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!


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    Don’t miss the bit in which due to a bureaucratic screwup misidentifying him as a native of Guatemala, the Cameroonian fellow *was* offered a Spanish interpreter.

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    While the Court of Appeal’s verdict is both just and, of course, linguistically sound, the picture it paints of the prior kangaroo-court antics is horrifying. And we don’t hear about those who lack the admirable tenacity in face of ignorance and bigotry displayed by B.C.

    The UK is currently in the grip of a government that believes it can distract the electorate from its own corruption and incompetence by maltreating refugees. I presume B.C. was unfortunate enough to arrive in the US when the same was true of that country. In any case, that sort of institutional gangrene is hard to cure once it has been assiduously promoted for years.

    Actually, the really encouraging aspect of this report is the numerous references to previous cases where the rights of refugees to meaningful due process have been upheld and developed. The good guys don’t give up … which is the sort of thing that makes me more optimistic about the US in the long run than many over here seem to be.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    The U.S. immigration-court system does (per some other googling) understand that Haitian Creole is different enough from standard French that you need to have interpreters specifically familiar with the former, probably because the percentage of Haitian-origin folks they deal with is high enough (in specific geographical areas like south Florida) that they eventually figured it out. Cameroonian:Standard English::Haitian::Standard French seems like an analogy that those in need of persuasion ought to be able to follow and maybe it was a missed opportunity for this opinion not to draw that analogy.

    Another interesting angle here is that the U.S. immigration authorities have plenty of experience dealing with Jamaicans and other folks from the Formerly-British West Indies and I guess have generally managed to deal with them without translators, which may have led them to believe that this would be more or less the same sort of situation. Perhaps the difference is that while a lot of “Anglophone” West Indians can if they want to speak a creole so thick or deep as to be incomprehensible to an AmEng speaker, they are generally more likely than many folks in West Africa to be able to code-switch close enough to standard English to make themselves understood by an American (and in turn understand what the American is saying to them).

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    David Eddyshaw’s apparent notion that this part of the U.S. immigration bureaucracy is predictably more or less nice to those caught in its tentacles depending on the rhetorical stance of the incumbent President on immigration-related topics is, to put it charitably, naive. It’s typically awful, and there is zero reason to believe this fellow would have fared any better at any point in the last thirty-plus years regardless of who was in the White House. (Perhaps longer than that, but I don’t have the same degree of knowledge and it may be that prior to some point in the Eighties the headcount ratio of immigration bureaucrats to aliens of disputed immigration status was such that caseloads were lower and attention to the fine details of particular individual circumstances thus easier to give and thus more frequently given.)

  5. Yes, I’m afraid I have to agree with JW. It’s been a long time since we had any decent treatment of immigrants. (As usual, I blame Reagan.)

  6. David Eddyshaw says


    I read a Cameroonian novel (Temps de chien, by Patrice Ngagang) in which the characters periodically drop into Cameroon Pidgin English from French, which is oddly discombobulating. It reminds me too of Kofi Yakpo’s excellent grammar of the Pidgin English of Equatorial Guinea, in which people code-switch (a lot) with Spanish.

    I was quite often addressed in Nigeria by unsophisticated speakers of Nigerian Pidgin who were under the misapprehension that I would understand it because I spoke English. The idea that the English-lexifier creoles are basically just bad standard English is still pretty common there (the local term for Pidgin is often just “Broken”), and I wouldn’t be surprised if poor B.C. himself was not all that clear on the issue when he first arrived.

    I find it unfortunately all too easy to believe what you and Hat say about the US immigration system (it’s more or less what I was implying with my remarks about gangrene.) But this is a long-term result of deliberate decisions by right-wing governments, and not-so-right-wing too (looking at you, Blairites.)
    However, I doubt whether the US and UK are even outliers in this.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    hat is being harsher on the Reagan legacy than, for example, NPR.

    Although it is true that the 1986 grand bargain on immigration was sold as a) okay we’ll be generous and merciful to those who broke the rules in the past and regularize their status; but b) going forward we’re going to enforce the rules strictly and gosh darn it this time we really mean it. One problem, as is so often the case, is that enforcing the (often complicated) rules firmly but fairly tends to require more funding than the politicians generally wish to provide, which means you predictably get an ad hoc blend of underenforcement and overenforcement, both of which are cheaper to do than just-right enforcement.

    As to the “oddly discombobulating” feature in Ngagang’s book, there are several Commonwealth countries where standard English is the school language but the home-language creole is French-based rather than English-based, so you’d have that same sort of code-switching but in mirror-image or something.

  8. hat is being harsher on the Reagan legacy than, for example, NPR.

    I wasn’t so much referring to his specific immigration bill, which was his usual incoherent mixture, as to his general effect on US politics, which was to encourage the very worst actors, the racists, sexists, xenophobes, etc. etc., many of whom he no doubt would have furrowed his noble brow at as a matter of personal taste and hygiene but who he very well knew were vital to the future success of his party. He might well find the present-day GOP distasteful, but it is the fruit of the seed he sowed (and Nixon before him, but Nixon was pretty well neutralized by Watergate).

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    @hat: Your parochial Boomer perspective is preventing you from placing appropriate blame on the likes of Millard Fillmore and Woodrow Wilson as the deep causes of the epiphenomena you deplore. Also

  10. Oh, I’m perfectly well aware of deep causes (the deepest cause is the division of humanity into people who love security and order and fear change — the conservative base — and the others), but if we’re talking politics rather than history or political philosophy, we need to focus on relevant recent causes, and the Reagan/Buchanan/Gingrich combo wrecked American politics for at least a generation. I would happily piss on any of their graves.

  11. And Thatcher’s too, come to that.

  12. (Good lord, I’m turning into John Emerson.)

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    Interestingly, Ayafor and Green’s Cameroon Pidgin English gives the proportion of people as having a “sound” knowledge of CPE as 66.6% in Yaoundé and 44.9% in Douala, and a further proportion with “basic” knowledge of 22.9% and 44.2% respectively (the survey cited is from 2003.) So it is indeed by no means confined to the officially Anglophone parts of the country.

    Temps de chien is actually set in Yaoundé, so I suppose I knew that.

  14. That is indeed interesting; I had no idea of the linguistic situation there.

  15. David Eddyshaw says
  16. @J.W.B. the U.S. immigration bureaucracy is … typically awful

    Seconded. I have three experiences, of which two were awful. (And so awful that I avoided travelling anywhere near U.S. jurisdictions thereafter — I get between Europe and NZ via Asia — pre-COVID, of course.)

    They were awful despite me not even trying to immigrate into the bloody country, and despite me travelling on a UK passport, and despite me having one of those cute Brit accents Americans are supposed to warm to. How much worse it would be for a Cameroonian with non-standard English I can only boggle at.

  17. U.S. immigration authorities have plenty of experience dealing with Jamaicans and other folks from the Formerly-British West Indies

    I would guess that they rank African immigrants lower that West Indies black immigrants. The Ebola scare (and Zika too?) demonstrated a long-term resident bias in the U.S. against Africans.

    the 1986 grand bargain on immigration was sold as a) okay we’ll be generous and merciful to those who broke the rules in the past and regularize their status; but b) going forward we’re going to enforce the rules strictly and gosh darn it this time we really mean it.

    That grand bargain was one of a number of attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable, that the U.S. despises illegal immigrants, but is dependent on them for cheap labor of various kinds, notablt agriculture, childcare, and restaurant services. Unenforcement has been good for, say, the operators of chicken factories, and at the same time the theoretical threat of enforcement has been good to keep their employees in line.

  18. Something I never quite figured out is the apparent bias the US immigration authorities have against young single women.

    Yes, I get it that they are statistically more likely to end up marrying a US citizen once they got into the country and never leave, but why exactly it’s bad?

  19. They were awful despite me not even trying to immigrate into the bloody country

    One of the many idiocies of US border control policy is that you can’t make a connecting flight without going through passport/immigration check. In most places, if you’re simply changing planes on your way to another country, you get diverted into a separate secure area without ever officially stepping on native soil.

  20. I’ve experienced the same thing in Mexico City and Lisbon: collect checked luggage, put it through the X-rays all over again, recheck it, get it and yourself on the second flight. In Lisbon, all this within the space of one hour the ingenious computer had allotted me for changing flights.

  21. January First-of-May says

    In Lisbon, all this within the space of one hour the ingenious computer had allotted me for changing flights.

    I didn’t have to deal with luggage collection during my 45-minute stopover in Belgrade on my way back from Varna in 2014; it later turned out that the airline personnel tasked with sending our luggage to the next plane didn’t actually manage to get most of it through, and we had to specifically request its arrival. Fortunately nothing was actually lost, merely briefly misplaced.

  22. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    there are several Commonwealth countries where standard English is the school language but the home-language creole is French-based rather than English-based

    I think Mauritius is one, a country I’ve heard mentioned in France many times, but I don’t remember ever hearing it mentioned in England, except possibly in connection with stamp collecting).

  23. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    They were awful despite me not even trying to immigrate into the bloody country,

    When I was doing my post-doc in Berkeley (1967–1970) there was a distinguished professor from Melbourne (if he’s not about 110 he must have died since then and won’t mind my revealing his name here: Frank Hird) I used to talk with at coffee. He told me that a few years earlier, maybe in the 1950s, he had had a lot of trouble trying to travel from Australia to the UK, when the plane made a refuelling stop at Miami. He had been, or maybe still was, a member of the Australian Communist Party and somehow the US Immigration officers knew that and wanted to detain him, even though, like you, he wasn’t “trying to immigrate into the bloody country”.

  24. Unbelievable. I apologize to one and all for my stupid country and its stupid policies and leaders.

  25. So what is happening etymologically with “If na mi …”?

    Has “na” undergone some kind of reanalysis negative > hypothetical? Or it has some completely different source, not an original negative at all.

  26. J.W. Brewer says

    @A C-B: Mauritius maybe* fits although I had been thinking first of the Seychelles and then of some Caribbean places like St. Lucia – in all of these the common denominator is that sovereignty got switched from French to English due to the fortunes of war somewhere around the Napoleonic period plus or minus but the local creole had already been established and the change of rulers was not a significant enough factor to transform it.

    *As I understand it, Standard French coexists with Standard English in Mauritius as a language used in government, education etc. in a way that it doesn’t in e.g. St. Lucia or Dominica. That may be true to a lesser extent in the Seychelles — somewhere in my collection of offbeat religious texts I have a liturgical pamphlet from the Anglican Diocese of the Seychelles giving the order for the Communion service etc. trilingually in English, (standard) French, and the local creole.

  27. This is where we need our resident Martian. Come back, Siganus Sutor!

  28. David Eddyshaw says

    Has “na” undergone some kind of reanalysis negative > hypothetical?

    No, it’s not an original negative (the negative particle is no.) Its origin is unclear*, but it’s a copula and a focus particle. In the quoted example, it’s a copula.

    We discussed this a bit before:

    * As Fela Kuti says in “Suffering and smiling”: Na sikrit o! “It’s a secret!”

  29. J.W. Brewer says

    I don’t know if David Eddyshaw has any particular insight to offer (it’s in a different region from where I believe he spent his time), but I learn from the internet that Ghana is allegedly mistreating its minority Francophone population (possibly linked with a separatist movement seeking to detach West Togoland / Togoland de l’Ouest from Ghana) in a sort of conservation-law symmetry with Cameroon mistreating its minority Anglophone population.

  30. David Eddyshaw says

    I don’t think Ghana really has a Francophone minority, at least not to any meaningful degree. It’s nothing like Cameroon, at any rate.

    I would guess really this has to do with long-standing (real or alleged) irredentist tendencies among the Ewe, who were basically split between Ghana and Togo after the plebiscite which conveniently united the British-mandate part of Togoland-as-was with soon-to-be-Ghana (modern Togo is just the old French mandate.)

    The result of the plebiscite reunited the Agolle Kusaasi, though. (I once came across a very old man there who still proudly owned a German rifle from the days when his home was in Togoland before 1916.)

  31. David Eddyshaw says

    Very few of my colleagues in northeast Ghana could speak French at all, despite our being right on the Burkina and Togo borders; when they joined me for working trips to Burkina Faso and Togo (which was a thing we did regularly) they would speak Mooré or Hausa with the locals (or in the case of two of my theatre staff, Bisa, which was their own mother tongue, and is spoken in a large area in Burkina just over the border from Bawku.)

    It may be different in Volta Region, though I suspect that cross-border interactions would be largely in Ewe rather than either colonial language.

    My wife taught French in the local school: there was a lot of interest in learning it, but no local speech community.

    This would all be to do with politics, not linguistic reality. There is, alas, quite a little industry in claiming that this or that Ghanaian ethnic group are “really” incomers from Burkina/Togo/wherever. Mamprussi supremicists sometimes claim this of the Kusaasi, in fact. There is not a shred of evidence for this (quite the contrary.)

    This particular kind of poisonous narrative was in evidence during the horrible if thankfully brief conflict between the Dagomba and the Konkomba in the 1990’s. I’m sorry to say that the BBC obligingly disseminated the falsehood that the Konkomba were recent arrivals from Togo. Vague aspirations to impartiality don’t cut it when you’re getting all your information from one side only.

  32. It surprised me when I spoke to the only person from Mauritius I ever spoke to, two “acrolects” at once.

  33. David Eddyshaw says

    I had a Mauritian colleague, who spoke Mauritian creole, French and English, though she did say that her ability to speak French “properly” was rather rusty. (She was of Chinese and African ancestry.)

  34. No, it’s not an original negative (the negative particle is no.) Its origin is unclear*, but it’s a copula and a focus particle.

    Is there an alternative to the view that copular da/na in various Atlantic English-lexifier creoles has evolved from English that(’s), as set out here (on p. 84), for instance, by B. Migge, with careful attention to the possibilities of diffusion and parallel development among the Atlantic English-lexifier creoles. (Presumably na would have diffused from Krio into CPE?)

    Jacques Arends 1985 (“Genesis and Development of the Equative Copula in Sranan”, p. 103-127 in Substrata versus Universals in Creole Genesis, P. Muysken and N. Smith, eds.) has this to say about the putative phonological development of na from da in Sranan:

    A problem that remains to be discussed is the phonological change of da (in its functions of copula and of determiner) into na. Related to the question of the particular choice of na to replace da is the question of why this change originated with copular and not with deictic da. Copular na is attested from the very first natively written source at our disposal (Cesaari 1836-37:280) onwards, through other native texts such as King 1864-70, King 1891-9410, and Albitrouw 1894, in all of which the determiner is still expressed as da. Herskovits’s tales are the earliest source in our sample to have na in both functions. If both morphemes do indeed have a common source, as suggested above, why would they not undergo the same phonological change at the same time? The fact that da could be an artefact of European spelling will not account for this, since in that case we would expect the correct spontaneous spelling na by native speakers in both functions, unless at that time both functions were distinguished well enough to grant them two distinct phonetic shapes. Possible syncretism of the determiner with English the or that would then explain why it was this function that retained the older spelling, while the specific choice of the form na for the copula could be explained by influence from the general preposition of the same shape. This last hypothesis may seem far fetched, but it is interesting to note that Weimers (Weimers 1973:312) suggests a relationship for Igbo between prepositional and the present action particle , which ‘may well be associated with ‘being at”. This observation is especially relevant since the morpheme in question in both languages is, at least partially, identical in both form and function. Of course, we are left with the fact that the phonetic difference between both functions is later neutralized. This last problem is not accounted for either by Alleyne’s in other respects fruitful hypothesis (Alleyne 1980:89) that in the da/na alternation in various creole languages one can see the modern reflexes of one common historical root *nda, which yielded na and da as alternants. This hypothesized origin becomes all the more likely since we know that prenasalized stops were often incorrectly spelt by Europeans (cf. Donicie & Voorhoeve 1963:vii, where Schumann’s misspellings nju and dju are reported for Saramaccan ndju). Voorhoeve’s suggestion that pronominal na could be derived from a noun class prefix (Voorrhoeve 1953:72-73) in conjunction with Daeleman’s observation that the initial ‘nasal compound’ (i.e. prenasalized stop) is prop ortionally very common in the Kongo languages as the feature of the noun class 9/10 lend further support to Alleyne’s hypothesis. Of course, these two explanations are not mutually exclusive, since phonological and functional causes may very well have reinforced each other.

    Maybe McWhorter has something else to say about the phonological development somewhere?

  35. David Eddyshaw says

    All this seems to presuppose that the West African English-lexifier creoles derived from Sranan, or something very like it. The deictic in the West African languages is dat, not da, for example (an instance actually occurs in the CPE example in the post.) There seems to me to be little sense in trying to explain features seen in all these languages by what look very like local developments internal to Sranan and its close relatives.

    It’s logically possible that a Sranan-internal development could have diffused up to the Caribbean and then back across the Atlantic (the latter part is the less implausible, given that Krio may be a refluxed Caribbean creole.) But I must say this all looks very speculative indeed. The assumptions you end up having to make are so broad that you could end up “proving” practically anything.

    Bulbul is the one to ask about this.

  36. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Na sikrit o! “It’s a secret!”

    I’m reminded of the perversity of Portuguese to use “no” to mean something different from what everyone else expects it to mean. “na” too, in the feminine form.

  37. David Eddyshaw says

    It has actually been suggested that the word really is derived from Portuguese na “in the”:

    The various creoles in question have a homophonous very general locative preposition na, which may have got transmuted by syntactic alchemy into the copula/focus particle somehow.

    To make life yet more complicated, prepositions of a similar form and meaning are quite common in West African languages (though in Kusaal, and indeed Oti-Volta generally, and even in distant Swahili, come to that, the general-locative particle ni is a postposition.)

    Igbo has the locative preposition na, for one; and the 2pl pronoun una/unu “you”, which clearly isn’t of English or Portuguese origin, looks pretty like the Igbo 2pl unu too, come to that.

  38. David L. Gold says

    @Athel Cornish-Bowden. Frank Hird died in 2014. You can leave a message in the Public Guestbook if you like ( ).

  39. “To make life yet more complicated, prepositions of a similar form and meaning are quite common in West African languages ”

    Yes. na is “on” in Russian and commonly used in analytical Bulgarian in place of other Slavics’ case forms. (на#Bulgarian). Moscow Africans pepper their language with na and you can’t tell whose na is that.

  40. David Eddyshaw says

    The question of Russian influence in the Atlantic creoles has been insufficiently explored …

  41. A. Sasportas says

    “the perversity of Portuguese to use ‘no’ to mean something different from what everyone else expects it to mean.”

    “Perversity”? Who is “everyone else” and what is the basis for their expectation?

    Students of West Iberian have easily explained the forms and the meanings of Asturian no ‘in the’, Galician no 1. ‘in the’. 2. ‘him’, and Portuguese no 1. ‘in the’. 2. ‘him; [as a direct object] ‘it’.

  42. Who is “everyone else” and what is the basis for their expectation?

    Obviously, people who don’t speak Portuguese and who expect no to mean ‘no.’

  43. David Eddyshaw says

    After all, “no” means “no.”

  44. John Emerson says

    Dutch and French “je” are perverse too.

  45. And in Georgian მამა (mama) means ‘father.’

  46. David Eddyshaw says

    And Modern Greek has ναι and όχι.

  47. And German wer means ‘who’ and wo means ‘where’.

  48. And yet, wofür and wherefore match up fine.

  49. David Eddyshaw says

    Kusaal ti means “we” and Welsh ti means “you”, which is odd when you consider how very alike the languages are in all other respects (e.g. Welsh ac “and” = Kusaal ka, Welsh dyn “person” = Kusaal nid …)

  50. Russian influence in the Atlantic creoles

    Shared retentions. “Na” is what Eve said to Adam.

    In Russian you say it when extending a hand with an apple to indicate that you are offering it, (a counterpart to day!, the first word for many Russain children ot use systematically and wiht determination). Here on periphery we keep such archaisms.

  51. X means Y – people say aforementioned day!, “give”, makes English speaking adults nervous when Russian toddlers start saying it.
    Variants of “no” is another common first word.
    My freind’s dauther recently lerned to say “no”, in affirmative meaning, negative meaning and any meaning.

  52. @drasvi

    Interesting about the Rusdian ‘na’.

    In Croatian too, the word ‘na’ is used in the same way. Albeit the usage would be considered rude in all but the most informal contexts.

    Going up the politeness scale would be: ‘evo’, ‘izvoli’, then ‘izvolite’

  53. In Hebrew (via Yiddish), na is a rude ‘here, take it’. na ba’ozen ‘take it in the ear’ means what it might mean, pragmatically at about the same level as English ‘bite me’; though I usually think of it as occurring in third person accounts, not as a face to face expression.

  54. Can someone explain how bite me came into use?

  55. David Eddyshaw says

    In Kusaal, na means “hither”*, which is obviously the same concept as “take this”, by the lucus a non lucendo principle. No means “with him” **, but it’s written nɛ o to save space.

    In Welsh, by the way, ond means “but”, and and means “that not.” Oh, and na means “that.” Or “no”, of course.

    * Or “join”, but I’m trying to keep things simple here.

    ** Or “her”, naturally.

  56. In Chinese means “he”, in Mongolian ta means “you”.

    In Hainanese, the word for “eight” is bi. In Mandarin that means “cunt”.

    I would happily piss on any of their graves.

    Hat, you have my permission to take a few days off to seek out their scurvy graves, down a few beers and cups of tea or coffee, and piss away to your heart’s content.

  57. David Eddyshaw says

    To bi, or not to bi

  58. “your heart’s content.”
    At first I did not notice “to” and thought it is a new interpretation for pouring one’s heart out.

  59. I was being sexist (and not just the “cunt” bit).

    In Chinese tā means “he, she, or it”.

  60. Hebrew mi is ‘who’, hu is ‘he’, hi is ‘she’.

  61. David Eddyshaw says

    According to Nigel Barley’s The Innocent Anthropologist, in the Adamawa language of the Dowayo people of Cameroon, the sentence-final interrogative-marker particle differs only in tone from the word “cunt.” This can lead to embarrassment for the foreign learner. Apparently.

  62. As in Who do you think I am, Kant?, the categorial retort by Sidney Morgenbesser to an admonishing Officer Pup. The latter was not best pleased, having mistaken the tone.

  63. Who do you think you are. An understandable mistake on my part, in light of the categorial imperative. It’s very purpose is to confuse you and me.

  64. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Frank Hird died in 2014.

    Thanks for the information. He must have been younger than I thought (when you’re in your 20s anyone older than 35 seems to be at least 70). However, his first publication was in 1950, about 20 years before mine, so one can suppose he was about 90 in 2014.

    Anyway, I’m glad I checked him out at Web of Science, because I see that he wrote some papers I’d like to read. I had little idea of his scientific work in 1969, and probably wouldn’t have been very interested. However, the world moves on, and now I’m very interested.

  65. Colloquial Mongolian has “mai” which roughly means “here you are, take it” etc.

    Never occurred to me that it could be a borrowing from Russian.

  66. one can suppose he was about 90 in 2014.

    Turns out he was born in 1920, so you were close. This death notice says “Known to family as Raymond, Dad, Papa and Sweetheart, to friends as Frank, and to himself as Francis. […] Scientist, scholar, craftsman, traveller, limericist.”

  67. @Y: “In Hebrew (via Yiddish), na is a rude ‘here, take it’…” Must be a Slavic borrowing then? The Russian na! is colloquial but not necessarily rude. It’s in Eugene Onegin, after all.

    Conveniently, the Portuguese na can often be translated as the Russian proposition на (na rua, na mesa, na praia, na festa). Less conveniently, it has to be в in many other cases (na cidade, na casa, na noite).

  68. David Marjanović says

    However, I doubt whether the US and UK are even outliers in this.

    In a word, no.

    The business model* of Austria’s current government is precisely to “distract the electorate from its own corruption and incompetence by maltreating refugees” (eliminating the extreme-right party by replacing it). But it hardly made this kind of thing worse than it was before.

    * That’s not actually a metaphor.

    the perversity of Portuguese

    Polish, the language where no means yes!

    (“well…” > “well, yeah” > colloquial unstressed “yes”. Contrast the Russian development “well…” > “well, but” > “but” of the same word.)

    And yet, wofür and wherefore match up fine.

    Not quite that fine: the German version is more literal, meaning “for what purpose”, so you’re in danger of ending up with “what did you think you were trying to accomplish when you decided to be Romeo”.

    The r is preserved in compounds when a vowel follows: worin, worauf, worunter, also darin, darauf, darunter.

    “hither”*, which is obviously the same concept as “take this”

    “Come here and take this”. Molon, with the labe laconically omitted.

  69. My friend who has Swedish ancestry and spent time in Hong Kong growing up pointed out how ni means you in both Swedish and Chinese (especially Mandarin), which would often cause him some confusion.

  70. David Marjanović says

    Ooh, the joke about how Schwarzenegger learned English.

    Ich [i] is I,
    Ei is egg,
    Eck is corner,
    and keiner [koɐ̯nɐ] is nobody!

  71. And Afrikaans na “to” (Dutch naar).
    I am afraid a Russian unfamiliar with Dutch is likely to understand Afrikaans example from Wiktionary Sy het na my toe gestap. as “she stepped on my toe”:-)

  72. J.W. Brewer says

    To back up a bit, I had the thought that perhaps hardcore Ewe irredentists on both sides of the current international border could take up speaking German as a symbolic rejection of the long-running Anglo-French conspiracy to divvy up their homeland. But it turns out that one reason that’s improbable is that back in the day the German Protestant missionaries decided not to use German as a language of school instruction but rather to use Ewe (specifically, the particular variety of Ewe they had chosen for their Bible translation) for that purpose. Although perhaps for the more romantic-to-counterfactual subset of Ewe nationalists there’s another European language symbolizing what might have been …

  73. Czechoslovak Togo was just a gleam in the eye of a few nuts, while Couronian Tobago was an actual thing!

  74. David Eddyshaw says

    Once Czech Togo separated from Slovak Togo, the Ewe would have been no better off, anyway.

  75. Couronian Tobago это вам не Czechoslovak Togo!

  76. @David Marjanović: I knew you would point that out about wofür and wherefore. I was quipping on my phone, and I got distracted thinking there should be a German “woals.”

  77. I apologize to one and all for my stupid country and its stupid policies and leaders.

    Oh tush! I’m not going to apologise for my country’s equally stupid policies and leaders (from Thatcher onwards). I ‘got on my bike’ and emigrated from the bloody place.

    This site gives ample evidence not all of the USA is stupid. I suspect, though, there’s not a lot of overlap between readers here and immigration/border officials.

    And I have met plenty of intelligent, considerate Americans outside of America — even ones who don’t ask which State New Zealand is in. OTOH I have known a New Zealander seconded to the US for a few years (South Carolina) who came back just as much of a rabid hang-’em-high bigot. Must be something about the effect of too much sun on pale skin.

    I’m just not going to take the risk of travelling there, when so many other places are so much more welcoming.

  78. And quite right too.

  79. David Eddyshaw says

    Must be something about the effect of too much sun on pale skin

    Hence, “redneck” …

    My own experiences of meeting Americans in person have also been overwhelmingly positive, though the Americans you encounter in West Africa (where most such meetings have occurred) are probably (like the Brits) not altogether typical. And I’ve never been to America. (I don’t expect they’d let me in, what with the horrid Socialism and the Cultural Marxism and all. Perhaps if I got a certificate from my pastor saying that I was an Evangelical Christian? And I do look German. That’s got to be good, right?)

  80. Windau (today Ventspils), and Libau (today Liepāja)

    Curious how two similar-sounding names could be so different in Latvian.

  81. “Pils” means “castle, palace” in Latvian.

    Ventspils – Castle on Venta [river], Liepajas pils – Liepaja Castle, etc.

    Cognate of Greek “polis” apparently.

  82. Stu Clayton says

    And I do look German. That’s got to be good, right?

    In view of your seniority, I fear that means you wear white socks with sandals. Germans don’t do that 60s thing much any more. Their most recognizable feature is still the German accent when speaking English.

  83. David Eddyshaw says

    I suspect that means you wear white socks with sandals

    Certainly not. Those pictures were photoshopped by my enemies in an effort to discredit me.

  84. Stu Clayton says

    I have to admit that I wore them for a while myself – trying to blend in with the locals. I put an end to that when I found out how often you have to wash those socks to keep them white. It was all about conspicuous cleanliness (and thus godliness).

  85. David Marjanović says

    I was quipping on my phone, and I got distracted thinking there should be a German “woals.”

    Heh. There should be, but the closest is wohingegen, which more or less corresponds to the contrastive uses of whereas but not to the other uses.

    It was all about conspicuous cleanliness (and thus godliness).

    Oh, that’s an interesting idea. Figures that it wouldn’t end with the lack of curtains in Berlin.

  86. Lars Mathiesen says

    Are black socks any better? The thing about white socks in Denmark is that most wearers are ignorant of colour separation when washing so they aren’t white. I can well believe that a proper German would have a greater sense of propriety.

    Being Danish, I’m a natural-born redneck. Sun comes out, shirts with collars are exchanged for t-shirts, pain ensues. Unless you convert to the hat party like I did, my Panama has saved me from burnt neck and nose for three years now.

  87. (“well…” > “well, yeah” > colloquial unstressed “yes”. Contrast the Russian development “well…” > “well, but” > “but” of the same word.)

    Slavonic, I believe.

    нъ is Slavonic for ἀλλά (e.g. “I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil”), among other things. I do not know how it was used in spoken Old Russian unaffected by slavonicisms (I guess it is possible to figure this out by comparing more Slavonicized documents to less Slavonicized documents) and whether it is parallel or imported, but it is attensted since 10th century.

  88. Is “well” an approving particle? I am unaware of such a meaning of no, but I easily could have missed somethign. Russian nu can stand for “yes!” but not for “d’accord”.

    But if such meaning is reconstructed for proto-Slavic without actual attestation, I am incluned to disagree. Wiktionary reconstructs “well” for PIE (nu) and PS (nъ: “From Proto-Indo-European *nu akin Proto-Slavic *nyně (“now”). Parallel to Proto-Slavic *nu (“well, fine then”)”). Maybe they mean well as in:

    Well, I called up the doctor, / Was not feeling so well. / He looked inside his bag and said, / “Well, well”….

    ? When I heard that, I was very pleased, because it seems Russian doctor ну-с has an exact translation!
    And they are structured similarly: even retention of the slovoyer -с (<с[ударь] "[mi]lord") is mirrored by the repetition of "well".
    But it is a Romance idea to employ a… I can't call it a "content" word, let us say "sintactically bound" word with the meaning "good" for this. I do not know if using "good" this way is cross-linguisticall common and *nu is a decent particle that has been a particle since ever or at least bears no trace of being anything else.

  89. In Hebrew (via Yiddish), na is a rude ‘here, take it’.

    Of course, such a short word for “take it” is expressive and commonly used where something expressive is needed.

    и тут на тебе [..]
    and here (‘this moment’) – na – [an unpleasant surprise or unjustified/disapproved action by someone]
    нате вам

  90. Again, but and yes:

    da. 1. “but” (Fedot, da ne tot, “a Theodotus, but not that (not the right one)” 2. “and” (Ivan da Mar’ja) 3. “yes”. 4. …..

    It is “but” in Russian proverbs, substituted with no in the modern language.

    No smells books and reasoning: you find more “buts” in logical treateses and less of them in colloquial speech.

  91. David Eddyshaw says

    Do is “yes” in Welsh, but only in the past.

  92. In the present, the Welsh never say “yes.”

  93. David L. Gold says

    @ David Marjanović.”the lack of curtains in Berlin.”

    That reminds me that when living in Switzerland for about twelve months in 1966-1967. I was told that after sunset all curtains, shades, and blinds must be closed because otherwise “you’ll be taken for a prostitute soliciting clients at the window” (that was in Geneva).

  94. PlasticPaddy says

    This is strange. I thought Calvinists hated curtains because they have NOTHING TO HIDE.But maybe this only applies to Dutch Calvinists. Or maybe the ethos of (that part of) Geneva is Catholic (it is the most common religion in the canton). Maybe David E can help.

  95. David Eddyshaw says

    Naturally we do not wish to lead our neighbours into temptation by displaying our total depravity.

    The Dutch have probably eaten too many mushrooms to care. You know how it is.

  96. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    In the present, the Welsh never say “yes.”

    Before I went to Turkey as a student I had read that Turkish had two words for no: a rude form, yok, and a polite form, hayır. I never heard anyone say hayır.

  97. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Regarding male fashion, New Zealand has unique look:

    Hmm. When I was a student I tended to wear shorts with sockless sandals in the summer. (I still do, but my legs are less nice to look at than they were then.) I was told by someone from Rhodesia (as it was then), not from New Zealand, though the accent was similar, that one should always wear long socks with shorts. Maybe that idea has survived in New Zealand.

  98. Athel Cornish-Bowden says


    A German who was a senior (and distinguished) professor at the Biozentrum in Basle told me that never a day went by when he was not reminded that he was not Swiss.

    That never happens in France: in nearly 35 years of living in Marseilles no one has ever felt it necessary to remind me that I’m not French, though it must be perfectly obvious to them. (Actually for the past month I have been French.)

  99. Toutes nos félicitations!

  100. Hat: I apologize to one and all for my stupid country and its stupid policies and leaders.

    AntC: Oh tush! I’m not going to apologise for my country’s equally stupid policies and leaders.

    The difference is that U.S. stupid policies and leaders shake the whole world, whereas UK s.p.&l. generally do not.

    there’s not a lot of overlap between readers here and immigration/border officials

    Those officials are not stupid: they are trained to behave like that. I know this because my sister-in-law was a trainer of Transportation Safety Administration trainers (the TSA are the people who make your life miserable when you get on a plane, even a domestic flight).

    I don’t expect they’d let me in

    Spinach. You merely need to enter through the port of New York (or, I grudgingly concede, Boston).

    the Welsh never say “yes.”

    Of course not. They merely repeat the verb, like all sensible people. (Lojbanists can do so, but they normally use a word signifying a repetition of the previous sentence.)

  101. They merely repeat the verb, like all sensible people.

    As do the Russians. (“Ты слышал?” “Слышал.”)

  102. David Marjanović says

    I never heard anyone say hayır.

    It was a written option in the referendum on whether to give Erdoğan all the power. Probably it was quoted from the ballot a few times…

  103. … long socks with shorts. Maybe that idea has survived in New Zealand.

    Since we’re talking about the border experience …

    The first time I arrived in NZ (1990) the airport greeters indeed were wearing long socks with shorts; and pointy wide-brimmed pioneer/scout hats.

    I’d say these days wearing long socks with shorts would mark you out as of a specific generation; but jandals with shorts is common for any age (or gender come to that).

    Rhodesia (as it was then), not from New Zealand, though the accent was similar

    I demure: I’ve always been able to tell a Zimbabwean or South African accent from NZ. But it took quite a bit of training to tell NZ from Australian. (The difficulty’s compounded by there being plenty of Australians in NZ, with varying softening of their accent; and vice versa.)

  104. The image comes with an explanation: “The typical New Zealand formal ‘Walk Shorts and Walk Socks’ look, popular from the 50’s till the late 70’s/80’s, then seeing a steady decline as a more casual and unkempt appearance swept the nation.”

  105. Is not a standard outfit of Russian female office workers and prostitutes* in 90s (black hose, miniskirt, [blouse for office, I do not remember what for street hookers]) is the same thing, essentially?

    Even туфли or босоножки did not go to far from your sandals.

    Actually it was “swept the nation” that reminded me of this. I thought if this “unkempt appearence” can be combined with genevois “you will be taken for a prostitute soliciting clients” and realized that both outfists are almost identical.

    *you could tell one from another by the skirt’s dsign and fabric. Girls who stand all night long under cold rain or [hot?] snow and have to wear something revealing tend to keep that little that they wear waterproof and warm.

  106. drasvi: you’re not the first to notice it. Same in the United States and other Western countries. High-heeled shoes, too.

  107. David L. Gold says

    “They merely repeat the verb, like all sensible people.”

    That is also one of the ways of answering questions in Classical Latin:

    Loquisne latine ‘Do you speak Latin?’

    Latine loquor ‘I do’ or ‘yes’.

    Latine non loquor ‘I do not’ or ‘no’.

  108. A clarification: “both outfists are almost identical” referred to

    one: men in long socks and shorts
    two: female sex and office workers

    F: skirt – mini-skirt M: trousers – shorts
    F: stockings M: long socks
    F: shoes-you-won’t-climb-a-tree-in M: sandals

  109. But I can’t imagine male prostitutes working in long socks and shorts.

  110. Lars Mathiesen says

    @drasvi, the Red Queen could imagine and believe six impossible things before breakfast, do you really want to let a fictional playing card best you?

    Also I am reliably informed that under-the-knee socks and stockings are not the same fetish. Then add garters/suspenders to the stockings or not, then hose, and you have anime fan wars. There are Japanese terms for all four I believe.

    Anyway, I imagine the working outfit of a sex worker depends on the target demographic, and the existence of a stereotype for female prostitutes says more about the customers.

  111. David Eddyshaw says

    Ordinary respectable Western young-female attire strikes many Ghanaians are typical prostitute-wear, though they are rarely so impolite as to say so. (I discovered this by eavesdropping.)

  112. PlasticPaddy says

    What Lars says, i.e., honi soit qui mal y pense.

  113. @Lars Mathiesen: You have the wrong half of Alice. The Red Queen is a chess piece, not a playing card. And it was the other queen from the chess set, the White Queen, who sometimes believed six impossible things before breakfast.

  114. J.W. Brewer says

    The “unique” New Zealand look is a bit informal even with the necktie. In Bermuda you would traditionally need to add a navy blazer to be properly dressed.

  115. I regret to inform you all that shorts with long socks (and a tie etc) is a look that has entirely disappeared in New Zealand in my lifetime. You don’t even see it on old men, since it was work dress, and old men aren’t working. I had teachers at school in the 1970s and early 80s who would dress like that, but I think it went away and never came back some time in the late 80s.

  116. Eheu fugaces!

  117. Lars Mathiesen says

    We had an exchange student at Uni who would bike through 10cm of snow in shorts and long socks, though with something less penetrable than sandals to supplement the look. That was around ’90, and he was at most 30 I guess. No tie, though.

  118. J.W. Brewer says

    I remember an Australian grad student from my undergraduate days (we were in at least one seminar together, on ergativity and whatnot) who at least once (in my memory I’ve made it routine, which may not be accurate) strolled around the snowy winter streets of New Haven in shorts and sandals, as if to say “this is what I always wear in January and I’m not buying into this story that the seasons are reversed on this side of the Equator.” But a very different look than knee socks would have yielded and I think the shorts were shorter than those typically paired with knee socks.

  119. I stumbled upon this comic in the SMBC archives today, illustrating an American stereotype about certain styles of dress.

    And I just noticed another small change in with the new site. The Gravatar images seem to be higher resolution; I can really seen the green ripples on Julian Glover’s face now.

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