Past Lives.

My wife and I saw the new movie Past Lives, which is in every way excellent — we hope it wins All The Awards. But what brings it here is the linguistic element of the story: the heroine, Nora, emigrated with her family from South Korea to Canada when she was twelve, and in the present of the movie she is completely fluent in English, but her childhood friend Hae Sung stayed in Korea and hardly speaks any English. By the time he visits, she is a playwright living in New York and married to a white American, who is trying to learn Korean to communicate with her family but is still at a basic level. The scene where the three of them get together to have dinner is a fascinating study in the difficulty of crossing boundaries, and as she explains in the Guardian, it was the genesis of the movie:

This might be the most explicitly autobiographical moment in Past Lives, a film which follows Nora as she reconnects with Hae Sung multiple times across multiple decades and continents. Less a love story than a meditation on what-ifs, it has propelled its debut director Celine Song to a rarefied strata of acclaim, accruing both rave reviews and early, frantic Oscars buzz since its Sundance premiere earlier this year. The idea for the film came to Song when she too was sitting in an East Village cocktail joint, sandwiched between an old flame from Seoul, who spoke only Korean, and her husband, the screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes, who spoke only English.

“I was translating between these two people,” she recalls. “And at one point, I realised that I wasn’t just translating between their languages and cultures, but also translating between these two parts of myself as well.” The experience, she says, “settled in me as a very special thing”. Song had previously spent a decade as a playwright. Now she knew she wanted to trade theatre for film.

I must say, the East Village no longer looks like the shabby neighborhood I remember; le vieux Paris n’est plus. Also, I think I’ve mentioned in some earlier thread the time when I was on a bus in London and found myself carrying on a three-way conversation with the guy on my left, who spoke only Spanish, and the guy on my right, who spoke only French. It gave me a deeper appreciation for the difficulty of the work simultaneous interpreters do!

Indo-European Languages Quiz.

A reader sent me a quiz written for a trivia website, saying “It was mostly intended for a general audience […], so I expect most of the questions should be easy for you, though perhaps one or two will be tougher.” The only one that was actually hard for me was #2, though after a few minutes of hard thinking I figured it out. I can imagine some of the rest being hard even for hardened Hatters, depending on which bits of trivia they happen to know. Anyway, enjoy it, and a tip o’ the Hattic hat to Will! (I expect there will be spoilers in the comments, so take the quiz before clicking through.)

Reviving Pacific Languages through Song.

Pete McKenzie writes for the Guardian:

As a child, Olivia Foa’i would steal into the recording studio her father had attached to their Auckland home to listen to the best Pacific musicians as they performed. Her favourite memory was hearing her aunt as she sang in Gagana Tokelau, the indigenous language of Tokelau, a collection of atolls halfway between Australia and Hawaii.

“I remember looking at her like she was my idol. I’d copy whatever she sang,” says Foa’i, one of the Pacific’s most prominent singers and one of the main vocalists behind Disney’s Moana. “It’s a beautiful language.”

While listening to music in Gagana Tokelau enthralled Foa’i, it also left her feeling conflicted. The sounds were familiar but she worried that her own grasp of the language wasn’t as strong as it should be. “In one way, I felt connected. But the other way I felt was nervous, because I didn’t want people to think I could answer back fully fluently.”

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The Wrong Foot.

Clare Bucknell’s LRB review of Louise Kennedy’s novel Trespasses (archived) begins thus:

Every morning​, between reciting the Hail Mary and beginning their lessons, the children at St Dallan’s Catholic primary school near Belfast do ‘The News’. News, in this community, might mean many things: that someone’s father, perennially out of work for ‘kicking with the wrong foot’, has managed to find a job; that the pop group Mud has gone to number one with ‘Oh Boy’; or, more likely, that there’s been a murder, a beating, a car bomb, a riot, a high-profile trial.

I was puzzled by the unexplained idiom “kicking with the wrong foot,” so of course I googled, and Collins explained:

kick with the wrong foot
Scottish and Irish
to be of the opposite religion to that which is regarded as acceptable or to that of the person who is speaking

So I had learned something, but I also found this Notes and Queries page:

Why are Catholics sometimes called ‘left-footers’?

THE answer lies in the rich folklore of the humble spade – and provides a good illustration of the inadequacy of calling a spade ‘a spade’. The saying turns on a traditional distinction between left- and right-handed spades in Irish agriculture. It has been used as a figure of speech and often, sadly, as a term of abuse to distinguish Protestants from Catholics: ‘He digs with the wrong foot.’ Most types of digging spade in Britain and Ireland have foot-rests at the top of their blades; two-sided spades have foot-rests on each side of the shaft and socket, while an older style of one-sided spade had only one. Two-sided spades may well have been introduced by the Protestant ‘planters’ in the sixteenth century. By the early nineteenth century specialised spade and shovel mills in the north of Ireland were producing vast numbers of two-sided spades which came to be universally used in Ulster and strongly identified with the province. One-sided spades with narrow blades and a foot-rest cut out of the side of the relatively larger wooden shaft continued in use in the south and west. The rural population of Gaelic Ireland retained the Catholic faith and tended also to retain the one-sided spade and ‘dig with the wrong foot’. In fact, the two-sided spade of Ulster was generally used with the left foot whereas the one-sided spade tended to be used with the right foot. Instinctively, the ‘wrong foot’ of the Catholics has come to be thought of as the left foot. The figure of speech has now been extended to kicking with the wrong foot.

Hugh Cheape, National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh.

Is there any truth to that quaint tale?

Lameen Reviews Haji.

Last month I welcomed Lameen’s return to Blogovia; now I present the start of his latest post, a review of Abderrahmane Haji’s Zenati-Arabic Arabic-Zenati Lexicon. It doesn’t sound like a very good book, but there’s some interesting material in the review:

I got my hands on a copy of a recent dictionary of the Berber variety of Ouargla: Muʕjam al-mufradāt zanātī-ʕarabī ʕarabī-zanātī : Warqalah, Ngūsah, Tmāsint, Baldat ʕumar, ɣumrah, Maqrīn, Timīmūn wa-ḍawāḥīhā معجم المفردات زناتي-عربي عربي-زناتي : ورقلة، نڨوسة، تماسنت، بلدة عمر، غمرة، مقرين، تميمون وضواحيها, by Abderrahmane Haji, published 2019 with Afrmād in Algeria. The variety of Ouargla, Təggargərənt, is relatively well-documented thanks primarily to the texts and dictionary published by Jean Delheure. Delheure’s work, however, was based on fieldwork between 1941 and 1976, and as such represents the speech of several generations ago. The primary merit of Haji (2019) is in presenting an up-to-date picture of Ouargla Berber as currently spoken and seen by a first-language speaker; it is also of sociolinguistic interest for presenting a heartfelt argument for linguistic diversity and “dialect” preservation from an essentially populist nationalist-conservative perspective. Unfortunately, however, apart from an understandable lack of linguistic training, the book is marred by an astonishing number of typographical errors (the Arabic text of the introduction gives the impression of never having been proof-read at all) and an orthography which fails to distinguish /ə/ from /a/; the author notes that he had to rapidly reconstruct the work from scratch after losing his original manuscript file.

The introduction starts by noting the constitutional position of “the Amazigh language” in Algeria and objecting that the variation across Berber is far higher than such a phrase might seem to imply, with only 2.4% (?) of vocabulary common across all varieties. He claims to be able to understand only 35% of Kabyle and 65% of Tuareg as against 80% of Chaouia, 95% of Tumzabt, and 95% of Timimoun; more surprisingly (typo?), he reports understanding only 40% of the rather similar varieties of Tiout, Boussemghoun, and Beni Ounif. A brief overview of Amazigh/Berber/Algerian history includes an original etymology of “Amazigh”: he derives it from am jjiɣ, “as I left (it)”, an idea made possible by Ouargli’s tendency to merge š/ž with s/z, explaining his eccentric spelling of it as أمزيغ rather than أمازيغ. He then presents his objections to standardisation: “The attempt to create an Amazigh language in the laboratory, without immersion in its principles and the depths of its components spread across the nation is in itself self-destructive, and may find no one to feed it or protect it, being rootless and inauthentic and asocial… How can 17 dialects be reduced to one dialect which no one has deemed the source or the original? As Algerians say: ‘When the crow tried to imitate the partridge, it forgot how to walk’.” For good measure he takes such efforts to reflect “this savage project known as globalisation, which since 1945… has imposed what it (globalisation and pragmatism) considers appropriate for its ambitions and desires to let loose and satisfy the instincts and consumption in all its forms, and release blind freedoms and illusory democracy.” Specifically, “dialectal diversity is a strong fortress and effective tool [against this project] which must not be reduced or destroyed for nothing.”

I got all indignant at “an astonishing number of typographical errors” and “an orthography which fails to distinguish /ə/ from /a/” (!), but then I got to “he had to rapidly reconstruct the work from scratch after losing his original manuscript file” and my heart went out to poor Haji. And his objections to standardization reminded me of the similar arguments about the Irish language. I deprecate his attitude towards “blind freedoms,” but I’m with him on dialectal diversity! (And don’t bother lecturing me on the needs of the modern state, about which I care not a fig.)

Language and Gender Equality.

Kate Wheeler has a little cartoon essay in the Washington Post (archived) in which she asks:

How does language interact with culture, or vice versa? How is one’s view on LGBTQIA rights affected by their mother tongue? What if a country doesn’t have a word for nonbinary? I formed hypotheses based on conversations with patient native speakers willing to answer my many questions, but found that my theories weren’t always correct.

Needless to say, she doesn’t solve these weighty questions, but I found her piece enjoyable and I hope you will too. I might not have posted it except that it won me over by 1) using a Georgian example (“ის არის ავად he/she/it is sick [no gender]”) and 2) actually citing a reference in a footnote, asterisk and all. She says “change in linguistic norms is a step toward gender equality,” and while I hope that can be the case, I won’t hold my breath for proof either in theory or on the ground. (Thanks, Bonnie!)

Coruscating Change.

Elisabeth Ribbans has a remarkably sensible column for the Observer that includes explanations from Grant Barrett (from whose Facebook post I got the link):

Grayson Perry’s “coruscating repartee”, a silky head of hair used to “coruscating effect”, and a “coruscating verdict” expected from the privileges committee. Which one of these references from the Observer over the summer prompted a reader to cry foul? Surely, “excoriating” was meant, he said. “Perhaps you could correct it and add it to the Guardian and Observer style guide.”

In early June, the imminent verdict on whether the former prime minister Boris Johnson had misled parliament about gatherings at 10 Downing Street during the pandemic was unlikely to be glittering, so I had halfway reached for the digital red pen to make an amendment. “Coruscating” was, as far as I knew, already in the style guide. The entry I had last read went as follows: “[It] means sparkling, or emitting flashes of light; people seem to think, wrongly, that it means the same as excoriating, censuring severely, eg ‘a coruscating attack on Clegg’s advisers’.”

Then I paused to check, and found the guidance missing. Clearly, I had not been paying attention, as it was deleted in 2022. It seems that sufficient doubt had crept in after a secondary definition appeared in the Oxford Dictionary of English: “Severely critical; scathing”. Conversations with the style team suggest its removal was not so much an endorsement of the new usage as a view that retaining the entry was a bit too hardline.
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Mote, Empty.

David Marjanović mentioned the archaic verb mote ‘may/might,’ (obsolete) ‘must,’ and when I went to that Wiktionary page I saw “Related to empty,” which surprised me. The etymology at that last link read:

From Middle English emty, amty, from Old English ǣmtiġ, ǣmettiġ (“vacant, empty, free, idle, unmarried”, literally “without must or obligation, leisurely”), from Proto-Germanic *uz- (“out”) + Proto-Germanic *mōtijô, *mōtô (“must, obligation, need”), *mōtiþô (“ability, accommodation”), from Proto-Indo-European *med- (“measure; to acquire, possess, be in command”). Related to Old English ġeǣmtigian (“to empty”), ǣmetta (“leisure”), mōtan (“can, to be allowed”). More at mote, meet.

The odd thing is that that Proto-Indo-European link does not, so far as I can see, provide any way to get to empty. AHD says “Middle English, from Old English ǣmtig, vacant, unoccupied, from ǣmetta, leisure; see med- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots”; the appendix entry, under “7. Possibly lengthened o-grade form *mōd‑,” has:

2. empty, from Old English ǣmetta, rest, leisure, from Germanic compound *ē-mōt-ja‑ (prefix *ē‑, meaning uncertain, from Indo-European *ē, *ō, to). Both a and b from Germanic *mōt‑, ability, leisure.

The OED (entry revised 2014) has:

< Old English ǣmetta (also ǣmta) leisure, freedom (to do something), opportunity (< the Germanic base of e- prefix¹ + the Germanic base of mote v.¹ + a Germanic (dental) suffix causing i-mutation (compare -th suffix¹)) + -y suffix¹.

It all sounds a little handwavy to me, and I wonder how firmly established the etymology is.

Universal Words.

I thought sure the headline of Cindy Blanco’s Duolingo post — “Are any words the same in all languages?” — would be another victim of Betteridge’s law, but I have to admit I can’t think of examples that disprove the answers she comes up with. After the obligatory disclaimer (“I wasn’t able to research all 7000+ languages”), she provides a few near misses (tea, pineapple, orange, taxi, tomato), then gives the winners (I’ll put them below the cut in case you want to think about it):
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The Cries of London.

The Gentle Author posts about a once inescapable urban phenomenon:

The dispossessed and those with no other income were always able to cry their wares for sale in London. By turning their presence into performance with their Cries, they claimed the streets as their theatre – winning the lasting affections of generations of Londoners and embodying the soul of the city in the popular imagination. Thus, through time, the culture of the capital’s street Cries became integral to the distinctive identity of London.

Undertaking interviews with stallholders in Spitalfields, Brick Lane, Columbia Road and other East End markets in recent years led me to consider the cultural legacy of urban street trading. While this phenomenon might appear transitory and fleeting, I discovered a venerable tradition in the Cries of London. Yet even this genre of popular illustrated prints, which began in the seventeenth century, was itself preceded by verse such as London Lackpenny attributed to the fifteenth century poet John Lydgate that drew upon an earlier oral culture of hawkers’ Cries. From medieval times, the great number of Cries in London became recognised by travellers throughout Europe as indicative of the infinite variety of life in the British capital.

Given the former ubiquity of the Cries of London, the sophistication of many of the images, their significance as social history, and their existence as almost the only portraits of working people in London through four centuries, it astonishes me that there has been little attention paid to this subject and so I have set out to reclaim this devalued cultural tradition. […]

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