Languages by Time of Extinction.

Thanks to OP Tipping at Wordorigins, I learn that Wikipedia has a list of extinct languages sorted by their time of extinction (mobile link). It is, needless to say, long. I learned about some interesting languages, like Zarphatic (which sounds like it should be spoken on the planet Zarph). And when I got to the 2nd millennium BCE I had the loss of Hattic thrown in my face yet again. (The latest entry at time of writing is Bering Aleut; I’m sure more languages have gone extinct since March 7…)

Modern Greek Koineisation.

A few years ago I exclaimed Nick Nicholas Is Back!; now he’s updating his blog Ἡλληνιστεύκοντος (“Set Union of Greek and Linguistics”) with reports on conferences he’s attending, and ATTENDED: Workshop on Modern Greek Koineisation is required reading for anyone interested in Modern Greek (anyone who didn’t make it to the workshop, that is). A few samples to whet your appetite:

As background: Contemporary Modern Greek as we know it emerged in Athens as the capital of the Modern Greek state; it owes only a couple of words to the native dialect of Athens, which was extinct by the 20th century, and a lot to the dialects that converged in the capital, settled from elsewhere in the Greek-speaking world. That makes it a koine, but a koine with a poorly understood history: we don’t have a lot of written records of how the dialects converged in Athens in the 1840s and 1850s.

We also don’t have a lot of records of Peloponnesian, the dialect group widely held to be the basis of that koine: dialectologists have not bothered to record it historically, precisely because they assumed it was identical to the Modern koine. (And as Nikolaos Pantelidis has been saying for decades, they were wrong.) […]

Pantelidis’ current interest is the survival of the Ancient Greek pronunciation of /y/ as [ʏ, ʉ] in Modern Greek dialect (as opposed to Standard /i/, with a few dialects doing [ju])—notably in the dialect group of Old Athenian, which also includes nearby Aegina and Megara. There are lots of quite clear statements in the 19th century that people in Athens were pronouncing it as <ü>, but they weren’t being made by Greek speakers (who could not hear the sound, because they were Greek speakers); those statements were being made by Germans and French, and they were either ignored by subsequent scholarship, or disbelieved.

Pantelidis concedes that in most places, the old pronunciation has vanished with nobody remembering it was ever otherwise. But he has been digging up more recent recordings of Aegina and Megara, and he’s got the instrumental phonetics to prove that people are still producing [ʏ, ʉ] in 2016—a millennium after a poem in 1030 mocked a priest as coming from a village “where people’s intellect is not better than oxen”, because they were using the new-fangled [i] pronunciation. And he’s been the first to notice it. […]

[Read more…]

De Castries.

This is a combination public service announcement and request for information. I ran across a mention of the Russian town of Де-Кастри (De-Kastri), on the Pacific coast opposite Sakhalin Island, and was perturbed by the spelling: why the final -i? It was clearly named for a de Castries (Wikipedia confirmed it was Charles Eugène Gabriel de La Croix de Castries, marquis de Castries, who sponsored the expedition of La Pérouse), and as I learned in my young youth, that name is pronounced counterintuitively as /kastr/, so the Russian equivalent should be Де-Кастр. Of course, they could have used a spelling pronunciation… but maybe I was wrong? I hurried to my Petit Larousse, where I was relieved to find “Castries [kastr].” (If you want online backup, here: “kastr, castres; le i ne se prononcerait pas.”) So whether you’re referring to the 18th-century marquis or General Christian de Castries who was in command at Dien Bien Phu, don’t pronounce that -i-! (And somebody should add pronunciations to both articles.)

But the aristocratic family takes its name from this commune in the Hérault department in southern France, and for that name Wikipedia says “French pronunciation: [kastʁi].” What’s going on here? Perverse aristo pronunciation, or spelling pronunciation on the part of the villagers? Anybody know?

Ordering of Adjectives.

Occasional commenter Martin writes to ask about adjectives:

The rule in English apparently goes something like, “number + judgement/attitude + size + age + color + origin + material + purpose + noun.” (Wikipedia has an expanded and annotated list.) But there are exceptions, for example “modifying adjectives that are homophonous with reduced relatives, or exhibit a special intonation pattern (such as ‘comma’ or focus intonation) are allowed to escape ordering restrictions.” That’s from this 2006 paper by Alexandra Teodorescu which is focused primarily on this and other exceptions.

One question around the ordering rules is, why are they that way? Why is it that “the strange old Polish ladies” sounds correct to our ears, while “the Polish old strange ladies” does not? This 2017 paper by Gregory Scontras, Judith Degen, and Noah D. Goodman argues that subjectivity governs the standard ordering, with the most subjective adjectives being placed the farthest away from the noun being modified. (It would seem that quantity or number is an exception to this rule, which the authors don’t mention in the paper.)

But in their final discussion the authors acknowledge that their findings about subjectivity just raise another “why” question: “While subjectivity accounts for the regularities we observe in adjective ordering, the deeper explanation for how subjectivity determines the relative order of adjectives remains unsettled.” They continue:

For now we can only speculate about the ultimate source of this desire. Subjective content allows for miscommunication to arise if speakers and listeners arrive at different judgments about a property description. Hence, less subjective content is more useful at communicating about the world. An explanation along these lines, based on pressures to facilitate successful reference resolution, would have to depend on the hierarchical, not linear, ordering of adjectives: noun phrases are built semantically outward from the noun, and more useful, less subjective content enters earlier in this process (cf. the mirroring of preferences in pre- vs. postnominal languages). A full explanation must examine not only why we observe the preferences that we do, but also how and to what extent these preferences get conventionalized via the diachronic processes that shape language—a promising direction for future research.

Whatever its source, the success of subjectivity in predicting adjective ordering preferences provides a compelling case where linguistic universals, the regularities we observe in adjective ordering, emerge from cognitive universals, the subjectivity of the properties that the adjectives name.

This conjecture does start to explain why this particular grammar rule feels so natural or internalized, and maybe is less subject to gradual change over long periods of time, as compared to many others which feel (and are) more artificial and likely change, for example not ending sentences with prepositions or splitting infinitives.

Then there is the question of how the ordering rules vary among different languages, which I can’t find much about. Apparently most languages have rules for the order of adjectives, but does the subjectivity rule apply generally in other languages?


Step Foot.

Somehow I thought of “to step foot” as a recent distortion of the good old phrase “set foot.” But I just ran across it in Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) — “if you stepped foot where they forbade you to go” — so I thought I’d check the OED (s.v. step, not updated since 1916). Imagine my surprise:

9. To move (the foot) forward or through a specified step. Chiefly with adverbs, as down, in, across. to step foot in (a place). Now only U.S.

1540 J. Palsgrave tr. G. Gnapheus Comedye of Acolastus v. v. sig. Aaivᵛ Steppe not one foote forth of this place.
a1547 Earl of Surrey Poems (1964) 22 Good ladies,..Stepp in your foote, come take a place, and mourne with me awhyle.
1702 H. Blackwell Eng. Fencing-master 51 Engage him in Carte, disingage in Tierce, stepping your Right-Foot a-cross at the same time.
1849 G. Cupples Green Hand (1856) xiii. 130 Stepping one of his long trowser-legs down from over the quarterdeck awning.
1864 R. B. Kimball Was he Successful? ii. i. 182 When Hiram stepped foot in the metropolis.
1880 S. G. W. Benjamin Troy i. iv. 26 (Funk) Calchas announced that the first man who stepped foot on the enemy’s soil was doomed at once to die.

Just goes to show how wrong you can be.

A Lazy Word-Sneeze.

Aaron McManamon has a think-piece (or whatever you want to call it; it’s full of one-sentence paragraphs and uses phrases like “brand uplift”) about the use and abuse of English in advertising campaigns:

Standing out is hard, we’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: standing out is hard. That’s the main job of agencies like ours, to try and cut through the noise to deliver our client’s message. This might be through clever media planning and ad placement, it might be from exceptional, viral-baiting creative or snazzy copy.

And it’s in copywriting aiming for the standout tagline where we’ve seen a trend. Weird, grammatically goofy wording.

He gives some examples, then says “We’re trying to understand the trend. What’s happening? Is it clever copywriting, or a lazy word-sneeze?” And I liked that last phrase enough to post the thing. I also like his impeccably descriptivist attitude:

But we’re okay with it, mostly.

Language is something that continuously evolves. It shifts with culture changes, geographical movements of the people that use it, how it’s used and for a thousand other reasons. And right now it’s changing faster than ever.

And he has fun mocking Lexus’s “Experience Amazing.” Thanks, Trevor!

Fish as Fertilizer?

Erhard Rostlund’s “The Evidence for the Use of Fish as Fertilizer in Aboriginal North America” (Journal of Geography 56:5 [1957], 222–228) is an attempt to debunk the apparently widespread (at time of writing) belief “that the Indians used to put fish in the ground to fertilize their corn fields.” Rostlund writes “The first and rather obvious point to make is that fish, a valuable food, would hardly have been used as manure unless it was so abundant that people could easily catch more than they could eat. […] The interior of eastern North America, which constituted by far the greater part of the aboriginal farming area, was not rich enough in fish to warrant its use as fertilizer.” Under “The Negative Evidence” he says “in the entire record there is virtually no reference to the use of fish as fertilizer.” But what brings it to LH is this section:

The Linguistic Argument:

Another type of affirmative evidence, or at least affirmative argument, is based on the etymology of “menhaden” and “poghaden” (also called “pauhagen” and “pogy”), which are local names of Brevoortiu tyrannus, an Atlantic fish of the herring family. These names, according to J. H. Trumbull as quoted by G. Browne Goode, are derived from Indian words that mean literally “to fertilize,” and Goode argues that this derivation constitutes “unanswerable evidence” for the manuring with fish in aboriginal time. The validity of the argument naturally depends on the correctness of the etymology, which can be verified only by authorities in the Algonquian languages, and such verification is clearly needed and would be welcome[…]

If a speculative note may be introduced, one may wonder, since the evidence for Indian use of fertilizers is at best rather dubious, whether they had a word meaning “to fertilize.” The missionaries, who compiled many of the Indian dictionaries, studied the aboriginal languages largely for the purpose of translating the Bible, and had the problem of finding Indian expressions for manuring, for example in the parable of the fig tree, “I shall dig about it and dung it” (Luke 13,8). If the Indians had no word for dunging, they soon got an idea for it — suggested perhaps by the missionaries — from seeing the New England colonists manuring their fields with fish. The question is perhaps whether the etymological cart has been put before the horse. Maybe the fish gave its name to manuring, instead of vice versa.

Thoughts? (Thanks, Warren!)

Learn How Dictionaries Work!

Jonathon Owen, the linguist/editor who blogs at Arrant Pedantry (“Examining language rules and where they come from”) and whose post on “as such” I quoted with fervent approval in May, has another winner, I Am Begging You to Learn How Dictionaries Work:

It’s a phenomenon as predictable as the tides: a dictionary adds new words or definitions, and then people grouse about those changes, either because they don’t like the new words and think that the dictionary is declaring them acceptable, or because they personally have never heard of those words before and therefore don’t see why they should be included. They often blend in grumpiness about the language supposedly declining or about kids these days. In both cases, of course, the real problem is that readers just don’t understand how dictionaries work.

Take this recent example from Maura Hohman at NBCLX, a site dedicated to “thought-provoking content” “about tech, the environment, politics, community, social issues, and current events.” It takes the familiar kids-these-days trope and gives it an unusual spin: the author is only thirty, but she feels old because she doesn’t recognize a few of the 455 words recently added to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary. She starts off by calling herself an elder millennial, which I found cute as a millennial who just turned forty. I also found it odd from someone complaining about definitions. Definitions vary, of course, but elder or geriatric millennials are generally considered to have been born somewhere between something like 1980 and 1985 or 1981 and 1988. Even by the more generous definition, Hohman misses the cutoff by three years. Nevertheless, she says it was “a gut punch” to realize that she didn’t know a lot of these new words, which she calls “wrinkle-inducing additions.”

The first word she complains about, zero-day, means “of, relating to, or being a vulnerability (as in a computer or computer system) that is discovered and exploited (as by cybercriminals) before it is known to or addressed by the maker or vendor”. Weirdly, though, the definition she gives appears to be for a noun, not the adjective that Merriam-Webster enters. At any rate, Hohman imagines that this is a term used by children and that her unfamiliarity with it makes her old, when really it just means she doesn’t read much about device security. And that’s fine! But if she ever reads an article that mentions a zero-day vulnerability, now she’ll be able to look up that phrase in Merriam-Webster.

He goes on to discuss blank check company (a term I, like Owen, was unfamiliar with), deplatform, oobleck, and teraflop in equally lively and convincing style, concluding:
[Read more…]

General Extender.

I found Dmitri Sitchinava’s FaceBook post (in Russian) interesting enough I thought I’d translate it here:

Many, many years ago, the Russian Language Corpus compiled a list of “turns of phrase” (units of more than one word that, at the whim of Russian spelling, are written with a space). Useful stuff. It was based on Rogozhnikova’s dictionary (2003) The Explanatory Dictionary of Word-Equivalent Combinations and on the corpus’s frequency collocations.

Well, in this list the combination “и так далее” [‘and so on’] (48700 occurrences, counting [the abbreviations] “и т. д.” and, especially for Victor Sonkin, “итд”) does NOT exist, but there is a hyperfrequency [?] combination “в супряге с” [‘in a yoke with,’ i.e. ‘together’] (2 occurrences, both in [Sholokhov’s] Quiet Don).

This is not a criticism or mockery of the corpus — it is an objective typological and theoretical “hole” in the description of language (not merely Russian, but language in general), and it is clear why it happened. The point is that these “turns” are classified according to the syntactic function they perform — conjunction, adverb, parenthetical word, or particle, whatever that means. And “и так далее” [‘and so on’] is a continuation of any homogeneous list, it doesn’t care about part of speech. It’s a cross-category… cross-category what? Rogozhnikova’s dictionary has “и так далее” [‘and so on’], of course, but where there should be a particle marking, it says in italics “at the end of an enumeration.” Thanks, cap.

Of course, this problem has nothing to do with how many words it takes to write an expression with the meaning of “and so on.” You don’t have to go far from Russian — in Ukrainian, it’s one word, тощо. I started thinking about this when I encountered the Chinese Penn Treebank part-of-speech tagset, where for the corresponding character (which can be doubled) there is the special notation ETC.

A kind colleague tells me this is described as a general extender (Overstreet, Whales, Candlelight, and Stuff Like That: General Extenders in English Discourse. If the morpheme is arranged in this way (this includes, as I understand it, the legendary китаб-митаб [redoubling of китаб ‘book’], consequences shmonsequences, маслице да фуяслице, etc.), it is a similative plural.

WALS has such constructions under The Associative Plural: “By virtue of its referential heterogeneity, the associative plural construction is related to other non-homogeneous plurals, such as what might be called the similative plural (e.g. Telugu (Dravidian; India) puligili ‘tigers and such’ (Colin Masica, p.c.)), which differs from the associative plural in that it denotes a class of objects sharing similar features rather than a group of closely related associates.”

Nothing to Do.

I’m going to quote the start and end of Grace Schulman’s “The Examination: Remembrance of Words Lost” (Poetry 113.5 [Feb. 1969]: 319-321), because I’ve remembered much of it for half a century now and want to have it conveniently to hand (I have the issue of Poetry somewhere around the house, but who knows where?). It begins:

—What happened at your orals, Grace?
Taking a pipe from a row of suckling pigs, The chairman swung
In his chair. An A-shaped face, kind voice. Eyes, rubber stamps:
Failure. Special case.
          —I lose it now,
But I will try to call it back. Dim stars
That fade to a stare can shine at a backward glance.
—Why did you fail?
          —I did not. Words failed me […]

And ends:

Oh, yes. Of course. But nowadays we can’t
Give Ph.D.s for that. What’s your profession?
   —Published poet?
               —Well, poetry
Has nothing to do with scholarship. Your sentence:
A year of failure and a crown of silence.

Five fathers vanished. One remained.
                 —My friend,
I see you have been walking under water.
Look upward now.
          I surfaced then, saw shadows
That had been knives, and moved into myself.

I have often muttered “Well, poetry has nothing to do with scholarship” to myself over the years. Those italics in the chairman’s speech are devastating.