All French is Good French.

Chelsea Brasted has a good NatGeo piece (archived) on Cajun (and other) French:

When Janice Prejean was growing up, if she wanted to speak with her grandparents, she had to do it in French. To crack the code of the private conversations and jokes that flew over the heads of children at family gatherings, she also needed to know the language. “My lifestyle as a child and a young adult was immersed in moving between the Cajun world and les Americains,” she says.

Prejean, who was raised in Ossun, a tiny, unincorporated community in southwest Louisiana, is 64 now. Her story is an echo of the thousands of people in the region with Francophone ancestry. What makes her version a little different, however, is that she learned the language. Many people her age never did. French was a source of shame—Cajuns were often labeled stupid and backward—and parents wanted to shield their children from prejudice.

That started to change during the latter half of the 20th century with the launch of efforts to improve the understanding of Cajun heritage—not to mention attract tourism. Programs popped up to turn the tide on the diminishing use of the French language, including establishing immersion programs in schools and flying in teachers from other Francophone nations.

Yet a generational divide remains. The dialect of aging grandparents and great-grandparents often doesn’t translate to the “standard” French that elementary- and high-school-age children are learning. To bridge that gap, locals established a new French language and literacy school for adults in the tiny town of Arnaudville, which sits at the intersection of two bayous and two Louisiana parishes and has become the unlikely hub for the French revival.

[Read more…]

Forgetting Cantonese.

Jenny Liao has a moving New Yorker piece (archived) about losing a language:

No one prepared me for the heartbreak of losing my first language. It doesn’t feel like the sudden, sharp pain of losing someone you love, but rather a dull ache that builds slowly until it becomes a part of you. My first language, Cantonese, is the only one I share with my parents, and, as it slips from my memory, I also lose my ability to communicate with them. When I tell people this, their eyes tend to grow wide with disbelief, as if it’s so absurd that I must be joking. “They can’t speak English?” they ask. “So how do you talk to your parents?” I never have a good answer. The truth is, I rely on translation apps and online dictionaries for most of our conversations.

It’s strange when I hear myself say that I have trouble talking to my parents, because I still don’t quite believe it myself. We speak on the phone once a week and the script is the same: “Have you eaten yet?” my father asks in Cantonese. Long pause. “No, not yet. You?” I reply. “Why not? It’s so late,” my mother cuts in. Long pause. “Remember to drink more water and wear a mask outside,” she continues. “O.K. You too.” Longest pause. “We’ll stop bothering you, then.” The conversation is shallow but familiar. Deviating from it puts us (or, if I’m being honest, just me) at risk of discomfort, which I try to avoid at all costs. […]

[Read more…]

Vive l’Albanie!

The death of the great Jean-Paul Belmondo has inspired all sorts of tributes; my favorite so far is Slavomír Čéplö (bulbul) posting on FB this brilliant two-minute scene from Le Magnifique, a movie I had been unfamiliar with but now desperately want to see. It involves a dying Albanian; they’ve found an Albanian interpreter, but he only speaks Romanian. The Romanian interpreter only speaks Serbian, the Serbian interpreter only Russian, the Russian interpreter only Czech, but fortunately the Czech interpreter speaks French. The lineup of dark-suited interpreters is a hilarious sight gag in itself, and it sounds to me like they all actually speak the appropriate languages (though of course they speak rapidly and talk over each other — the man on the gurney is dying fast). Unfortunately the subtitles are in French, but hopefully you’ll be able to get the gist of it anyway.

No Books without Cheese.

The tweeter known as Incunabula has an enjoyable thread on the history of books:

Cheese meant female sheep & cows were usually more valuable than male ones which were accordingly slaughtered young as they were not worth feeding through the winter. The skins of these young animals was used to make vellum, giving us the basic material of the European book. Vellum tends to buckle & ripple, it doesn’t lie absolutely flat like paper. So it was bound between heavy wooden boards to keep it flat – this is the origin of the hardback book, a book format – expensive, hard to make, & prone to damage – almost never seen outside Europe. Ultimately, the hardback book exists because of cheese.

Cheese 🧀 is one of the 5 things the Western book as we know it depends on. The other four are snails 🐌, Jesus ✝️, underwear 🩲 and spectacles 👓. If even one of these things was absent, the book you hold in your hand today would look completely different. I’ll explain why.

Don’t expect a scholarly history, but I learned some stuff. I got it via MeFi, where maxwelton said “Yes, interesting, but seems a bit too much a ‘just so’ story”; the poster responded: “Agree – called it ‘fun’ because it’s like one of those Adam Curtis documentaries that completely overstretches to try to piece together a narrative, but is still entertaining to watch.” Quite so.


I was just reading a book by Vladimir Tendryakov when I was taken aback by the word энеолит [eneolit]. My first thought was that it might be a typo for неолит ‘Neolithic,’ but the book is well copyedited and proofread (the Soviets knew how to do these things, comrade), so that seemed unlikely. I looked it up and discovered in English it’s Eneolithic or Aeneolithic (from Latin aeneus ‘of copper’), and it’s a synonym of Chalcolithic. Is anyone familiar with this term? Who uses it?

Placename Patterns.

This website has a cute concept; the About text says:

A visualization of placename patterns, using data pulled from OpenStreetMap (places), Natural Earth (borders, rivers) and SRTM (elevation).

Originally created to visualize the distribution of places in France ending in -ac, and then the link between German placenames and altitude.

Built at first using SVG, but since this proved too much for Firefox, the visualization now uses canvas (at the expense of nice animations).

Patterns are Javascript-flavour regular expressions, most importantly ‘^’ and ‘$’ represent name beginning and end, respectively, so ‘^ll’ matches all placenames which begin with two L’s (many towns in Wales) and ‘a$’ all placenames which end in A.

Via MetaFilter, where there are further examples (e.g. Poland and Silesia). Enjoy!

So. Right?

John Herrman has a NY Times piece on a couple of linguistic tics that have spread in recent years; there’s padding about Mark Zuckerberg and the like, but what struck me is that he consulted with actual linguists on the history of the usages:

Linguistic observers have noted for years the apparent rise of “so” in connection with the popularization of certain subjects and modes of speech. In 2010, in The New York Times, Anand Giridharadas announced the arrival of a new species of the unassuming word.

“‘So’ may be the new ‘well,’ ‘um,’ ‘oh’ and ‘like.’ No longer content to lurk in the middle of sentences, it has jumped to the beginning,” he wrote, crediting the journalist Michael Lewis with documenting its use among programmers at Microsoft more than a decade earlier.

In 2015, in a story for “Fresh Air” on NPR, Geoff Nunberg, the program’s longtime linguist, explained this use of “so” as a cue used by “people who can’t answer a question without first bringing you up to speed on the back story,” he said. Hence his name for it: back story “so.”

Syelle Graves, a linguist and the assistant director of the Institute for Language Education in Transcultural Context at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, wrote her dissertation on the rise and uses of this particular “so.” Analyzing a sampling of spontaneous, unwritten American speech from 1990 to 2011, she concluded that this usage of “so” had indeed increased significantly, often as a stand-in for “well.”

[Read more…]

A Beating for Generality.

Cyril Connolly talking about his “ideas of mortality, futility, and death” (via Laudator Temporis Acti):

Even when we say “I am happy” we mean “I was” for the moment is past, besides, when we are enjoying ourselves most, when we feel secure of our strength and beloved by our friends, we are intolerable and our punishment—a beating for generality, a yellow ticket, a blackball, or a summons from the Headmaster, is in preparation. All we can do is to walk delicately, to live modestly and obscurely like the Greek chorus and to pay a careful attention to omens—counting our paces, observing all conventions, taking quotations at random from Homer or the Bible, and acting on them while doing our best to “keep in favour”—for misfortunes never come alone.

Does anybody have any idea what is meant here by “generality”? I can find no relevant sense in the OED. And for that matter, what’s a yellow ticket? In Russia it meant you were a prostitute, but that’s hardly likely here.


I’m reading the Strugatskys’ Хромая судьба (recently translated by Maya Vinokour as Lame Fate), which involves rereading their earlier novel Гадкие лебеди (The Ugly Swans; see this 2012 post) and enjoying it all over again — it forms alternating chapters, now repurposed as the hidden writings of the protagonist of the outer story, Feliks Sorokin. It takes place in a city wilting under unending rain and suspicious of a group of strange creatures who need to stay wet to survive; they are called in Russian мокрецы [mokretsy], a straightforward derivative of мокрый [mokry] ‘wet’ (related to Old Irish móin ‘bog, peat-moss’) — they’re called “clammies” in the Vinokour translation. Even though this was clearly a specialized usage, I looked up мокрец and discovered it had three existing meanings, given in my three-volume New Great Russian-English Dictionary as “1 veter malanders; 2 pl zool biting midges (Ceratopogonidae); 3 bot = мокрица [‘common chickweed’].” The last two seemed simple enough, but what was “malanders”? Turns out it’s an unusual spelling of what the OED (entry updated June 2000) has s.v. mallender, defining it as “Veterinary Medicine. Now rare. Originally: †a sore located behind a horse’s knee (obsolete). Later (in plural and †singular): a kind of chronic dermatitis of horses, characterized by the presence of such sores.” The etymology is a bog:

< Middle French malandre a sore behind a horse’s knee (c1393: compare the cognate Anglo-Norman and Old French malan, malant septic wound, ulcer, sore, especially on a horse’s neck), ultimately < classical Latin malandria a kind of pustule or rash (used in post-classical Latin of eruptive skin diseases of both horses and humans; sometimes used as neuter plural rather than as feminine singular), perhaps a popular borrowing of Hellenistic Greek μελάνδρυον heart of the oak, use as noun of neuter of ancient Greek μελάνδρυος, adjective < μελαν-, μέλας dark (see melano- comb. form) + δρυός, genitive of δρῦς oak, tree (see dryad n.). Compare sallender n., malandryn n.
N.E.D. (1904) labels this word ‘Now only pl.’ Cognates vary between plural (e.g. Italian malandre, Portuguese malandres) and singular (e.g. Sardinian malandra, Italian regional (Vicenza) malandro, Italian regional (Piedmont) malandra).

I have several questions. Why would the New Great Russian-English Dictionary (and wherever they got the definition from) render the Russian word with an obsolete English word, and why in that spelling? If the word is obsolete, what do vets call the condition now? Surely not “a kind of chronic dermatitis of horses” — but if there’s a modern term, why wouldn’t the OED use it? And perhaps most annoyingly, how do you get a name for eruptive skin diseases from a word meaning ‘heart of the oak’? How I suffer!

Another interesting etymology I learned as a result of reading the Strugatsky book: the interjection амба [amba], defined in my Oxford Russian-English Dictionary as “kaput!, it’s all up!,” is apparently from Italian ambo ‘both’ (itself straight from Latin), the context being late-18th-century underground gambling houses, where, as a designation of a simultaneous bet on two numbers of a numerical lottery (with a very low probability of winning), it became synonymous with loss, failure, and sometimes death; by the 1870s it appeared in thieves’ jargon, and from there became part of Russian slang.

Pidgin Isn’t Standard English.

So says the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in its ruling in No. 19-1408, On Petition for Review of a Final Order of the Board of Immigration Appeals:

The stakes in removal proceedings—whether a noncitizen will be deported—could hardly be higher. But despite the high stakes, the outcomes of these proceedings sometimes turn on minutiae. Small inconsistencies in a noncitizen’s testimony can doom even those cases that might otherwise warrant relief. To ensure testimony is not unfairly characterized as inconsistent, a noncitizen must be able to communicate effectively with the officials deciding his case. Because language barriers can make effective communication impossible, our Court has long recognized the importance of a competent interpreter to ensure the fairness of proceedings to individuals who do not speak English. But what happens if an immigration official does not make a meaningful effort to determine whether a noncitizen has limited proficiency in English?

Our case exemplifies this problem. Petitioner B.C., a native of Cameroon, primarily speaks “Pidgin” English, and reports that he has only limited abilities in the “Standard” English in which we write this opinion. He fled from Cameroon to the United States after allegedly facing persecution at the hands of his government. Soon after his arrival, the United States Department of Homeland Security began removal proceedings against B.C., and he applied for asylum, withholding of removal, and relief under the Convention Against Torture (“CAT”). In a series of interviews and hearings, immigration officials either presumed he spoke “Standard” English or gave him an unhelpful, binary choice between “English or Spanish” or “English or French.” And despite persistent clues that he was less than fluent in “Standard” English, he was left to fend for himself in that language without an interpreter. The record shows this resulted in confusion and misunderstanding. Relying on purported “inconsistencies” in the statements B.C. made without the help of an interpreter, the Immigration Judge (“IJ”) denied his applications on the ground that he was not credible, and the Board of Immigration Appeals (“BIA”) affirmed. When presented with additional country conditions evidence, expert reports on the linguistic differences between “Standard” and “Pidgin” English, and B.C.’s card showing membership in an allegedly persecuted group, the BIA denied his motion to reopen.

We hold that B.C. was denied due process because the IJ did not conduct an adequate initial evaluation of whether an interpreter was needed and took no action even after the language barrier became apparent. Those failures resulted in a muddled record and appear to have impermissibly colored the agency’s adverse credibility determination. We therefore vacate the BIA’s decisions and remand for a new hearing on the merits of B.C.’s claims. On remand, the agency must also remedy other errors B.C. has identified, which include dealing with the corroborative evidence he submitted.

That introduction is followed by a section “Standard” English vs. “Pidgin” English, which includes this telling passage:

Take, for example, the following sentence in “Standard” English: “[I]f it were me,” “I would not let him come and visit the children.” […] Translated into “Pidgin” English, this sentence would read, “If na mi, a no go gri meik I kam visit dat pikin dem.” […] Setting aside the various ways in which the “Pidgin” English sentence might be unintelligible to the “Standard” English speaker (and vice versa), a listener is likely to misunderstand key phrases without proper translation. Translated into “Pidgin” English, “if it were me” becomes “if na mi,” which a “Standard” English speaker could take to mean “if not me.” […] (emphasis added).

(For those with access, there’s a Law360 report on the case.) I am not a lawyer, but I feel safe in saying this is a correct application of linguistic principles as well as a triumph for justice. Thanks, Arthur!