HaggardHawks has Questions.

A couple of years ago I posted about Paul Anthony Jones and his online avatar HaggardHawks; now I learn from Lynne Murphy’s TLS review that he’s written what sounds like a useful book:

Those who follow Paul Anthony Jones’s work know him as a first-rate collector of linguistic curios. Through his books and prodigious Twitter output (@HaggardHawks), he entertains us with lost words, strange etymologies, and language puzzles. His ninth book, Why Is This a Question?, shifts from curios to a deeper curiosity – from wondering about individual words to wondering about language itself.

Each of the twenty chapters poses a question and explores its possible answers, roping in evidence from a university’s worth of disciplines – from archaeology to zoology, with history, neurology, psychology and plenty of linguistics along the way. Many of the questions are unanswerable, but that only makes the chapters more interesting. “What is the hardest language to learn?” (chapter 5) depends on many factors, including which languages one already knows. But in considering the question we get to learn about the US Foreign Service categories of language difficulty, the meaning of the word xenoglossophobia (“fear of foreign languages”), and how and why Lord Byron came to write Albanian textbooks. The pace is exhilarating. […]

Jones acknowledges the complexity of the issues, summarizing academic debates and explaining why some “common sense” ideas about language aren’t always helpful. (For instance, if you think you know what a word is, Jones has news for you.) He paints these often abstract and technical issues in clear and vivid tones. The reader is encouraged to blow a raspberry to understand the mechanics of our vocal cords and why their vibrations could not be controlled by our brains. By formatting text in unusual ways, Jones gets the reader to feel the ways in which our smooth experience of reading is anything but straightforward.

Examples from dozens of languages give us a feel for the range of human linguistic potential. Many of us know that French divides its nouns into “masculine” and “feminine” genders, but will be surprised by the Amazonian language Miraña, which has more than seventy such categories. We know about Roman and Cyrillic alphabets and Chinese characters, but what about the ingenuity of the Inuktitut writing system, in which a vowel is indicated by the written orientation of the preceding consonant?

Thank goodness we live at a time when popular books on language are written by people who know what they’re talking about!


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    I am curious re the supposed 70+ genders of Miraña. Ethnologue sez that’s an alternative name for the language also known as “Bora,” whereas wikipedia asserts that it’s a dialect of Bora with 94% mutual comprehensibility with “regular” Bora. The wiki article on Bora does include the intriguing sentence “Bora contains 350 classifiers, the most discovered of any languages thus far.” Now, classifiers are sort of adjacent to genders, but while 350 is literally “more than seventy,” that would seem like an odd wording to express “approximately 350.”

  2. Yes, I wondered about that as well but didn’t bother to research it.

  3. The 70 may be from here.

    Ed.: following the reference, Seifart’s thesis, here (ch. 3). Pretty amazing.

  4. Stu Clayton says

    Yeah, better hurry up though:

    El miraña es una lengua amazónica hablada hoy en día por menos de cien hablantes

  5. How many languages have more genders than speakers?

  6. what about the ingenuity of the Inuktitut writing system, in which a vowel is indicated by the written orientation of the preceding consonant?

    A derivative of Cree Syllabics?

  7. David Marjanović says


  8. John Cowan says

    How many languages have more genders than speakers?

    I don’t know how many speakers Lojban has, but it has 18 genders (of justice): the b-gender, the d-gender, the f-gender, …, the z-gender, the vowel-initial gender. Each has its own pronoun homonymous with the name of the letter. There are also ten genderless pronouns.

  9. Eighteen Genders of Justice — I think I will wait for the movie.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    There is a nice grammar of Bora by Thiesen and Weber gracing my bookshelves.

    Bora does indeed go a bundle on classifiers (over three hundred.) By no stretch of the imagination are they genders, although classifiers are extensively used to track reference and so forth. Six out of every ten words in the texts cited in fact lack classifiers; many classifiers are homophonous with free nouns, and the authors in fact regard all of the classifiers as nouns – bound nouns insofar as they are used as classifiers.

    Admittedly there is no neat line between grammatical gender systems and classifier systems, but I have to say that Bora falls far into the “classifier” end of the spectrum in pretty much every conceivable respect. Calling it a “gender” system is merely journalistic striving for effect.* You might as well call the spouse of your second cousin twice removed “nuclear family.”

    T and W in fact get more excited by the tone system (the book is actually titled A Grammar of Bora with Special Attention to Tone.) And quite right too. Tone systems are way cool. Classifiers, meh. Tell it to George Lakoff.

    * In fairness, I see that TFA only says “categories”, not “genders.” But they’re really not the same thing as French masculine/feminine, even so.

  11. I was alluding to the 2000-2001 U.S. television program 18 Wheels of Justice. I somehow omitted the c-gender, which includes words like cabra ‘apparatus’, cacra ‘hour’, cadzu ‘walker’ (agent, not instrument), cakla ‘chocolate’, etc.

  12. DE: Shape classifiers are neat. Seifart lists “bottle-shaped container”, “crumbs”, “object with a broken edge”, “a platform made from attaching aligned slender objects to each other”, “objects that are folded up and tied together (also of a person who is sleeping curled up)”, “a slice of big, long and round objects (e.g. of an anaconda, a banana, certain fish, or of a watermelon)”, “dented part in a slender object (e.g. a trunk, branch, a person’s waist)”, “an arrangement of unordered fibers pointing roughly in the same direction (e.g. the stump of a tree trunk after felling it, the uncombed hair of a person)”, “a number of fibers with the same orientation (e.g. skirt used as disguise in traditional festivals, the tails of squirrels and a certain species of nocturnal monkey, eyelashes, hair)”, “a mass containing fibers in an unordered state (e.g. hair, old clothes, manioc dough)”, and many more.

  13. @John Cowan: Who would have guessed you were a fan of G. Gordon Liddy’s acting oeuvre?

  14. “Why is this a question?”

    “Because this is an answer.”

  15. Brett: Never saw the show in my life. I’ve been surviving the Great Wind Chill (currently -13C temperature, -19C chill) by binging on Nick ‘n Norm (Nicholas and Spinrad, respectively).

  16. You might as well call the spouse of your second cousin twice removed “nuclear family.”
    That’s exactly what many Kazakhs would do 🙂

  17. I was going to say that that was a surprisingly Euro-Am attitude to hear from DE.

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    I think the very use of the term “nuclear family” implies that attitude (which is why I said “nuclear family” and not just “family.”)

    Ghanaians of my acquaintance were quite envious of our European ability to remain quite genuinely completely untroubled by any notion that we might actually have responsibilities to family members more remote than spouses, children and parents. (They were usually the most financially well-off members of their own families, of course.)

  19. @ David E. “any notion that we might actually have responsibilities to family members more remote than spouse”

    A Zambian couple I met in the United States about fifteen years ago told me that their country has no old-age homes, nursing homes, facilities for assisted living, or the like because when older people need help not only “the family” (nuclear and extended) is ready and willing but also neighbors up and down the street and across the street.

  20. Yvonne Murchison says

    I only just discovered Mr Jones and his Twitter account a few weeks ago (I’m not much of a social media person, truth be told), but I saw him recently at the Oxford Book Festival where he gave a lovely discussion of this book.

    It may be of interest to you to know that he has also just published a wonderful book of word games, The Haggard Hawks Book of Brainteasers, all to raise money for the cancer charity that cared for his late father. I ordered my copy last week, and have been puzzling over it all weekend. Highly recommended.

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