Hey! I Know What That Means!

Lucy Ferriss writes for Lingua Franca about her students’ experience with French after four months of a study-abroad program which “does not require that students have studied the language before they arrive, and most of the courses are taught in English”:

Now, on the face of it, this method seems bizarre. Imagine a group of Italian undergraduates coming to New York for a semester to study, and taking all their classes in Italian. The difference, of course, is that English is taught in all Western European countries, beginning at a young age. In the United States, we start teaching foreign languages later, and we teach them with far less urgency than our European counterparts — in large measure because, as native English speakers, we don’t feel we “need” another language. Because study-abroad programs want to encourage students to experience a different culture, they are loath to set a language bar that excludes eager but untaught learners.

The responses from the students are very interesting; here are a few:

Maddie (several years of university-level French): I’d gotten used to one voice, my professor’s voice. I’ve found it difficult to adjust my comprehension to all the other voices I’ve been hearing. It’s not that the language is too complicated. It’s that I can’t untangle the words in a different voice or accent. I have to listen really hard.

Electra (no French at all before arriving): I found language itself hard as a child. I spoke late and I read late. Everyone else was reading, and I couldn’t seem to. Then, all at once, I started making out words, and I remember the excitement of the moment I caught on to reading. Like, “Hey! I know what that sign means!” I’m having the same experience now, and it’s very exciting. Signs and announcements that were just letters to me before are starting to make sense, and now I want to go farther, I really want to speak the language. I do find that the French speak awfully fast. I do better with a sort of Germanish accent, with the words slower.

Emily (some university-level French): Being what I would call semi-proficient in the language has forced me to self-reflect. I really wanted to speak French when I got here. Then I became reluctant. I knew I would make so many mistakes. I have to push past that. I have to step it up. If I don’t make myself speak, I’ll leave without much more confidence than I had when I arrived.

Ferriss says “their comments put me in mind of a trio of us who went off to a Belgian boarding school in 1969”:

Besides me, there was Molly, from Ohio, who was sharply witty in private but painfully shy in public; and Mary, from Connecticut, who was an effervescent chatterbox. Mary embarrassed Molly and me because she made so many awful mistakes when she spoke French — she mixed up her tenses and genders and felt free to substitute an English word with a faux French accent whenever she didn’t know the word in French. On our departure, the girls at the school threw us a little party. They raised their glasses, “to Molly who is so intelligent, and Lucy who is so nice, and Mary who speaks such good French.” Mistakes are not the issue; willingness is.

That reminds me of my mother, who cheerfully tackled the languages of every country she wound up in as a result of my father’s foreign service career: Japan, Thailand, and Argentina. She didn’t worry about mistakes, she just talked away, and she wound up being able to communicate easily with people. My father, on the other hand, was painfully aware of his mistakes, and as a result was never able to speak other than haltingly and awkwardly. (I’m afraid I take after him, with the result that I read Russian fluently but speak it haltingly and awkwardly; my spoken Spanish and French are, or were, good, but that was a result of immersion and constant use.)

This comment by Tom Dawkes (in a Log thread about gibberish allegedly from Henry Roth’s novel Call It Sleep but actually Google Translate’s “bizarre response” to finding an English passage in the middle of a German text) describes a different but equally interesting phenomenon:

I remember being in an English poetry evening class in the mid-70s. The group included two German students of 18 or 19, I think, who seemed to enjoy the class and to have no difficulty in following. Towards the end of one session, our tutor, an outstanding person in his concern for teaching, gave us an unseen piece and asked us to comment and if possible identify the period and the author. The two Germans, without much hesitation, thought it was 20th century poetry: it was actually a Shakespeare sonnet. I have never forgotten this lesson in how difficult it is for a learner to achieve the native speaker’s innate sense of language — or, as the Germans say, Sprachgefühl.


  1. SFReader says

    Kato Lomb recommends an approach which is just the opposite:

    …I was able to give up my post to professional educators and start working on another language, Polish. Classes were announced and students were invited to enroll. When I enrolled, I used a trick that I highly recommend to all my fellow linguaphiles who are serious about learning a language: sign up for a level much higher than what you are entitled to by your actual knowledge. Of the three levels available (beginner’s, intermediate, and advanced), I asked to be enrolled at the advanced level.
    When the instructor tried to ascertain my level of expertise, I replied, “Don’t bother. I don’t speak a word of Polish.”
    “Then why on Earth do you wish to attend an advanced course?” He was astonished.
    “Because those who know nothing must advance vigorously.”
    He got so confused by my tortuous reasoning that he added my name to the class roster without another word

  2. That’s certainly an interesting approach, and if it worked for her, great, but I think it’s irresponsible for her to recommend it to “all my fellow linguaphiles,” since I’m pretty sure it would be a disaster for most people. (I actually placed into intermediate rather than beginning Russian in college because I had studied it on my own during the summer, but it caused me a lot of difficulty; I can’t imagine trying to cope with an advanced class.)

  3. Hm, I am surprised by Maddie. Even when I was trying to learn English, which was so long ago that it might have been actually Middle English, we had a listening lab and recordings on cassette tapes with conversations and such. So either Maddie haven’t tried that hard or her problem was not one speaker’s style, but the usual situation when speech presented in the class is much slower and much better articulated, with “dictionary pronunciation”, all sentences are spoken as if they are written etc. and then the everyday speech is a mess.

  4. I didn’t study any language beyond the (British equivalent of) high school, but I can relate to what Maddie says. For French and German classes, we had conversational lessons with the help of native speakers — recent graduates or possibly undergraduates who spent a year at our school. I felt I had a decent ability to follow spoken French, but that disappeared the first time I went to France and was bewildered by the blizzard of actual language spoken in the wild by actual French people.

    On the other hand, I found German much easier to follow when I first went to Germany. Much less elision and slurring, compared to French.

  5. Well, the Germans were only off by a century, which is excusable; as I keep saying, Shakespeare was the very greatest of the second rank of 19C German Romantic poets. But indeed, to the native speakers of today, Shakespeare might as well have written in Middle English.

    What will we call this language when Modern English is as hard to understand as Chaucer is now? Two sf authors, Niven and Bester, have replied “(Black) Spanglish”, and the latter even gave us this translation into it:

    “The Beholder bless the poor in soul, for they gets the Kingdom of Heaven. God, he bless the no-way cats. You gone be cool and easy, Guig. Santo, hear, all meek dudes because they gone grab the whole scene. Feliz, Guig, if you flip for the right-on. Then you be filled by the Beholder. Bendito all mercy types; they gone, y’know, reap misericordia.

    “Albar, you pure in soul. Gone feast your ojo on the Beholder. Peace-jive hombres, benediction. You gone belong to the God gang. Blessed be losers busted for wanting right. They reap like the whole heaven shtik. All be out of sight, Guig, so give me five, man, and dig what I tell because it trip boss in the heaven pad.”

    “Guig” /gwɪg/ is the nickname of the addressee, short for Grand Guignol. Later on in the book, he gets laughed at on Ceres, a mostly Euro enclave, for saying “Tante danke” instead of “Grazie sehr”.`

  6. marie-lucie says

    JC: nice tries!

    “Guig” /gwɪg/ is the nickname of the addressee, short for Grand Guignol

    I would never have guessed! I thought it was a hizpanicized spelling for /gɪg/, whatever that meant. The sequence gn is the single sound written in Spanish as ñ.

    The French name Guignol stars with /gi/. It might be derived from the word la guigne ‘bad luck’, a colloquial if not slangy word.

    It originates from the area of Lyon (with Franco-Provençal substrate) and names the main character in a traditional puppet show (still popularly performed in some places, especially for children) known by the same name. The Grand Guignol was an adult version apparently known for its gruesome details.

  7. marie-lucie says

    When I was about 14 and my sister 12, our principal (a former English teacher) organized a school trip to England, where we stayed about a week, Our group was together during the day but boarded with families at night, in our case a couple with two children several years younger than us. I could carry on a conversation with the parents reasonably well (given limited topics!), but when the children tried to talk to us we found them totally unintelligible. I guess they did not have the adult ability to adapt their speech to different people, or even to understand that we did not understand.

  8. Not to give away too much, Guig is called that because he keeps trying to save people’s lives and ends up killing them faster and more unpleasantly instead, so he is horribly cruel with only the best of motives. He doesn’t like the nickname, but he can’t deny it’s appropriate. Presumably it’s an English-language spelling pronunciation.

    We know the pronunciation because his wife can’t say /w/ (she’s a native speaker of Mohawk, which doesn’t have labials) and calls him Glig. Apparently the sound written w in Mohawk is a velar approximant.

  9. When I was in my early teens I decided I wanted to know calculus, and found a textbook and studied it. I was not interested in algebra, which did not sound glamorous at all, even though it was a prerequisite, and didn’t study it until later in school. I got through the whole calculus book, even though obviously there were many steps which I didn’t understand.

    Starting out with an advanced language course makes sense to to me, but I recognize that it’s masochistic, and wouldn’t work for everyone.

  10. speedwell says

    Y, when I was in high school, my best friend was so advanced in calculus that they put him literally in a class of his own. One day while I was at his house waiting for him to do something he hadn’t done that his mother had asked him to do a hundred times, I started doing problems in the last chapter of one of his textbooks just to see if I could. He laughed when he came back and saw what I was doing, since I was not exactly known for my success at math (and I’m a girl, which was more significant in 1981). But he gave me a speculative look when he checked my answers and they were correct. Then he taught me to play Go so he could continue to feel superior to me at something. 🙂

    However, I went to learn Irish in the Gaeltacht last summer. Languagey things are my strong suit. But it would have been ridiculous for me to jump right into the advanced class. I took the beginner class twice on purpose because it was being taught by two different teachers. The second time filled in the gaps of the first time, and was necessary. Math and language are just… different, I guess.

  11. SFReader says

    For a certain kind of linguaphile, getting to the advanced stage is usually done entirely through self-study (and quite fast too).

    Advanced class is needed to learn to speak a language, because learning to speak is the only part of learning a language which can’t be achieved by self-study – (by definition, in order to learn to speak a language you actually have to speak in it with someone else).

    So it makes perfect sense.

    Kato Lomb’s approach only seems bizarre, because she didn’t even bother to start learning Polish before she enrolled in advanced class, but I suspect that’s because she knew that she would catch with class very quickly through self-study.

  12. According to Wikipedia, Kato Lomb had been studying Russian for 14 years before she started Polish. I’m thinking that jumping straight into an advanced Polish course would be less successful for Joe Schmo from Schenectady lacking any background in Slavic roots or morphology.

    In any event, Lomb was famous as an autodidact, so for her the classroom instruction would have been of secondary importance anyway. And if jumping into the deep end were all that one needed to become an accomplished polyglot, I think there’d be more of them wandering about..

  13. David Marjanović says

    According to Wikipedia, Kato Lomb had been studying Russian for 14 years before she started Polish.

    Oh, in that case skipping the beginner stuff makes all the sense in the world! It’s not a representative example of language learning, and her claim to “know nothing” was completely disingenuous.

  14. Agreed.

  15. SFReader says

    Well, I assume languagehat won’t have any trouble signing with advanced Polish class tomorrow given his long experience with Russian 😉

  16. January First-of-May says

    Now I’m reminded of the discussion of what the era of Elizabeth II would or should be called. (Normally it would be “Elizabethan”, naturally, but of course that’s already taken by the era of Elizabeth I.)

    Sadly, I’ve forgotten what the current leading suggestion is…

  17. J.W. Brewer says


  18. Maybe, except that he speaks Polish like a Russian.

    On board a train speeding toward Warsaw, four strangers were sharing one compartment: a Russian Imperial officer, a beautiful young girl, an old peasant woman, and a patriotic Polish professor of logic. For mile upon mile they traveled in silence. Suddenly — the train had entered a tunnel — darkness fell. Then the silence was broken by the sound of a kiss, quite loud, followed by the sound, even louder, of a slap. As the train roared out of the tunnel the Russian officer had a rueful expression and one cheek much redder than the other. Still no one spoke. But what were they thinking?

    The old woman was thinking, “That filthy Russian — she gave him what he deserved!”

    The Russian was thinking, “How unfair! That Pole steals a kiss and I’m the one she slaps.”

    The young girl was thinking, “Strange — why did the Russian officer kiss that old woman?”

    The logician was thinking, “Oh, what a clever Polish patriot I am! The darkness falls — I kiss my hand — I slap a Russian officer — and no one is the wiser!”

    (lightly edited from Zero Gravity, a collection of anecdotes about science and mathematics)

  19. Great story!

  20. marie-lucie says

    The problem should now be to describe the positions of the passengers in the train.

  21. The term Neo-Elizabethan was bandied about for a while in the hopes that it would trigger or reflect some great transformation, but when it didn’t, the term was dropped. There are no terms for the reigns of George V or George VI either (except the war years, I suppose).

    The positions of the passengers is indeed a hard problem. A priori we would expect that the men would be sitting side by side facing the women, who are also sitting side by side. But in that case the Russian should be able to tell if the slap came from across the aisle or from his neighbor. If the young woman and the Pole are sitting side by side, then the Russian might legitimately not know who slapped him, but he would be even more surprised than he is: how could the girl have believed it was he rather than her immediate neighbor who kissed her? In both cases the geometry is wrong.

  22. Numerous British monarchs have no widely used terms for their reigns, even when there is no naming conflict: Charleses, Williams, and others farther back. Queen Anne doesn’t have a dedicated adjective for her reign; just “Queen Anne” suffices for most purposes.

    @marie-lucie: Martin Gardner gave a similar situation as a logic puzzle in one of his books (probably Aha! Insight). He placed the events in a Parisian elevator, circa 1943. There was a Nazi officer in uniform, the two women, and a member of the Resistance. The increasingly confused reactions of the old woman, the young woman, and the German are given, and the goal is to figure out what happened.

  23. J.W. Brewer says

    “Queen Anne” may be her own adjectival form, but “Jacobean,” “Caroline,” and even “Williamite” are in various degrees of use to pick up most of the slack between Elizabethan and Georgian, although “Jacobean” probably means in most contexts “c. 1603-25” to the exclusion of “c. 1685-88.”

    (Edited to note that “Williamite” may often have a more limited and explicitly factional scope, possibly contrasting in context with “Jacobite.”)

  24. a member of the Resistance

    That loses the idea of using a professor of logic. I had hoped that it might be Jan Łukasiewicz, but alas and dammit, he was an Austrian Pole, not a Russian Pole. Still, he did study and then teach at Lwów (now Lviv) University 1897-1915, so just maybe.

    Polish notation (+ 3 * 4 5 = 23) and reverse Polish notation (3 4 5 * + = 23) are called that because anglophones can’t say, or even spell, Łukasiewicz.

  25. The peasant woman was the owner of the zebra.

  26. There was a Nazi officer in uniform, the two women, and a member of the Resistance.

    This is a vastly inferior version, and not just for the reason JC gives. However fraught the relations of Poles and Russians in the 19th century, apart from the few years of actual rebellion there would be no expectation that a Polish patriot would try to do away with a Russian officer on the spot, and none that a Russian officer would just up and kill somebody he suspected of being a problem. Neither of these holds true for Paris in 1943; the suggested meeting is far too fraught and dangerous for a jolly logic puzzle to be enjoyable on its own abstract terms (in my opinion).

  27. @languagehat: I can’t really argue with that.

    What you say does remind me of what I was telling a friend a couple days ago about the movie The Train, directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Burt Lancaster. (It was named, perhaps superfluously, as the best train movie of all time by Trains Magazine.) The first half of The Train is a (relatively) light-hearted caper film. There is then a sudden and violent reminder that the villains of the piece are the Nazis, and the second half of the movie takes on a much darker tone.

  28. Interesting; did you feel it worked? And that reminds me of The Grand Budapest Hotel, which had a similar irruption of quasi-Nazi violence (in a train, coincidentally) in a (relatively) light-hearted film.

  29. Ken Miner says

    Łukasiewicz …was an Austrian Pole

    Yes, and he once boosted my ass from a C to a B in an advanced logic course when I translated a German paper by him for the instructor. (Well, I was competing with engineers.)

    reverse Polish notation (3 4 5 * + = 23)

    Later, in a linguistics class, when I first encountered SOV left-branching languages (like Japanese) I exclaimed “Hey, that’s reverse Polish notation!” Everyone looked at me strangely.

  30. @languagehat: I thought the plot was pretty effective, and it worked thematically: The train of the title is loaded with stolen art, which the Nazis are trying to get out of France; the overriding question of the film is whether inanimate things like paintings can be worth the sacrifice of human lives. After we saw it, my wife and I were both surprised that it wasn’t a better known war film.

  31. Now I want to see it.

  32. David Marjanović says

    Still, he did study and then teach at Lwów (now Lviv) University 1897-1915, so just maybe.

    That belonged to the Kingdom of Galicia & Lodomeria, whose king was the Austrian emperor.

  33. Shucks.

  34. Here are the Ngram frequencies for “[monarchial adjective] England.” Not surprisingly, “Victorian” and “Elizabethan” are the most common, while “Georgian” and “Jacobean” are also present at a visible level.

    I’m unsure whether the observed numbers for “Caroline” mean anything, since Caroline England is a perfectly plausible name. (There is apparently currently a former-divorce-lawyer-turned-novelist by the name currently living, as well as a few other modestly notable women with the same name in the past). Wikipedia suggested “Carolean” as an alternative term, but Google Books found no instances of “Carolean England.”

    “Williamite” is too small to be seen on the first plot, but it is there. If you plot it on its own, it turns out to be three orders of magnitude less common than “Victorian.” So the term in getting used, although I do not recall every having come across it myself (and if I did, I would not know whether it referred to the the William and Mary period, or the time when Victoria’s father was king; the reigns of William the Conqueror and William II are covered by the adjective “Norman” instead).

    Searching for “Britain” instead of “England” brings all the incidences down. “Victorian” goes down the least, unsurprisingly. Also unsurprising are that “Caroline Britain” and “Williamite Britain” are not in the corpus at all.

  35. Now, that y’all in the correct mood solve this problem. Four well-known characters sit around the table: Baba Yaga, Kashchey the Deathless, honest policeman, and One-eyed Jack. There is a large pile of money in he center of the table. The light goes off then on and the pile disappears. Who took the money?

  36. I’m gonna guess the honest policeman.

  37. You don’t know Russians!

  38. One-Eyed Jack. The other three are figments of your imagination.

  39. Nobody took it. None of them really exist.

    I’m glad to see you make it ‘the Deathless’ and not ‘the Immortal’.

  40. Brett got it. I admit the One-eyed Jack is somewhat sketchy, but compared to the other three…

  41. To me, One-Eyed Jack means either the Jack of Spades or the Jack of Hearts, because they are shown in profile. In either case he doesn’t steal money (tarts, yes). The King of Diamonds is also one-eyed, so collectively the three cards are “the one-eyed jacks and the man with the axe”, the weapon borne by the King.

  42. As I say, a bit sketchy. The Russian version of the riddle that I tried to translate involved “one-eyed Joe”, a purported protagonist of a Western turned by inescapable force of Russian humor into a Marx brothers-style comedy.

  43. I only ever knew the Polish train story as a joke, with the Russian updated to a Soviet soldier and the Pole to a Solidarność activist. I didn’t know that it was supposed to be a logical puzzle.

  44. I saw a version of the joke with a German soldier and a Dutch soldier in WW2.

  45. In another version, the young woman thinks, “The [Russian soldier] must have meant to kiss me, but in the dark kissed the [Pole] by mistake and got slapped.”

    That might help with the geometrical arrangement.

  46. In both language and music learning classes, I’ve tried jumping up a level (just one level though), and it really has increased my learning. But it’s tough on your ego, because every single other person there is way better than you, so you’re continually trying to figure out “Wait. What was that?”. Which is actually a good learning experience, but tiring after a while.

  47. I once tried to place out of a music theory class in college based on my memories of learning music theory with my piano instructor as a child. I got through the first part of the test just fine: what is a quarter note, what is common time, how do you beat two against three, etc. etc. The second part was “Compose a fugue on this theme”. I bailed out instead of placing out.

  48. Rodger C says

    William IV wasn’t Victoria’s father.

  49. J.W. Brewer says

    @Brett: Some of these less-prominent adjectives may be commonly used in more specific contexts such as the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caroline_Divines, or semi-scholarly book titles (not giving links to avoid getting stuck in moderation) like “Jacobean and Caroline Poetry: An Anthology,” which presumably includes at least some poets and poems that any well-educated Anglophone ought to be familiar with, or “Danish Troops in the Williamite Army in Ireland, 1689-91: For King and Coffers,” which may be intended for a more specialized audience.

    If you leave the n-gram viewer and search the google books corpus directly you will find some hits for “Williamite Britain.” They’re all admittedly in an academic-writing-register kind of context, but the phrase doesn’t seem unduly jargony or obscure within that context. “Caroline Britain” is there too, albeit with the handful of relevant uses buried among false positives like mentions of “Radio Caroline, Britain’s first offshore radio station,” which floruit three centuries after the Restoration.

  50. Re Elizabethan:

    Maybe “Windsor” or “Windsorian” in reference to the dynasty.

    Compare Stuart & Tudor eras.

    Because technically, Charles should become the first king of the Mountbatten dynasty.

  51. I think his surname is Mountbatten-Windsor, but the House remains the House of Windsor.

  52. J.W. Brewer says

    “Elizabethan” in the relevant sense is a subset of “Tudor” in the same sense, because it has been found useful to have a more specific word to specify that subset. So “Windsorian” could be parallel to “Tudor” but unhelpful if one wants a narrower focus on the era from 1952 until 20??. And of course there has not actually been an actual change in dynasty since 1714 – one continuous group of monarchs has been rebranded from time to time for transient public-relations advantage.

  53. Official British royal styles notwithstanding, just changing the monarch’s surname does not actually produce a new royal house or dynasty, under any traditional definition of the terms.

    House and dynasty are synonyms, to the extent that each can refer to a noble line, or to the more general noble family, regardless of the precise rules of descent. However, house is often used just for the first meaning and dynasty for the second, just to be able to draw a distinction. Thus the current “House of Windsor” is still part of the ancient Wessexian dynasty. The choice of which term to use for the line meaning and which for family is not universal though: “I am the sixth princess, of the sixth dynasty, of the sixth royal house of Atrios,” from Doctor Who, “The Armageddon Factor.”

  54. reverse Polish

    Ken Miner, I had a similar experience in my first japanese class except I said it was like the Forth computer language (which works like reverse Polish). It hit me when we were chanting sentences with a pause after each postposition. It’s not just the SOV, the postpositions are also an important aspect.

  55. Thus the current “House of Windsor” is still part of the ancient Wessexian dynasty.

    Is it? How does that work? It seems to go against the normal understanding of “dynasty.”

  56. One of the things that is supposedly “unique” about the Japanese imperial dynasty is that there has never been a change, meaning that the emperors are supposed to be descended from the gods. (This assumes that Keitai, traditionally the twenty-sixth emperor, did not actually found a new dynasty, right around the time that the imperial chronology is believed to become reasonably accurate.). However, it is equally true that the current British monarchs could have traced their ancestry back to Wotan.

    In pre-Christian England, there were a number if lines of kings, and what separated the kingly lines from those of other warlords was that the king’s had a tradition of claiming descent from Wotan. (There are a number of Germanic epics that pause at certain points to enumerate the families descended from Wotan; many of these clans are known historically, but others are remembered only through these passages.) A tradition developed that lesser Anglo-Saxon lords would only accept the suzerainty of the traditional kingly families. For whatever reason, this tradition persisted into the Christian period. The supremacy of the Wessexian kings was sort of an accident. Before the time of Egbert, the kings of Kent and Mercia were the dominant forces in Saxon England. However, the Kentish and Mercian royal lines died out, as did all the others except the Wessexians, leaving only one dynasty that could plausibly claim overlordship and the title of King of the English. (Real power over almost all of England only came in the time of Alfred the Great, Egbert’s grandson.)

    The current British monarchs are indeed descended from this Wessexian family. This tends to be overlooked, since William the Conqueror had to enforce his dynastic rights (he was the first cousin once removed and chosen heir of Edward the Confessor, although the designation of William as heir was probably made under duress) by invading the coutry and defeating the Saxon nobility. There was also a sharp change in the monarchial culture with the Norman conquest. For (exactly) 150 years after the Battle of Hastings, the king’s if England were L1 French speakers. And there were major changes in the structure of the government. (The Norman conquest has been described as either the beginning or the end of feudalism in England, depending on what a particular historian means by “feudalism.”). Finally, by the Angevin period, the kings had given up on claiming a continuous line of descent through the Wessexian monarchs; they instead elevated the semi-fictional character of King Arthur as the rightful originator of the English/Welsh monarchy.

  57. J.W. Brewer says

    But even if the descendants of Egbert are not quite so numerous as those of Charlemagne, he must have tens if not hundreds of millions of currently living descendants (the vast majority of anyone with a substantial quantum of English ancestry, I should think). So we’re all likewise descended from Wotan, I suppose.

  58. Egbert … must have tens if not hundreds of millions of currently living descendants

    Who no doubt all have an unusual aptitude for computers.

  59. January First-of-May says

    However, the Kentish and Mercian royal lines died out, as did all the others except the Wessexians

    …well, that’s the traditionally accepted version, anyway. It had been noted that the name Egbert appears among the previous rulers of Kent but not of Wessex, and the father of Egbert of Wessex was probably one Eahlmund of Kent (who, in turn, has a traditional but otherwise unattested Wessex descent). So there’s some suspicion that the “Wessexian” dynasty following Egbert is actually an offshoot of the Kentish line.

    (If so, this would also make this family descended from the Merovingian dynasty of France, which frequently intermarried with the Kentish royals. There do not appear to be any other reasonably certain Merovingian descents; about the only other one with any level of plausibility is that of Charlemagne, which in turn might have been made up to give legitimacy to his dynasty.)

  60. David Marjanović says

    In pre-Christian England, there were a number if lines of kings, and what separated the kingly lines from those of other warlords was that the king’s had a tradition of claiming descent from Wotan.

    Except they hadn’t sent him through the High German consonant shift, and AFAIK called him Woden.

  61. SFReader says

    Is it? How does that work? It seems to go against the normal understanding of “dynasty.”

    House of Windsor <- Hanoverian dynasty <- Stuart dynasty <- Tudor dynasty <- House of York <- House of Plantagenet <- House of Normandy <- House of Wessex

    There is genealogical descent involved at each transition, so it can be shown that Elizabeth Windsor does descend from Cerdic of Wessex.

    Of course, she is also descended from Charlemagne, Rurik of Rus or even prophet Mohammed (pbuh).

  62. Ken Miner says

    It’s not just the SOV, the postpositions are also an important aspect.

    Right. If I remember correctly, it’s been claimed that SOV languages generally have postpositions rather than prepositions.

  63. J.W. Brewer says

    I keep feeling like there ought to be a fancier and less transparent adjectival derivative of “Wessex” than “Wessexian” (a la “Haligonian” from Halifax, something more Latinate or at least mock-Latinate) but the internet isn’t helping me out.

    And per a little googling it looks like the Latin for “Sussex” is “Sussexia” with the super-boring genitive “Sussexiae,” which may be bad news for the chances of Latinate obscurity here.

  64. Well, make one up! How does “Wesigian” sound?

  65. SFReader says


  66. Lars (the original one) says

    Occidentalis Saxus per venerabilis Beda presbyter.

    So that doesn’t really give you a convenient long Latin form to remove a desinence from.

    But on the pattern of Saxon, I’d give Wessaxon a go.

  67. There is genealogical descent involved at each transition, so it can be shown that Elizabeth Windsor does descend from Cerdic of Wessex.

    Well, for certain values of “descend.” From David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here, which I’m now reading (thanks, Bill!):

    Ten generations back, for example, the number of ancestral stretches of DNA is around 757 but the number of ancestors is 1,024, guaranteeing that each person has several hundred ancestors from whom he or she has received no DNA whatsoever. Twenty generations in the past, the number of ancestors is almost a thousand times greater than the number of ancestral stretches of DNA in a person’s genome, so it is a certainty that each person has not inherited any DNA from the great majority of his or her actual ancestors.

    […] The Bible and the chronicles of royal families record who begat whom over dozens of generations. Yet even if the genealogies are accurate, Queen Elizabeth II of England almost certainly inherited no DNA from William of Normandy, who conquered England in 1066 and who is believed to be her ancestor twenty-four generations back in time.

  68. the number of ancestral stretches of DNA is around 757 but the number of ancestors is 1,024, guaranteeing that each person has several hundred ancestors from whom he or she has received no DNA whatsoever

    Both the premise and the conclusion might be true, but the logical step is faulty. Most basic explanation of the “lost” stretches is inbreeding — your grand10-mother can pop up on your father’s and on your mother’s side (to say nothing of the generations mixture).

  69. Yes, he goes into all that. It’s really an excellent book, written by an expert but in language even I can understand (my eyes tend to glaze over when the details of genetics are being discussed).

  70. (I could summarize my reaction to reading the book as “Hey! I Know What That Means!”)

  71. @D.O. You beat me to pointing this out. Not realizing that a given person can have far fewer than 1024 ten-generation ancestors is a common innumeracy. See, for example, my answer this this question about how much elven blood Aragorn had.

    Regarding adjectival alternatives to Wessexian: I checked what Thomas Hardy used, and his preference seems to have been for bare attributive Wessex.

  72. David Marjanović says

    written by an expert

    And by his wife, whose name is so infelicitous for the subject they apparently agreed to hide it in the acknowledgments.

    bare attributive Wessex

    Yay noun compounding.

    That reminds me of the German translation of the game Civilization II. “The Zulu kingdom/empire” was mechanically rendered as “das zulue Reich”, which can’t be done because there is no adjective to Zulu and it isn’t possible to form one – all you can make from it is a noun prefix: das Zulu-Reich.

  73. Trond Engen says

    David M.: there is no adjective to Zulu and it isn’t possible to form one

    I’ll have to remedy that: zuluisch. Das zuluische Reich. Die zuluische Sprache.

  74. Trond Engen says

    And I have Who We Are and How We Got Here on top of my wishlist. Glad to hear it’s no mistake.

  75. David Marjanović says


    That could work as the name of the language, but as a declinable adjective it’s still majorly weird.

  76. If you google zuluisch , you’ll find that it has been formed occasionally by people looking for an adjective for (mostly) the language or (more rarely) the culture. Some of the cases are written with quotation marks or with a hyphen (zulu-isch ), showing that people are aware that it’s a spontaneous formation.

  77. Trond Engen says

    What is the constraint? A quick survey of Googlable German reveals that bantuisch fares an order of magnitude better than zuluisch. Navajoisch is currently under 10 (but we’ll quickly improve that count, as we do with zuluisch). There are no real hits for tainoisch or pamaisch. As for adjectives with an army and a fleet, togoisch and panamaisch both make around 10 kGhits.

  78. David Marjanović says

    What is the constraint?

    Perhaps against unstressed unreduced vowels. Perhaps adjectives really are an almost closed class. I’m not sure.

    12700 ghits for togolesisch from French togolais. 673 for panamanisch.

  79. Rodger C says

    Probably from English (“Panamanian”), not Spanish (“panameño”).

  80. I don’t know whether there is a real constraint. Maybe Germans talk about Zulus and Navajos less frequently than about Bantus and that’s why an adjective in -isch didn’t have the opportunity yet to establish itself.

  81. E. M. Forster actually alluded to the ambiguity about whether medieval England and modern Britain were really direct continuations of the Wessexian state in “The Machine Stops”:

    “I knew that I was in Wessex, for I had taken care to go to a lecture on the subject before starting. Wessex lies above the room in which we are talking now. It was once an important state. Its kings held all the southern coast form the Andredswald to Cornwall, while the Wansdyke protected them on the north, running over the high ground. The lecturer was only concerned with the rise of Wessex, so I do not know how long it remained an international power, nor would the knowledge have assisted me. To tell the truth I could do nothing but laugh, during this part. There was I, with a pneumatic stopper by my side and a respirator bobbing over my head, imprisoned, all three of us, in a grass-grown hollow that was edged with fern.”

  82. I remembered another term for a British monarch’s reign today: “Augustan.”* Usually used in connection with the arts (especially the performing arts, especially theatre), it refers to the era of George I, who apparently had an affectation of referring to himself as “Augustus.”

    * The attested spelling is variable, with “Augustin” also extant.

  83. Ach du lieber!

  84. J.W. Brewer says

    What counts as the “Augustan Age” in various sorts of English literature is apparently somewhat ill-defined (or, rather treated differently by different scholars) in terms of starting and stopping years, although there seems to be a consensus that the prototypical Augustan writer was Alexander Pope, who first came to prominence circa 1710 and actively published new work through the late 1730’s. If one is trying to match the name up with local royalty, the monarch known in English as George II (Georg August) seems a better fit than his father George I (Georg Ludwig). It was during George II’s reign that Pope wrote his Imitations of Horace, with it perhaps being no coincidence that Horace himself had written during the reign of Caesar Augustus.

  85. David Eddyshaw says

    I’ve always (quite possibly wrongly) assumed that it was an attempt by the authors in question (or their groupies) to claim a similar excellence (both in degree and kind) to that shown by the Roman authors of Augustus’ time. It puts me in mind of Auden’s characteristically catty-yet-apt (from “A Walk after Dark”)

    A cloudless night like this
    Can set the spirit soaring:
    After a tiring day
    The clockwork spectacle is
    Impressive in a slightly boring
    Eighteenth-century way.

  86. First commenter: the number of ancestral stretches of DNA is around 757 but the number of ancestors is 1,024, guaranteeing that each person has several hundred ancestors from whom he or she has received no DNA whatsoever

    Second commenter: Both the premise and the conclusion might be true, but the logical step is faulty. Most basic explanation of the “lost” stretches is inbreeding — your grand10-mother can pop up on your father’s and on your mother’s side (to say nothing of the generations mixture).

    (= the comment posted on May 10, 2018, at 3:37 pm).


    I agree with the second commenter’s point about inbreeding.

    Because of pedigree collapse (also called cousin collapse and implex in English; the corresponding term in German is Ahnenschwund), one cannot necessarily rely on a geometric progression to determine the number of one’s lineal ancestors in any given generation, as becomes evident if one goes back, say, to thirty generations ago, the geometric progression would be 2 to the thirtieth power, which would mean that in that generation one had about a thousand million ancestors, which would far more than the total number of human beings living at that time.

    Which is to say that each of us presumably has many lineal ancestors who were cousins who married each other and by so doing, they reduced the number of their descendants’ lineal ancestors.

    To take a simple example: if two first cousins marry each other, their children will at most have six great-grandparents (two fewer than the children would have if their parents were not first cousins).

    Which is also to say that each of us is her or his own cousin many times over.

  87. “That reminds me of the German translation of the game Civilization II. “The Zulu kingdom/empire” was mechanically rendered as “das zulue Reich”, which can’t be done because there is no adjective to Zulu and it isn’t possible to form one – all you can make from it is a noun prefix: das Zulu-Reich.”


    I agree that “das zulue Reich” sounds unusual, but better than “das Zulu-Reich” is “das Königreich Zululand.”

  88. @M: For the procedural generation of news and such in the game, it was desirable to have all the civilization names in a parallel structure (at least in the English version).

  89. but better than “das Zulu-Reich” is “das Königreich Zululand.”
    The latter is what the German Wikipedia uses. I have also frequently seen Reich / Königreich der Zulu being used.
    it was desirable to have all the civilization names in a parallel structure (at least in the English version)
    The reason is clear, but that’s the point – what works in English, doesn’t necessarily work in translation. But my experience with computer and online games is that not much work is normally invested in translating menus and messages into other languages when the game is ported; quite often it seems that the developers didn’t even hire translators, but just let someone look up words in a dictionary or put the text through Google Translate.

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