Fossil Words.

Today’s SMBC is pure Languagehattery. Punch line: “My grandpappy weren’t no speaker of Proto-Indo-European!” (Thanks, Sven!)


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    Divine credit may be due for it, but the existence of multiple human languages is not necessarily a beneficent act of creation like the wide range of flora and fauna available for us to eat or otherwise use, but was rather a divine punishment for, or perhaps merely precaution against, human hubris, as explained in the 11th chapter of Genesis. Fortunately, God in due time caused it to come about that the whole of humanity would either know koine Greek or be reachable by someone who did, meaning that if He moved past his particularistic fascination with Semitic tongues and arranged for His messages to be disseminated in Greek, the disadvantages stemming from the earlier division of tongues could be overcome. (A flashier alternative approach was demonstrated on the Day of Pentecost, but “let’s just make sure everyone learns Greek or has access to someone who has” was simpler to scale up.)

  2. So what you’re saying is, your grandpappy were a speaker of koine Greek.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    I regret to say both of my grandpappies were trained as scientists and/or engineers and thus primarily in the vulgar tongue, but on some Sundays of their lives they paid respectful if intermittent attention to sermons delivered by fellows who had at least had a smattering of the koine at seminary and (for certain generational cohorts of such preachers) probably before.

  4. I absolutely have to quote it here, whether apposite or not: “If our ancestors had descended from monkeys, they would not have been buried in a Christian cemetery; my great-great-grandfather, for example, Ambrose, who lived in the Kingdom of Poland at that time, was buried not like a monkey, but next to the Catholic abbot Joachim Shostak, whose notes on the temperate climate and intemperate consumption of hot drinks are kept to this day by my brother Ivan (Major).”

  5. Has anyone objected to Esperanto (or indeed World English) on the basis that it would defy God’s verdict at Babel?

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    if our ancestors had descended from monkeys, they would not have been buried in a Christian cemetery

    This is rank pithecism. I see no reason why a duly baptised monkey should not be buried in a Christian churchyard.

  7. Yes. The Church has traditionally placed primates in high ranking positions, without ever insisting that they be specifically humans, or even simian.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    or even simian

    There is no place for antisimitism in the Church.

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    @mollymooly. The Church teaches that the verdict of Babel is no longer intended to be operative post-Pentecost. Thus the (Byzantine-tradition) kontakion of that feast, in one of what is probably a fairly large number of varying English translations: “When the most High came down and confused the tongues, / He divided the nations; / but when he distributed* the tongues of fire / He called all to unity. / Therefore, with one voice, we glorify the All-holy Spirit!” That said, the Baha’i are traditionally Esperanto enthusiasts, and it’s probably best to leave it to them. (They’re quite possibly less flaky than the general run of Esperanto enthusiasts?)**

    *If you review you will see that a few modern translations use “distributed” but others use a wide variety of other verbs and/or participles to try to render διαμεριζόμεναι.

    **I have no doubt told the tale here before of arriving in Trieste in 2006 only to learn from posters lingering around town that I was a week or so too late to have had the chance of attending a Catholic mass celebrated in Esperanto (in observation of the centennial of some quite-possibly-flaky association of Catholic Esperantists). The idea that it would be nice on occasion to have Mass in a language not associated with any particular ethnicity or political entity but a widely-known L2 with a consequently international-to-universal sort of vibe seemed so plausible that one wondered why the reformers of Vatican II hadn’t thought of it.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    There was a nest of Iranian Baha’i in the orthopaedic department I worked in long ago. They were all extremely nice people, and not particularly flaky compared with orthopaedic surgeons in general.

  11. So was the language of Eden and/or our simian forebears Welsh or KONGO?

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    As already adumbrated by JWB, it was KOiNeGO.

    “Welsh” is the modern, more scientific term for Marr’s “Japhetic.”

  13. 2006 … centennial of some quite-possibly-flaky association of Catholic Esperantists

    The date is right for the first sanctioned Catholic services.

  14. cuchuflete says

    . I see no reason why a duly baptised monkey should not be buried in a Christian churchyard.

    They are, by the hundreds of millions.

  15. David Marjanović says

    Has anyone objected to Esperanto (or indeed World English) on the basis that it would defy God’s verdict at Babel?

    IIRC, yes, but very rarely.

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    The interpretation of Pentecost as specifically undoing the curse of Babel seems to be very much standard. Hard to see how any mainstream Christian could then interpret either translation or the use of interlanguages (natural or otherwise) as Bad.

    I suppose a diehard Pentecostal might maintain that it’s only proper if it’s done miraculously. I don’t think I’ve ever come across that in real life though.

    On the other hand, the Trumpodules are committed to the view that all supranational organisations whatsoever (League of Nations, UN, World Bank, EU, ECHR, UNESCO, WCC, WWF, WWE, FIDE, FIFA*) are part of the Antichrist’s One World Government Satanic Plan(ic), and at one stage the League of Nations was quite keen on Esperanto, IIRC, so maybe it’s damned by association.

    * FIFA, of course, really is a front for Satan. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    Also 大本, Ōmoto

    regards Esperanto as a sacred language, and as they appear not even to be Protestants, it follows that Esperanto is Evil. QED.

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    FIDE has for the last 40+ years been pretty much continuously presided over by political hacks from thuggish-to-dictatorial regimes. Perhaps those are the countries where chess is more culturally salient, though? To be fair, the human rights situation in the Philippines did improve somewhat while the Filipino fellow was in office, although he was closely associated with Ferdinand Marcos (as well as allegedly simultaneously being on the payroll of the KGB?) and probably does not deserve any credit for that. Maybe the post-Marcos regime thought it would be too thuggish-looking to terminate the careers of erstwhile Marcos henchmen who had already burrowed their way into cushy gigs in dubious supranational bureaucracies.

  19. David Marjanović says

    It just dawned on me that FIFA is the one that can actually afford black helicopters.


  20. LOL

  21. PlasticPaddy says

    It all fits: Messi = Messiah is the direct descendant of Jesus, whose record as a striker for Maccabee Jaffa can only be found in an apocryphal text, existing in a single manuscript copy held by an order of sporting monks. FIFA, due to its outstanding record of financial rectitude, was chosen by the brothers as the guardian of their secret.

  22. perhaps i will start describing zamenhof as a pentecostal

  23. It all fits: Messi = Messiah is the direct descendant of Jesus, whose record as a striker for Maccabee Jaffa can only be found in an apocryphal text, existing in a single manuscript copy held by an order of sporting monks. FIFA, due to its outstanding record of financial rectitude, was chosen by the brothers as the guardian of their secret.

    *achieves satori*

  24. David Eddyshaw says

    Shouldn’t there be an emoji for “achieves satori”?

  25. David Marjanović says

    perhaps i will start describing zamenhof as a pentecostal

    I think you should.

  26. Trond Engen says

    Now that you say it, there’s a whole Zen (or Buddhist) terminology of mind in need of emojis.

    And why stop at Buddhism? Where are the emojis for the seven maqāmāt of Sufism? Come to think of it, where are the emojis for the seven deadly sins? Or the emoji for Calvinist total depravity?

  27. In Unicode most of the current few dozen religious emojis are squeezed into the Miscellaneous Symbols block. Most religions could make do with the Private Use Area (6,400 code points). But the more multifarious might need Supplementary Private Use Areas A and B (65,534 each).

  28. David Eddyshaw says

    the emoji for Calvinist total depravity


  29. The Tao that can be emojied is not the eternal Tao.

  30. Courtesy of Hans, a new SMBC: dysgraphomophone, a homophone that looks like a misspelling.

  31. “clew” and “indorse” are not so much dysgraphomophones as polysymoheterographs

  32. Indeed, the first time I encountered that meaning (in a retelling of the story of Theseus), the word was spelled “clue.”

  33. J.W. Brewer says

    I don’t agree, or at least don’t completely agree, with the gloss of “indorse” as “to formally endorse,” not least because I don’t know what “formally” is supposed to mean. Historically, “indorse” and “endorse” were just variant spellings, which the google n-gram viewer shows roughly neck and neck throughout the 19th century but with the “in-” variant plummetting in relative rate of usage over the course of the 20th century, to the point where it can now be fairly regarded as an archaism. Two things flow from that: a) there are extended metaphorical senses of “endorse” that the “in-” version has probably never been used for; and b) the archaism is more likely to be used in “formal” legal contexts, particularly when there is a statute that preserves/freezes the “in-” spelling. In American law, the Uniform Commercial Code (I think still in effect in 49 out of 50 states?) prefers “indorse” (and “indorser” and “indorsement”*) because of some weird-beard stylistic preference of its drafters that could have been otherwise, but I don’t know that lawyers and judges applying the relevant sections of the UCC in actual disputes consistently follow that spelling. There are plenty of jurisdictions where it remains illegal at least under some circumstances to possess or sell “marihuana” but it is not uncommon for lawyers and judges to use the more current spelling (with a “j” for the “h”) when writing about prosecutions under those statutes.

    *To give the example most familiar to regular folks, when you sign your name on the back of a check payable to your order before cashing it at your bank, “indorse” is the statute’s verb for the action you are performing, your signature is the “indorsement” and you are the “indorser.” Note that you are writing on the back of the instrument, i.e. “in dorsum,” with the “in” becoming “en” when mediated through French.

  34. David Marjanović says

    in dorsum

    Really? I thought it was just like “I’ve got your back” or like propping something up…

  35. J.W. Brewer says

    @David M.: No, the core historical meaning is really “sign [or at least write something else with legal significance] on the back of,” with everything else being a metaphorical extended sense.

  36. Stu Clayton says

    I think DM’s humor has been underestimated here (his comment ends with “…”, after all). I take him to mean “I’ve got your back by signing this instrument on the back”, where “you” refers to “the holder of this instrument”. We affectionately call that a Kalauer.

    OTOH, where would civilization be without sight drafts, promises and other delaying tactics ?

  37. David Marjanović says

    My humor has been greatly overestimated. I was simply expressing my surprise. Three dots are for the intonation of uncertainty and waiting for a reaction; they’re not ” 😉 “.

  38. Stu Clayton says

    That’s pretty funny right there ! Unfortunately, you don’t get to choose whether people laugh with or at you. In the present case it doesn’t even seem to make a difference. A fleeting equilibrium has been reached.

  39. We don’t ask “quid rides?”!

  40. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    The Danish is endossere, a fake Latin infinitive calqued/faked/backformed from French. Many years since that word was out of the curiosity cabinet, I don’t think I ever had occasion to use a check issued (udstedt) to me as payment for anything. (Latin-looking infinitives are regularly borrowed in the infinitive spot in the Danish weak verb paradigm, causing the stem to contain the Latin desinence. [Unlike the case in French]. Jeg endosserede checken).

  41. I don’t think it’s loaning of the Latin infinitive directly – they all have -ere, independent of the Latin verb class, haven’t they? It’s rather the suffix Low German & Dutch -eren, German -ieren, that was extracted from verbs that had been loaned from Old French with their infinitive in -er and is applied to verbs loaned from Latin and some verbs formed from native material. I think we discussed this suffix here before?
    The German terms are indossieren and Indossament. They are mostly applicable to bills of exchange and similar bearer papers. WP says the term comes from Italian in dosso “on the back”; it’s one of the many financial terms with an Italian origin. French loaned it as endosser. The the Danish form looks like it’s loaned from French, not from German or Italian. The English form could be an etymologizing back-formation of French endosser.

  42. J.W. Brewer says

    @Hans: I take it that “indossieren” does not have the wide range of extended senses (not involving writing on the back of legally-significant documents) that English “endorse” does? And yes, the standard etymological claim is that endorse has the spelling it does because etymologizing fusspots reinserted the historical “r” that had been lost during the transit from Latin through French. I guess the “indorse” alternative might have been motivated in part by a sense of consistency: i.e. the feeling that if you’re going to do that you also ought to switch the French “en” back to the Latin “in.”

  43. David Marjanović says

    No extended senses; I didn’t even know either word.

  44. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    @Hans, well, sort of. There are also direct learned loans from Latin that pattern the same way, especially in medical jargon. I highly doubt that transfundere (as for blood) would have that form if it had been through either French or LG, my guess would be transfusere. (Refusere, of a horse at a jump, is clearly from French, but conjugates exactly the same way in Danish).

    At least they don’t pretend that trānsfūdīt be the correct past tense in Danish. They might not even recognize that form if it bit them

    And yes, the first conjugation ones that passed through French have -ere: mutere, servere and even dominere (from non-deponent dominare). I won’t rule out that some hospital doctors (probably the ophthalmologists) keep ‑are in “raw” first conjugation Latin verbs, though I can’t think of any specimens. And most of them wouldn’t be able to conjugate the things in Latin. Just ask one what the eponymous body part of the adjective ventral is in Latin. I’ll put good money against getting venter back

  45. @JWB: Correct, it’s a term purely related to financial documents. You can’t indossieren, say, a political position, politician, or message.
    @Lars: I’m not saying that all those verbs are loaned from French, only the suffix is and has, at least in German and Dutch, become obligatory for verbs loaned from Latin, French, and other Romance languages. And as long as I haven’t seen Latin verbs loaned to Danish with -are or -ire conserved, I assume it’s similar in Danish; the case with transfundere is parallel to German diffundieren, which also must have been loaned from Latin diffundere and not from French diffuser.

  46. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    @Hans, that was what I was trying to express. I don’t know of any in ‑are or ‑ire, but I can’t rule out their existence. The orthographical dictionary (which does have transfundere*) also has a search function, but *are and *ire only find non-Latin words, so they are pretty obscure if they do exist.

    So do we say that Danish has replaced the Latin infinitive ending -ere with the absolutely identical French/LG ending ‑ere ending, even in loans directly from Latin? These are deep waters.
    (*) I asked my Mom, b. 1935 and MSc in Biology, and she had never heard of the word. So it is not common.

  47. You see the replacement even in French verbs; servere (German servieren) is from French servir; etablere (German etablieren) from French établir.
    I don’t know about you, but I prefer working with a rule “the infinitive including stem vowel is replaced by the loan suffix -ere” to “the infinitive including stem vowel is replaced by -ere, except if it looks exactly like -ere, in which case the original infinitive stays, but stress moves to the same place as in the loan suffix” (the Latin is stressed trans’fundere, but I assume Danish transfundere has penultimate stress, like all verbs with the loan suffix -ere)

  48. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    The stress thing is correct, and pretty convincing. I don’t remember any prior discussion here, but it’s not unlikely there was one.

    The fun thing: if you are talking to people who know a bit of Latin, basically all Latin verbs are available in Danish, you don’t have to wait for someone in medieval France to borrow it and see which stem they used, and if they didn’t you’re out of luck. It doesn’t feel like you’re replacing the suffix, you’re just using the Latin which happens to be easy to conjugate in Danish.

    TIL that restringere is also in the orthographical dictionary, but I remember discussing with a CS processor 40 years ago how to render “restricted CTS” in Danish, and coming up with “restringeret” from first principles. (Of course begrænset would be more natural, but Danish CS people don’t like to use “normal” Danish words because they want a word with a narrow technical sense, and are not aware how many senses a word like server has in English).

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