etc. During the meeting Bohm learned of their strongly verb based languages. In turn, their world view was that of eternal flux and change.

    This is mystical hoo-ha. Verbs do not reflect worldviews.

    why else we would need such a form?

    We need forms; what particular forms we choose may as well be random, since you can deduce nothing more from them. “It” is just a word; 3d person neuter forms are just a grammatical category. You can make up stories about their wider significance, but you’re just telling stories. (Which is a time-honored human occupation, of course.)

  103. David Marjanović says

    The organ I am using for this shamanistic ritual (my “consciousness”) is mysterious and funny too.

    That’s because it’s made of meat.

  104. J.W. Brewer says

    “Verbs do not reflect worldviews.” I see from following a link in another recent post that the so-called “Imaginist” school of avant-garde Russian poets liked to write verbless poems. Is verblessness a worldview?

  105. J.W. Brewer says

    Separately, quoth wikipedia: “In opposition to the classical view of change as illusory (as argued by Parmenides) or accidental (as argued by Aristotle), process philosophy posits transient occasions of change or becoming as the only fundamental things of the ordinary everyday real world.” I vaguely recall reading Whorf way back circa 1985 and taking (although maybe I was reinterpreting) one of his claims to be that e.g. Hopi was more congenial, because of the structure of its morphosyntax, to a process-oriented conceptualization of the world than the thing-oriented conceptualization of the world the process philosophers complained that Aristotle had inflicted on the Western tradition of ontology. OTOH, another part of Whorf’s claim seemed to be that, as contrasted with Hopi, IE languages were more congenial to the thing-oriented conceptualization, yet all of the process philosophers hostile to this thing-oriented view (from Heraclitus up to the 20th century) were expressing their criticisms in IE languages.

  106. Is verblessness a worldview?

    “I mean, say what you like about the tenets of verblessness, Dude, at least it’s a worldview.” But no, it’s just a style. It got them attention and allowed them to do things differently than they had been done. Didn’t have much lasting impact, but it worked for them at the time.

  107. January First-of-May says

    strongly verb based languages

    I have heard elsewhere that at least some Algonquian languages are indeed strongly verb-based, of the “behind the onstreaming it mooned” variety.
    The question is to what extent it makes sense to think of (e.g.) an Algonquian verb meaning “to be a valley”, even if it takes verb inflections, as something significantly distinct from the plain noun “valley”.

  108. Verbless poems are not confined to imagists, one must notice. Most renowned example is Fet’s Whisper, faint breathing. There some other famous examples, but they are “almost verbless”, the poets didn’t try to expurgate the verbs completely, but relied heavily on lists of nouns and noun phrases.

  109. John Cowan says

    neither ‘auf wiedersehn’ or ‘au revoir’ have the personal element

    Surely the personal elements can be read into /ovwa/; after all, the element meaning ‘again’ is also zero, though recoverable from more formal versions. I shudder to think how David M says auf wiedersehn: probably something like /fsm/, though which consonant might be syllabic I could not guess. (More probably he will say it’s not in the dialect.)

    I deny the allegation and I defy the alligator!

    Brilliant!

    In my family, however, we use it a lot, and often reduce it (see above) to “Later, gator!” / “While, ‘dile.”

    “I mean, say what you like about the tenets of verblessness, Dude, at least it’s a worldview.”

    You made a formally identical remark about Nazism and ethos. On investigation, there are about 1100 ghits for this exact wording, but is this a snowclone in the making? Versions using anything but ethos amount to 10 ghits.

  110. David Eddyshaw says

    Algonquian languages do quite readily make nouns out of verbs, but they have a robust distinction between nouns and verbs and really aren’t a bit like any Tlön language. Iroquoian languages blur the line a bit more, insofar as an inflected verb form can function syntactally as a noun, and nouns referring to persons conjugate for person.

    Salishan languages, on the other hand, do treat nouns very much like intransitive verbs, and some perfectly sane mainstream linguists have denied that they make a real noun/verb distinction at all. From what I’ve read, it looks like there are actually subtle differences between the various Salishan languages in this. Thompson and Thompson’s grammar of Thompson belongs to the no-distinction camp; Wayne Suttles’ extremely impressive Musqueam Halkomelem grammar, while accepting that any full word can be a predicate or an argument, makes a good case for the distinguishability of nouns, verbs and adjectives on language-internal criteria, and says lumping them together gives the impression that the language is (even) more exotic than it really is.

  111. Brilliant!

    Not mine, I’m afraid, but I quote it as often as I get the chance.

    You made a formally identical remark about Nazism and ethos. On investigation, there are about 1100 ghits for this exact wording, but is this a snowclone in the making?

    You must be the only person on the planet — or at least, the only one who routinely hangs out with computer geeks — unfamiliar with The Big Lebowski. I haven’t even seen it, but I can probably quote half the movie by now.

  112. For all this, my understanding is that there was a very distinct rhetorical style among Native Americans that I would suggest did connect to their worldview. I don’t reject Garry Wills’ thesis that the style of the Gettysburg Address changed something in the American worldview or at minimum reflected it.

    I just tend to think common theories lean heavily on romanticism over evidence.

  113. John Cowan says

    I have very very little interest in comedy films, and I avoid seeing them (by the same token, I don’t watch stand-up either). “It’s a long, long time between James Thurbers.” Or Marx Brotherses either.

  114. PlasticPaddy says

    @jc
    re Auf wiedersehen/schauen/schaugen not in Austrian dialect, are you thinking of Ade? That would be more Alemannic, i.e. common in Swabian, so maybe in Vorarlberg but not so much in Vienna, I would have thought.

  115. January First-of-May says

    (e.g.) an Algonquian verb meaning “to be a valley”

    This was in fact referring to an actual case, and the specific relevant language (Chippewa) was in fact Algonquian.

    OTOH, as far as I understand it, this might well have involved a different conceptualization of valleys (and hills) in particular, and Chippewa might not necessarily have done the same thing with its words for (e.g.) “moon” or “river”.

  116. David Marjanović says

    The question is to what extent it makes sense to think of (e.g.) an Algonquian verb meaning “to be a valley”, even if it takes verb inflections, as something significantly distinct from the plain noun “valley”.

    Pasadena: basadinaa ~ “split the hill is”.

    /ovwa/

    I’ve never heard that. The two /r/ routinely become voiceless fricatives and aren’t very loud, but they don’t drop out: try [oʁ̥ˈvʷɑːʁ̥].

    probably something like /fsm/

    Nah, [ˈfvɪd̥ɐsɛn] is the shortest (and noodliest?) it gets. It’s a Standard loan; most dialect speakers replace -sehen by -schauen – and -hören is popular on the telephone.

    It’s limited to people you’re on a last-name basis with, though. The T-V distinction extends through the whole system of greetings in Austria (not so much farther north).

    Ade is very literary/archaic outside of certain Alemannic places.

  117. David Marjanović says

    That said, “moon” has been replaced by a complex derivative of “shine” in Russian, and independently in Latin. In both cases the derivate is a noun, but I can easily imagine it ending up as a verb in other language families.

  118. January First-of-May says

    In both cases the derivate is a noun, but I can easily imagine it ending up as a verb in other language families.

    I had the same impression: both “river” and, if perhaps to a lesser extent, “moon” feel like terms that could totally end up being referred to by verbal forms even in an otherwise normal(ish) language.
    (Even aside from the just as perfectly sensible option of having a verb for the “action” of a moon being in the sky.)

  119. @John Cowan: Some films, generally comedies, become fountains of memes. I don’t really understand why The Big Lebowski is one of those. Other examples, like The Princess Bride or Caddyshack are generally felt to be much better films. (Caddyshack is not really to my taste, but I can recognize that it does come together to make a first-rate comedy.)

  120. John Cowan says

    are you thinking of Ade?

    Not at all, I am far too ignorant for that. I am idly speculating based on the kinds of things DM often says. We’ll see.

  121. David Marjanović says

    Like [ˈsm̩sn̩] “to text”. Admittedly, that’s limited to my family (my sister sometimes has a fit of creativity); stressed syllabic consonants are alien to German otherwise.

  122. The form I’m used to is simsen – the /i/ is inserted precisely to avoid a stressed syllabic nasal.

  123. I – and everyone around me – just say “послал эсэмэску”:((

  124. I mean, are not we supposed to make it a tense or an infix to count as cool?

  125. Although I have no expertise, I suspect that Siebert may have been on the spectrum. His high intelligence; his odd vocal patterns and inappropriate loud speech; his obsession with collection and categorization from a young age; his attachment to a single project of no apparent importance; his difficulty with personal relationships, eventually leading to his having none; his inability to read others’ emotions, to the point of giving offense; his lack of interest in his appearance; his odd fears and compulsions – all these point to Aspergers.

    The possibility should have been discussed – particularly because Gregory spends so much time telling us what a strange, annoying, self-important, and unpleasant man he was. This is important for her because it draws the sting of the obvious question – if the Penobscots had cared about saving their language, why didn’t they cooperate and support him? Because he was disrespectful, she intimates – not because they did not care. But of course, both could be true. And from the evidence of the article, both are true.

  126. Stu Clayton –
    My research (so to speak) reveals two English words with 8 letters and one vowel, but whether they have seven consonants is a different question.
    The words are strength and schnapps. One vowel each, but to my ear strength has five consonants and schnapps has four.
    Maybe there’s a third word – schlumps – but this is English by courtesy at most and I’m not going to argue for it.
    You can make strength plural – strengths – and you’ve got a nine-letter word with one vowel, but still only six consonants.

  127. The Maine Historical Society has a new map of Penobscot place names. It sounds really cool. Unfortunately I can’t find a sample image.

  128. Stu Clayton says

    @Bloix: schnapps

    There is only one “p” in the German word. Some joker was trying to sneak an English calque into the 7-consonant league. At best that qualifies only as a Schnapsidee.

  129. Yes, it’s obviously easy to increase consonant counts using di- and trigraphs, and by using double and triple consonants.

  130. John Cowan says

    I’ve never heard that. The two /r/ routinely become voiceless fricatives and aren’t very loud, but they don’t drop out: try [oʁ̥ˈvʷɑːʁ̥].

    I should have written [oˤvwaˤ]. I certainly don’t hear a break in voicing, though.

  131. “I’ll see you again” is the usual, though not the only, way of saying “goodbye’.

    näkemiin
    Finnish
    Illative plural of the 3rd infinitive näkemä- of nähdä (“to see”); thus, literally, “to seeings”, “until seeings”, as if “until we see again”; compare Swedish på återseende, German auf Wiedersehen, French au revoir, Italian arrivederci.

    Interjection
    näkemiin (literally: “until we meet again”, “until we see again”)

    1. goodbye, see you later, see you, see ya
    Synonyms

    nähdään
    näkemisiin

    näkemiin

    kuulemiin

    Finnish
    Etymology
    Illative plural of the 3rd infinitive kuulema- of kuulla (“to hear”); thus, literally, “to hearings”, “until hearings”; as if “until we hear again”. Compare Swedish på återhörande.

    Phrase
    kuulemiin (literally “until we hear (of each other) again”)

    bye, goodbye
    Usage notes
    Mainly used in telephone conversations (and radio programmes).

    Synonyms
    kuulemisiin

    kuulemiin

  132. David Eddyshaw says

    In Welsh, you say (boringly) Da bo(ch chi) “May you be good”, or, with truly Algonquian poetry, Hwyl, for which I cite GPC’s various English glosses:

    healthy physical or mental condition, good form, one’s right senses, wits; tune (of musical instrument); temper, mood, frame of mind; nature, disposition; degree of success achieved in the execution of a particular task; fervour (esp. religious), ecstasy, unction, gusto, zest; characteristic musical intonation or sing-song cadence formerly much in vogue in the perorations of the Welsh pulpit; merry-making, hilarity, jollity, mirth, gaiety, amusement, fun, wit, humour; fun (in unfavourable sense), derision, mockery.

    [Also “sail.” And why not?]

  133. a dustman’s dumpling, a beetle’s faggot, the act of loading every rift with ore…

  134. or, with truly Algonquian poetry,
    “Don’t go nuts” “You too” “Kisses”.

  135. A tradittional Russian children question was about the two russian words with three “e” in a row (letters, not sounds “eee” reads as /yeyeye/ ).
    Carroll’s transcription of защищающихся impresses Russians as well (we giggle at our participles sometimes: берег был усеян выкарабкивающимися лягушками)

  136. David Marjanović says

    [Also “sail.” And why not?]

    Figures that hail and sail would merge.

  137. David Eddyshaw says

    Sail, Caesar!

    [“Hail”, the meteorological phenomenon, is cesair in Welsh. There are evidently deep Jungian archetypes at work here.]

  138. >…a dustman’s dumpling, a beetle’s faggot, the act of loading every rift with ore…

    Wow! Every language needs words for such things as the whine of a sewage farm’s windmill. I’m just not sure homonyms will do. My daughters could use a term for a fairy godmother’s father, but what if people believe they’re referring to the act of inflating hare’s offal with a bicycle pump.

    Interestingly. there was a cottontail baby in our garage this morning about 3 feet from our bike pump. I wonder what it was up to.

  139. @David Eddyshaw: Is that the same “cesair” as the name of the Celtic goddess? (Actually, she’s a silver-skinned alien from Diplos, according to Doctor Who.)

  140. David Marjanović says

    cesair

    Amazing.

  141. David Eddyshaw says

    @Brett:

    Don’t think so: that lady appears to be Irish. On the other hand, Jungian archetypes …

  142. Carroll’s transcription of защищающихся impresses Russians as well

    Carroll’s diary transcribed this alarming word as zashtsheeshtshayoushtsheekhsya (“of persons who defend themselves”).

  143. He should have written it with zah- and -shtshah- and -yah, to make it clearer.

  144. PlasticPaddy says

    Re cesair:
    In old Irish
    casar = hail[stones]
    I think the word may be connected with :
    cuisne = frost (alternative coisne)
    cuisse = frozen
    I believe o vs u is just a spelling alternative for unstressed unaccented vowel and the a to o/u correspondence is regular, i.e compare:

    lasad = act of burning, blazing
    loise (alternative; luise) = flame, blaze, act of blazing
    The verb casad = to turn / twist probably does not belong here.
    Cuisne has survived in modern Irish as cuisnigh “to freeze”. For casar the modern word is literally “stone snow” (a calque of English “hailstones”?) .

  145. David Eddyshaw says

    GPC also cites Middle Irish casar, genitive casrach, as cognate with cesair.
    It has Middle Cornish quaserch, and Modern Breton kazarc’h, and suggests that the latter has been contaminated by erc’h “snow” (= Modern Welsh eira.)

    The etymology beyond Insular Celtic seems to be a mystery.

    Eira “snow”, I see from GPC, is from *pargio-, from the same root as Latin spargo.

  146. David Eddyshaw says

    Welsh cesair would pass muster as an old compound of “snow”, I think, instead of supposing that the Cornish and Breton forms have been remodelled; and i-affection (umlaut to all you Germanists) could account for the e in the first syllable (cf defaid, plural of dafad “sheep.”)

    No ideas for the first element, though. Welsh cas is “hateful, hatred”, and although nobody likes hail, “hate snow” seems a stretch.

  147. David Eddyshaw says

    Welsh cas represents *kad-t-; Wiktionary links Latin cadere “fall” to Old Irish casar, but does not in fact have an entry for that word, only for Scottish Gaelic casar “hammer.”

    “Hammer snow” has a nice congruence of meaning, but there doesn’t really seem to be much evidence for *kass- “hammer.”

  148. PlasticPaddy says

    @de
    I think Modern Gaelic casar/casúr is a borrowing from a Germanic (i.e., English or Norse) word like English cosh.

  149. PlasticPaddy says

    Sorry. I looked this up and cosh appears to be unrelated. But acc. to Wiktionary, the hammer word in Irish is a borrowing, ultimately Latin.

  150. The etymology taking Irish casúr “hammer” from an Anglo-Norman cassur is offered in the following article, on the top of page 76:

    https://www.persee.fr/doc/ecelt_0373-1928_1974_num_14_1_1520

    But I can’t find any cassur, cassour, casseur, quassur, vel sim., meaning “hammer, mallet” (instrument noun of casser) in searching in the online Anglo-Norman Dictionary:

    https://www.anglo-norman.net/entry/casser

    Maybe someone else can locate it. There is a Middle French cassoir, casseur, however:

    https://www.cnrtl.fr/definition/dmf/casseur

    Some attestations here:

    https://www.cnrtl.fr/definition/bhvf/casseur

    There is an entry in Godefroy under chassoir for forms with similar meanings:

    http://micmap.org/dicfro/search/dictionnaire-godefroy/chassoir

    Puzzling.

    Brief comment because I cannot research more or type with my right hand because of an injury. Interesting to look at though.

  151. David Marjanović says

    *kad-tor as “the one who falls” would fit hammers, hail, and much else besides.

  152. Most combinations of morphemes could fit all sorts of things; a shut-in could theoretically be many things besides a person who is confined indoors, but that’s what it happens to mean.

  153. PlasticPaddy says

    @xerib
    The dictionnaire du moyen francais has the entry
    casseur = CASSEUR, subst. masc.[*FEW II-1, 326a : *captiare (?) (?) ; *FEW II-2, 1430b : quassare (?) (?)]

    “Outil utilisé dans les mines pour briser le minerai en petits morceaux, marteau” (synon. cassoir)

    http://zeus.atilf.fr/scripts/dmfX.exe?LIEN_DMF;LEMME=casseur
    Oh I see you already said some of this.

  154. PlasticPaddy says

    @hat, de, dm
    I prefer trying to connect hail with “freeze”, because lots of things fall, especially here where precipitation occurs on a daily basis, but only hail and snow freeze before or during their fall. Hail falls differently to snow, but sometimes rain falls like bullets.

  155. For the etymology of casar, it is notable that it has other meanings like “lightning, flash”:

    http://dil.ie/8306

    In light of this, at first I was wondering whether casar was the hammer of the storm god… but casúr “hammer” is without doubt completely unrelated.

  156. J.W. Brewer says

    To hat’s point, note also the lack of any real parallelism/symmetry between the noun “shut-in” and the noun “shutout.”

    (I don’t think the slight spelling difference has much to do with that lack – I suspect that the hyphen has endured more in the former because of the ambiguity/confusion that could be caused without it by creating a “th” sequence that does not represent either of the phonemes conventionally denoted by that digraph.)

  157. David Eddyshaw says

    @Xerîb:

    Thanks for the link; I notice that it implies that the inflection with -ach is a later and thus secondary development (as so often), which means that the word can’t be an old compound with a second element cognate to eira/erc’h “snow.” Of course, GPC may very well be right* that the original Brythonic forms weren’t compounds of “snow” either, in which case we’re looking at Brythonic *kassari-, judging by the Welsh form.

    *I started this particular hare because the reduction of Old Welsh final * to r without any anaptyctic vowel remaining in Middle Welsh would not be unusual in a polysyllabic word: the Welsh forms could have originally ended in *γ, like the Breton. Of course, that could anyway merely have meant that the remodelling of the word by analogy with “snow” went back to Brythonic, and was not just an innovation of the southern Cornish/Breton branch.

  158. John Cowan says

    nobody likes hail

    As a kid I used to love going out to play in a hailstorm. They never lasted more than a few minutes, and I was never hit by one hard enough to hurt. But then again, I grew up in suburbia, not on a farm.

  159. I also used to love hail when I was a kid, and I would let it come down around me. However, in Michigan and Oregon, the very largest hailstones were the size of a pinky nail, and the hail never seemed to cause any damage (although maybe it would have damaged crops). It also helped that the hail tended to fall on days that it was not actually all that cold.

    My opinion changed somewhat when I witnessed authentic golf-ball-sized hail in South Carolina. Although it was still fun to watch, I was not going to stand out in it and let it pelt me. It damaged a lot of roofs on houses and cars, but I didn’t know anyone who actually had hair break through the roof of their home. Nevertheless, a lot of people (including me) had the roof damage evaluated and found that our insurance companies were willing to pay for a whole new roof. To replace a nearly twenty-year-old roof for just the cost of the deductible was definitely worth it, irrespective of my personal impression that the damage did not really seem to justify it.

  160. January First-of-May says

    As a kid I used to love going out to play in a hailstorm. They never lasted more than a few minutes, and I was never hit by one hard enough to hurt. But then again, I grew up in suburbia, not on a farm.

    Pretty much.

    My first major experience with hail that I could recall was… about hazelnut sized*, I think, in Karelia in 2004. It was large enough to kinda hurt a bit, and as a 12-year-old I found the hail itself quite fun but the associated coldness a little uncomfortable (especially as I got accidentally separated from my group and walked to camp alone for half a mile along a wet grassy track).
    Since then I’ve been in hail a few more times and it was always fun, but I don’t think it ever got as large as the first time. I can hardly imagine golf ball sized hail. It’s probably quite unpleasant.

     
    *) I tried to look up some guides for comparing hail sizes to objects, but all the versions I’ve found had a bunch of coins in between the peas and ping pong balls/walnuts, and I didn’t want to compare hail size to coins because coins aren’t spherical enough. Does anyone ever talk about hazelnut-sized hail or macadamia-nut-sized hail?

  161. I think this is the traditional comarison…
    (does not answer the question about hazelnut, though)

  162. Great photo!

  163. How I learned to respect hail:

    I was once guiding a kayak trip on a river in the downtown of a major metropolitan area. We had brought about 15 single and double kayaks on a bright sunny evening, but hot humid weather brewed up a powerful snap thunderstorm just before sunset. When it hit, we were already on our way back to the dock but still about 1.5 miles away. Strong winds, lightning, though initially, we were in the downtown canyon, roughly 1,000 feet below the tallest point on the horizon, so the lightning wasn’t an immediate concern. Motorboats typically treat kayaks fairly gently there, but in the chaos, they too wanted to GTFO, and several floored it, creating big wakes crashing off the riverside seawalls. One tandem was swamped.

    I had 13 of the boats with me, but two fellow guides were behind somewhere with the other two including the swamped boat. We’re trained to right boats and get people back in from the water, but I knew that could have been difficult under the circumstances. The wind was also in our faces, which was tough for some of the newer paddlers. I got my boats home and out of the water. Then put back in to track down the others. By then it was dark. There was still lightning everywhere on the horizon, though little that was nearby. My phone in my lifejacket pocket had gotten drenched so I couldn’t reach the other guides.

    That was when the hail started. Hazelnut-sized is about right. I shave my head, so I didn’t even have hair to cushion the impact. It didn’t hurt badly. But I definitely found myself wondering what size hailstone it would take to knock someone out, while paddling alone at night. If I fell out, the life jacket would save me till I was found, but if I was still in as the kayak turned turtle…

    In the end, I discovered that the others had been huddled under a bridge for about 45 minutes about half a mile south of the dock. We waited a bit longer for a lull in the storm, though not cessation, and then sprinted back.

    Soon after, we got smart phones to be sure we could check the weather on the fly, and I tended to wear a baseball cap!

  164. As an American I often hear about “quarter-sized hail,” which always makes me think of hail 1/4 the size of standard hail.

  165. Hail should have a size scale like that of olives.

  166. Ah! Olive is a classic reference for everything! Literally “classic[al]”.

    (I mean “olive-sized hail”. I do not mean “mammoth hail”)

  167. January First-of-May says

    I mean “olive-sized hail”.

    “However, the available hail reports from Turkey rarely include quantitative size information. Instead, 98% (1465) of the 1489 severe hail cases compare hail sizes to familiar objects such as hazelnuts, chestnuts, olives, walnuts, and eggs, which obviously have a range of diameters. ‘‘Hazelnut-sized hail’’ represents the most commonly reported severe hail size (721 out of 1489 cases) in the Turkish records.”

    (From an article trying to analyse hail reports from 20th century Turkey, found by a Google search for “hazelnut-sized hail”. I suspect I wouldn’t have thought of chestnuts as a comparison, though admittedly there are several different kinds of chestnuts and I’m not sure which ones they meant. Later on the article also mentions grapes, which I did think of but considered too variable.)

  168. ə de vivre says

    For some views on indigenous language preservation that are a bit less confused in their point of view (and also written by indigenous people with stake in their language communities), the winner of this year’s JHR Award for Outstanding Work by an Indigenous Youth Reporter is just that:

    When I applied for my first Mohawk-language course, in 2017, I stated similar reasons for wanting to learn: “My mother and grandmother didn’t grow up with the language or teachings,” I wrote. “I would like to break that cycle within my family and spread that knowledge, as much as I can, to my nieces and nephews and my own children, eventually.” Although I’ve never really wanted children, I have thought that maybe I would change my mind — if only so that I could be in a position to give a child what I didn’t have growing up.

    At some point, I came to peace with the fact that I would not be passing my language on to my own children, but I hope that my role as an auntie will allow me to share what I know about our culture and our language with my nieces and nephews as they grow. My sisters, each with two children under five, don’t have the time to learn a new language while juggling work, kids, and a global pandemic, so I feel that it is a part of my duty (besides being the cool aunt) to pass along what I can.

  169. David Marjanović says

    Yay, cool aunt. *thumbs up*

  170. cuchuflete wrote: a series of now forgotten links to pages that claim Abenaki as the source of the English word Skunk.

    Some early dictionaries (including the OED1, 1919) do give Abenaki as the source of “skunk”, I suspect simply because it was *attested*: there were enough speakers left in the late 19th century to publish an Abenaki-English dictionary, while the southern New England languages were already lost. But the primary sources were written by colonists in southern New England, not Maine; that’s presumably why current dictionaries give the source language as Massachusett. (Maybe there is some telltale phonological difference too, I don’t know.) The OED3 (March 2019) now says: “< an unattested Southern New England Algonquian cognate of Western Abenaki segôgw, Unami Delaware šká:kw, Meskwaki shekâkwa”.

    How the Abenaki came to be considered southern New England, as Maine is as far north as one can travel without illegally entering Canada, is a mystery for another day.

    That’s Douglas Harper mashing up an outdated source with a more up-to-date one. I wrote to him and he’s now changed it to “a southern New England Algonquian language (perhaps Massachusett)”. That’s reasonable, since Massachusett is what’s given by the Random House Dictionary (1987), which had Ives Goddard as a consultant on Native American etymology. The OED is probably just being more cautious in refraining from naming a specific dialect, since there isn’t specific evidence of exactly who the colonists got the word from.

  171. The first two attestations in the OED are Squunckes (1634) and Squnck (1674), i.e something like [skʷʌŋk]. Was the first /k/ really rounded, or did the transcribers not believe their ears were hearing a final kʷ?

  172. Whenever I got to choose the name of my work computer (that link is very Hattic, by the way), I always chose skunk, as it was never already in use and there was small likelihood that anyone would turf me out of it. My present work computer is named, or “named”, NY0145AM098098, of which only the first two characters make sense to me.

  173. 01:45 AM 09.80.98

    Duodeoctogintaber, 9, a quarter to two.

  174. Or Sexaginta Sextilis 9, if we do not count winter.

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