Ruminations on Translation.

Bathrobe has a new post at his blog Spicks and Specks that’s full of fascinating reflections on the nitty-gritty of translation work. A couple of excerpts:

It was a point of pride at the time that the press translations produced by the Australian embassy were far superior to those of the U.S. embassy. The U.S. Embassy translations were barely translations at all; they merely transposed words and constructions in a way that closely mimicked the original. But there was a rationale behind the American approach. When reading a translation, an American officer who knew Japanese could gain a fairly accurate idea what the original Japanese said. This is what the U.S. Embassy wanted, not natural-sounding translations that obscured the original. […]

A good portion of modern so-called ‘translation’ means knowing the conventional equivalents for standard vocabulary. A translator working in a major language simply has to plug in ready-made words. For example, the word ‘economy’ or ‘economic’ has routine equivalents in Japanese (経済(的) keizai-teki), Chinese (經濟 / 经济 jīngjì), Mongolian (эдийн засаг ediin zasag in Mongolia, аж ахуй aj akhui in Inner Mongolia), or any other major language.

Just 150 years ago people translating these terms did not have this luxury. Apart from European languages, most languages did not have a single word that corresponded exactly to ‘economy’ or ‘economic’. Translators in the 19th – 20th centuries had to create such vocabulary from scratch as part of Westernisation / modernisation, laying the basis for what we have today. For the translator, this makes the difference between asking “What is the Swahili word for ‘economic’?” and “How should we express the concept of economics in Swahili?” This kind of standardisation now covers vast fields of science, technology, and even sport, making a lot of translation an exercise in memory or dictionary lookup rather than brainstorming.


  1. David Marjanović says

    Spreads of religions, too, have long been accompanied by similar creations of corresponding vocabulary.

  2. “Translators in the 19th – 20th centuries had to create such vocabulary from scratch as part of Westernisation / modernisation, laying the basis for what we have today.”

    The oil industry did this for petroleum vocabulary in Arabic.

  3. That’s why I find the whole thing against the trope of “no word for X in language Y” so convincing. Of course every language can potentially have a Westernized register, in which modern things, except for latest American business buzzwords, could be talked about, but the emergence of said register did not come automatically.

  4. “How should we express the concept of economics in Swahili?”

    Goodness. Is there any broader answer that is used as a template for other subjects, cultures and languages: “How can a Martian concept ::-/ be expressed in English?”

  5. You’ll have to ask Siganus about that.

  6. Very interesting post!

    > ‘economy’ or ‘economic’ has routine equivalents in Japanese (経済(的) keizai-teki), Chinese (經濟 / 经济 jīngjì)
    > Translators in the 19th – 20th centuries had to create such vocabulary from scratch

    I assume 経済/經濟/经济 was coined in Japan and cloned in China (if cloned is the accurate term). I wonder how a term like this was popularized. It’s not a clone (morpheme by morpheme 経済 means something like “pass through and settle” versus economy, approx. “tend house”), and its meaning is far from obvious from the morphemes. So did the inventor popularize it from some position of authority, or was it more of an organic process?

    There must be translators of texts about, say, less established modern subcultures who are still facing similar challenges. “Invent, import or rephrase?”. Although it has probably become easier to get away with just importing a foreign word.

    > [From the linked article:] translation is a human activity

    Amen to that. It’s interesting how confident recent advances in machine translation have made some people that “You don’t need to study languages anymore. In a few years gadgets will translate everything for you”. I’m still pretty confident that raising my kids bilingually won’t be a wasted effort.

  7. Economics in Swahili is “uchumi”. The word was coined from native word “kuchuma” (“earn”) which looks related to another native term “chuma” (iron, steel, metal).

    Funnily, Wiktionary says “chuma” is also Swahili slang for girlfriend.

  8. Seconding David Marjanović, one of the things that happened when Christianity was introduced into Saxon England was the creation of a lot of new Saxon words to express Christian concepts that were described by Latin words.

  9. According to Wikipedia, the origins of 経済 keizai lie in the Chinese expression 経国済民 or 経世済民, which was first found in the 抱朴子 bàopǔzǐ, a 4th century work by the Chinese scholar Ge Hong (葛洪). It meant something like ‘govern the country, save the people’ (yeah, it sounds a bit funny, blame my translation). It was already listed in an English-Japanese dictionary in 1862 as a translation of ‘political economy’. It was apparently then used by Fukuzawa Yukichi (福澤諭吉), who was an authoritative writer of the period responsible for introducing Western concepts and terminology.

    In China, Yan Fu (嚴復) was an early pioneer in the translation of Western works into Chinese. For ‘economy’ he rejected the Japanese term 經濟 jīngì as too broad and the Chinese term 理財 lǐcái as too focused on finance. He proposed 計學 jìxué (which I interpret as meaning ‘study of measuring’; the correct semantics escape me), but this didn’t stick. Japanese 経済 became established as the norm. Many Chinese at the time absorbed Western knowledge from books published in Japan, which were written in Chinese or a closely related style (I don’t actually read books from that era so I’m going on my impressions).

    The word 理財 lǐcái is now used in Chinese to mean ‘financial management’ — there’s usually a section in Chinese banks that will help you with this.

  10. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I’ve been struggling through ТЕОРЕТИЧЕСКАЯ БИОЛОГИЯ (Э.С. БАУЭР, 1935), for which an English translation exists, and the person who suggested I look at it has promised to send me the translation by the end of September. However, I wanted to get an idea of what it says before then. Most of the struggling has consisted of copying and pasting it paragraph by paragraph into Google Translate, as my Russian is good enough for words like и and что but not much more than that. I’ve been struck with how good Google Translate is with Russian (much better than it is with French or Spanish). Virtually every sentence is intelligible and makes sense in context. I doubt whether it would be wise to try to read The Brothers Karamazov with Google Translate, but it’s better than OK for a technical work like ТЕОРЕТИЧЕСКАЯ БИОЛОГИЯ.

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    Spreads of religions, too, have long been accompanied by similar creations of corresponding vocabulary.

    Very much an active issue for missionary Bible translators even now.
    In Kusaal, some of the solutions are fairly straightforward, and the fact that the language happily forms compound nouns at will means that you can coin e.g. gbauŋmi’id “book-knower” for “scribe” and so forth and it’s all perfectly in keeping with the normal MO of the language.
    There are no words for e.g. “snow” or “island” but it’s not difficult to paraphrase the concepts.

    What is more of a problem are cases where there is a deep conceptual mismatch between the traditional world view and Christianity. A relatively minor example is maalmaan “sacrifice-maker”, which is pressed into service to translate “priest”; while one can see the logic of this, in traditional Kusaasi religious practice a maalmaan is basically a labourer who does the actual work of killing the sacrifice on behalf of the tɛŋdaan “earth-priest”, who is too important to sully his hands with such a menial task. Still greater violence was done to the language by hijacking siig to render “spirit, soul”; traditionally siig is not a person’s individual essence but their “life-force”, conceptualised as three (for a man) or four (for a woman) kikiris, anthropomorphic tutelary “fairies”; these are what witches steal. A much closer match for the Christian concept of “soul” would be win, which is a person’s individual spiritual essence; the translators (naturally enough) evidently felt this was unacceptable for “soul” because the word means the spiritual essence of anything, including the non-anthropomorphic local spirits which are the the target of traditional religious practice, and is moreover the word for God, the Creator of the world. The Bible translation uses win exclusively to mean “pagan god.”

    What all this leads to is a translation strategy that only actually works for readers who have already discarded their traditional word-view in favour of a radically different (Western-style) Christian one.

    The process is ongoing: the earlier Bible versions render “demon” as kikirbɛ’ɛd “bad fairy”; the 2016 version has just kikirig “fairy”, the transition now having been made to the assumption that all such spiritual beings associated with the old ways are automatically evil. It’s rather reminiscent of the history of the word “demon” itself.

  12. I find it incredible that Christian missionaries are still doing this sort of thing. It’s happened all over the world, where practices the missionaries (or their wives) found distasteful got banned or outlawed.

    This seems to have gone beyond anything found in the scriptures (note no capitalisation). Even bare breasts were grist for their mill. Maybe they got it from Adam and Eve covering their nakedness….

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    I don’t think it’s quite the same thing; what I’m talking about is not banning of local customs but failure of translation (and transmission) of concepts. In fairness, while I would have liked (in a better world) to see a much more sensitive and insightful adaptation of Christian thought into Kusaasi terms, rather than forcible pairing up of incompatible concepts, such a task is incredibly difficult: our forebears in Europe essentially failed to carry it through successfully in much more propitious circumstances when Christianity first spread through pagan antiquity. I suspect a thoroughgoing adaptation of Christian doctrine into the terms of traditional Kusaasi animism would lead to deep insights into just what is important in the Gospel and what is accidental cultural baggage; but to carry this work out successfully you’d need to be a very remarkable person on many levels.

    It’s also rather easy to fall into a sort of romantic exoticism: these translation choices are largely not imposed by foreigners but the work of local Christians themselves, who have a better right to decide on the development of their own language than I do, to put it mildly.

    Having said that, you certainly have a point, though not all Christian organisations are insensitive to issues like these by any means, and the trend is on the whole toward improvement over time. Some, at least, have learnt from past mistakes. However, in Africa at any rate, missionaries have all too often successfully transmitted the outward forms of the Gospel and not the content.

    I once heard a sermon given by a church elder (!) in Nigeria on the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. It became clear that the preacher assumed that the one who “went home justified” was the Pharisee. This sort of thing is not an isolated aberration, alas.

  14. Mongolian Bible translates God as Burkhan, which etymologically derives from the name of Gautama Buddha, founder of Buddhism.

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    I suspect Gautama himself would not have been thrilled at that development.

    The word for “God” used by Christians in Kusaal, Wina’am, is structurally and phonologically peculiar, and is presumably a loanword from one of the surrounding related languages: etymologically, it’s something like “Chief Spirit” but it’s not a regular formation. I’m not clear how extensively it was used before the advent of Christianity: the documentation is too patchy, and like most world religions the traditional animism isn’t an intellectual system with doctrines or a theology in any case. (In fact to call it a “religion” is already imposing a question-begging division within the culture to mirror the division between religious and secular in our own.)

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    I’ve never really thought about the words used to render “God” in Bible translations into languages where the culture didn’t already have a similar concept. In at least the more northerly bits of West Africa there’s always the consideration that Islam was around a long time before Christianity, and I wonder whether the “Creator” concepts of even predominantly non-Muslim peoples in fact owe a lot to Islamic cultural diffusion. There are certainly groups which have adopted the name “Allah” in various forms for the Creator despite not being Muslim.

    Ethiopic ‘Egzi’abḥēr means “Lord of the Land”, which sounds like a title repurposed from pre-Christian times; but then, I suppose it would have to be.

  17. it’s something like “Chief Spirit”

    Bible translations into Algonquian languages use Gitche Manitou (“Great Spirit”) for God.

    On the Mountains of the Prairie,
    On the great Red Pipe-stone Quarry,
    Gitche Manito, the mighty,
    He the Master of Life, descending,
    On the red crags of the quarry
    Stood erect, and called the nations,
    Called the tribes of men together.

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s just occurred to me that the Mooré Wẽnnaam “God”, which is the likely ultimate source of Kusaal Wina’am, should probably be parsed as “Spiritual Chieftaincy” (“Divine Authority”), which incidentally avoids giving the impression that God is a sort of primus inter pares.

    Doesn’t work for e.g. Mampruli Naawunni, though, which I can’t make mean anything but “Chief(ly) Spirit”; but who said that etymology has to determine meaning, anyway? Nobody, that’s who.

  19. Stu Clayton says

    # And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant #

    How will the heathen wrap their heads around that ?

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    Even bare breasts were grist for their mill.

    An improving story I heard (from missionaries, in fact) apparently based on actual events:

    The island women traditionally wore no clothes above the waist. The missionaries felt that this was doubleplus ungood, and although they made little headway on this vital moral issue in general, they felt that they could make a start at least by asking the indigenous church elders to get their wives to cover up.

    This caused notable unhappiness. Eventually the elders approached the missionaries and asked: “Why do you want our wives to dress up as prostitutes?”

    The only women on the island who hitherto had worn coverings above the waist were those who dressed à l’européenne to attract clients by their promise of debauched foreign sophistication.

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    There’s a passage somewhere in Mallory where a knight errant boldly rescues a Damsel from Peril, she being at the time “naked as a needle” for reasons which I cannot now remember offhand. The story goes on to relate that once the lady had got her clothes back on, the knight realised that she was beautiful.

  22. I presume you mean Malory, dauthor of Darthur, rather than Mallory, le conquerour Deverest.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    I’ll settle for Maleore.

  24. Funny Russian meme: Translator horror stories

  25. “Gitche Manitou” shows up in the “Huron Carol” (“‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime”) in the 1926 English-language lyrics, although it was apparently not part of the original words from 1642 by Jean de Brebeuf in Wyandot Iroquoian.

  26. I’ve had to modify my post because I’ve only now realised the probable directionality of ‘hollowing out’ and 空洞化. Google n-grams show ‘hollowing out’ as having rapidly gained currency in the US in the early 1980s. I think it became quite a buzzword in Japan a little later, in the late 1980s. Because the term became ubiquitous in Japan so quickly, and I only noticed it later in English, I assumed that the Americans got it from the Japanese. It seems likely that the Japanese got it from the Americans. But I could, of course, again be wrong. Does anyone have any better information?

  27. When German Lutheran missionaries arrived on the Huon Peninsula in Northeast New Guinea, they first encountered coastal Jabêm speakers before reaching their inland neighbors. They adapted Jabêm Anôtô ‘land spirit’ (Proto-Oceanic *qanitu) to translate ‘God, Creator’ and Jabêm mêtê ‘art, craft, custom, tradition’ to translate ‘Gospel, preaching’. Jabêm became the mission lingua franca for work among Austronesian speakers, and these Jabêm words were then loaned into neighboring languages, both Austronesian and Papuan, usually spelled more simply as Anutu ‘God’ and Miti ‘Gospel’. The Christian usage of the word ‘Lord’, however, was adapted for each language from its own word for ‘chief, owner, master’: Kâte Wofuŋ, Sio Maro, Jabêm Apômtau, Bukawa Pômdau, Tami Sibumtao, Iwal Pomate, Numbami Pomata.

    The more localized word for ‘Lord’ seems to predominate in translations of the New Testament, where Revised Standard versions of English use ‘God’ rather than ‘Lord’. I wonder if this reflects the SIL ideology of translating into each local ‘heart languages’ to better reach (presumably monolingual) individual souls.

  28. David Marjanović says

    usually spelled more simply

    I once came across the Wikipedia page on Jabêm. Its vowel inventory is /a ɛ e i ɔ o u/, spelled a e ê i o ô u. Languages with simpler systems are prone to borrowing [e o] as /i u/, so that’s probably what’s going on here.

  29. For the first 20 years or so, the German missionaries didn’t write ê and ô, just the five vowels without diacritics. The great German linguist Otto Dempwolff, who eventually wrote a grammar of Jabêm, convinced them to distinguish 7 vowels. Unfortunately, ê and ô are much more common than either e or o, or i or u, and they also have to write low tone (with a grave accent) when it is unpredictable. (It is usually predictable from the presence of voiced obstruents in the same morpheme.)

  30. David Eddyshaw says

    The Christian usage of the word ‘Lord’, however, was adapted for each language from its own word for ‘chief, owner, master’

    The Kusaal Bible versions of 1976 and 1996 use zugsɔb “boss, master.” (Na’ab “chief” is instead consistently used to render “king”.) The Mooré Bible uses the cognate zusoaba in just the same way; Mampruli and Dagbani use dugma/duuma likewise for both “boss, master” and “Lord.”

    The 2016 Kusaal Bible revision introduces a complication: it reserves Zugsɔb exclusively for the Biblical “Lord”, and adopts zugdaan for the secular sense; this word never appears at all in the older versions and seems to be either a repurposing of an uncommon variant or perhaps even an outright neologism. Presumably the usage of Zugsɔb to render “Lord” was so firmly established that the translators felt that they had to replace the ordinary word instead when they decided they needed to make a consistent verbal distinction. I don’t know how far (if at all) this has percolated into the language in general.

  31. John Cowan says

    Similar problems arise in the Hebrew: when is בעל ba`al the pagan god, and when is it the ordinary word for ‘master, lord, owner’, and indeed, when is it ‘husband’? It gives the translator furiously to think.

  32. Who is like you, ba’al of wonders?

  33. In Iwal, where both Lord and God are translated at Pomate (‘chief, owner, master’), King Herod is translated amol bamo Herodes (lit. ‘man big H.’), in keeping with the Melanesian-style (self-made) Big Man, rather than the Polynesian-style inherited status of Chief/King. In Matthew, the story of Herod and the wisemen, at one point refers to a certain Big Man (amol bamo ti ‘man big one’) then adds “(King)” after it to make sure it’s not thought to refer to just any big man.

    BTW, the cognate morphemes tau, dau, tao, ate, ata in the various languages cited above translate ‘owner’ and also serve as reciprocal/reflexive objects (in object pronoun position), echoing relations between ‘own’ and ‘self’ in English.

  34. David Eddyshaw says
  35. David Eddyshaw says

    That’s very interesting about the reflexives. I can’t think of any other languages which use “owner” for “self” in quite that way. Is that common in New Guinea? Is it only as objects that they can be so used? (Mandinka has a set of distinctive reflexive pronouns which can only occur as objects, and cross-linguistically the object use must in any case be much the commonest, I imagine; in fact it’s hard to think of other cases which wouldn’t also imply a contrast.)

    Kusaal has a distinctive always-possessed noun mɛŋ “self”, invariant for number, whose stem means “real, authentic” when used adjectivally, and “truly” as an adverb. It’s probably etymologically connected with the particle mɛ(n) “also, too”; the English-lexifier West African creoles similarly use sɛf “self” also as a focus marker “also, too, even.” The usual Lingala word for “self”, mpenja after a pronoun, means “really” in e.g. njeté molai mpenja “a really tall tree.”

    Hausa uses “head” with a possessor, as do the Songhay languages, and lots of languages seem to use words like “soul” or “body” with a possessor, which seems natural enough.

    The more I think about it, the more the whole concept of “reflexives” seems very language-dependent. Perhaps it only seems like a coherent concept at all because so many Indo-European languages have distinctive sets of reflexive pronouns used in similar ways.

  36. David Eddyshaw says

    Now I think of it, that exotic language French also has distinctive reflexive pronouns only as objects. And it all links up with middle voice in verbs (with Scandinavian having developed one out of reflexive object pronouns, come to that.)

    Entire monographs and theses must have been written about reflexives cross-linguistically; I suspect I’m very late to this party.

  37. John Cowan says

    In Hebrew, עצמי ‘atsmí ‘myself’ is etymologically ‘my bone’, and so for all the reflexive pronouns.

  38. Catalan personal pronouns, now those are scary.

  39. David Eddyshaw says

    @JC: Ah, Akismet lets you post Hebrew! Now I feel persecuted.

    Once again, LH has made me think about something properly that I’d just been taking for granted.
    As a rough cut:

    The use of reflexive pronouns (in languages that have them) as objects is their core function, and expresses what in languages with complex verbal morphology is often part of that instead; if such “reflexive” forms appear in other roles the meaning is instead contrastive. Thus English uses “myself” by itself only in complement roles (verb objects or complements of prepositions); elsewhere “myself” is in apposition to a pronoun or NP and is contrastive, not reflexive:

    I saw myself.
    *Myself did it; grammatical “I myself did it.” (as opposed to someone else)

    As a possessor, English uses “my” alone for the non-contrastive reflexive, and “my own” for contrastive:

    I washed my hands,
    I washed my own hands. (not *”myself’s hands” or *”my myself’s hands.”)

    Hausa says e.g. kaina (“my head”) where English says “myself” or “my own” but ni kaina (“I, my head”) where English has “I myself.”

    French has different constructions altogether for contrastive and reflexive: in the third person, respectively lui même (etc) vs se; the reflexive is confined to verb objects (direct or indirect.) There are no non-contrastive possessive reflexives: the meaning is expressed with indirect reflexive object pronouns instead: Je me lave les mains.

    Kusaal m mɛŋ corresponds to all of “myself”, “I myself” and “my own”, but is contrastive whenever it is not an object.

    The etymology of “self” expressions doesn’t seem to correlate with different patterns of usage; whether they arise from “I, truly” or “my head” (or whatever) is irrelevant once they’re grammaticalised.

  40. David Marjanović says

    the English-lexifier West African creoles similarly use sɛf “self” also as a focus marker “also, too, even.”

    In literary German, too, selbst is often used for “even” (otherwise sogar).

    Entire monographs and theses must have been written about reflexives cross-linguistically; I suspect I’m very late to this party.

    31 pages of Haspelmath, not counting the references.

    Catalan personal pronouns, now those are scary.

    Just like French, except with phonological complications because they can go on both sides of the verb.

    @JC: Ah, Akismet lets you post Hebrew! Now I feel persecuted.

    The trick is to put enough Latin letters around it as filler.

  41. Lars (the original one) says

    Are the origins of the IE personal pronouns completely beyond the reach of reconstruction? Or even hints, as in ‘looks like it might have contained the root *CVC at some time’?

    I am aware that similarity of personal pronouns, or at least similarities of some features of the initial phonemes of their oblique cases, is adduced for both Uralic/IE relations and Nostratic in a wider view, and if true that would probably mean that they were pronouns already at a stage beyond reasonable hope of recovery. But the jury is still out on that, IIRC.

  42. PlasticPaddy says

    The romance 3ps reflexives (except French) are used also as impersonal pronouns, I. e.
    It: Si vede, ch’ il é malato.
    Fr: On voit qu’il est malade.
    The origin of this usage puzzles me and I cannot find a parallel in other IE languages I know.

  43. David Eddyshaw says

    I’ve always supposed that this reflects the way that se + verb has taken over the functions of the Latin passive, which can likewise be used impersonally: Sic vivitur.

  44. David Eddyshaw says

    @David M:

    Thanks. (It should have occurred to me by now that all I needed to do was to google “reflexive” + “Haspelmath.”)

  45. David Eddyshaw says

    Presumably the reason that French doesn’t do the exact equivalent of si vede (= videtur) is just that unlike the other Romance languages, French isn’t pro-drop. I think the si is an object rather than a subject.

  46. David Eddyshaw says

    Interesting that Haspelmath points out that actual reflexive pronominoids (as he calls them) like Latin se, sibi etc, which behave like personal pronouns rather than a sort of noun, are actually cross-linguistically quite rare, for all that they’re pretty familiar in Indo-European.

    Above, I should have said more precisely that se + active verb form in Romance has taken over some of the functions of the Latin passive, more particularly in its “middle voice” senses, but notably also including the impersonal use.

  47. PlasticPaddy says

    I suppose what I am missing is some sort of late Latin pathway, e.g., maybe you are proposing something like videtur > sibi videtur > si vide.

  48. David Eddyshaw says

    In the Amazonian language Hup, the form hup (which is the same etymon as in the name of the language and the people) is prefixed to verbs to make them reflexive, or suffixed to NPs as a “reflexive intensifier” (much as with “I myself.”) The reflexive verb form can also be used as reciprocal or passive.

    You might say that the Hupda are the “Self” people, and they speak the “Self” language. Makes sense to me, anyway.

  49. David Eddyshaw says

    Though not this Self language. That would be impractical.

  50. David Eddyshaw says

    Hup is also remarkable for having developed a future-marking particle from a noun which means “firewood.” The world’s languages are diverse (as yet.)

  51. Incidentally – and this is for Language – Jonathan Otter Self (there’s a full name that’s worth writing), younger brother of Will and author of an autobiography called Self Abuse married Marianne van Pelt in Grand Central Station on the spot where they first met.

  52. Aw! We should have done that, but we boringly got married in City Hall instead (well, the Municipal Building if you’re going to be picky). Probably a good thing, actually, because we almost immediately started disagreeing about which side of the clock in Grand Central we met on. Wouldn’t have done to start arguing in the middle of the wedding.

  53. In the Amazonian language Hup, the form hup (which is the same etymon as in the name of the language and the people)

    I was hoping you were going to tell us every word in the language was hup.

  54. David Eddyshaw says


  55. David Eddyshaw says

    And also, of course, the sublime

  56. David Eddyshaw says

    To say nothing (perhaps for the best) of

  57. David Marjanović says

    French doesn’t do the exact equivalent of si vede (= videtur)

    Ça se mange avec du… is very common, and ça se voit “that’s obvious”, “it looks like it” feels less common to me but gives 4.9 megaghits.

    And if you accept French as polysynthetic, it is pro-drop.

    Are the origins of the IE personal pronouns completely beyond the reach of reconstruction? Or even hints, as in ‘looks like it might have contained the root *CVC at some time’?

    Yes, kinda, to some extent: start here. (J. Pystynen has since informed me that the Uralic connection does not work, at least not without a considerable number of further complications & confusions.)

  58. Hup = Amazonian Swedes.

    The Swedes (Swedish: svear; Old Norse: svíar / suar (probably from the PIE reflexive pronominal root *s(w)e, “one’s own”)

  59. It’s a good location though. Hold the reception in the oyster bar up the stairs. The Municipal Building is lovely and you can recall your memories of it from the Manhattan skyline.

  60. David Eddyshaw says
  61. John Cowan says

    Something that no one except prescriptivists seem to talk about is the anglophone use of the reflexive pronouns in coordinating constructions with the same force as the plain oblique pronouns. Googling “and myself” turns up pages and pages of prescriptive condemnations of the usual kind, but finally I did find some real-life examples:

    (1) My father and myself facing the sun. [poem title]

    (2) Deciding to come here was a big decision for my family and myself.

    (3) Meghan and myself had a baby boy! [tweet]

    (4) I [Alfred Douglas] promptly provided funds for the expenses of the moment and I paid for the funeral [of Oscar Wilde], at which Ross, Turner and myself were the only English mourners.

    (5) The idea of seeing Neil, Alex and myself on stage or on record together is not realistic.

    (1) is an example of this construction in a title, which seems according to Dr. Google to be a very common use. (1) and (2) coordinate with a possessive, suggesting that there may be a second construction intermingled, in which myself is really my self ‘my body, my personality’ or the like. (4) is from Douglas’s 1914 book Oscar and Myself, itself an instance of the construction; this should dispose of the Recency Illusion. (5) is quoted from an interview with a member of Rush, and suggests (what I also believe) that the construction is much more common in speech than in writing. And of course it is just as good in subject position as in object position, because Standard English does not reliably assign cases to coordinated pronouns.

    The OED3 has many older examples of myself ‘me’ in non-coordinating constructions. The oldest of these (c. 1375) is from William of Palerne, a translation of a French verse romance: “Þe londes þat he has he holdes of mi-selue.” The most recent is Burns, “To Dr. Blacklock”: “He tald mysel by word o mouth, He’d tak my letter” [1789, orthography modernized]. The most recent non-Scots citation is Bunyan’s Peaceable Principles and True: “Your artificial squibbling suggestions to the world about myself, imprisonment, and the like I freely bind unto me as an ornament among the rest of my reproaches, till the Lord shall wipe them off at his coming” [1674, orthography modernized].

    (This same William of Palerme is also the OED3’s first citation for singular they:

    þan hastely hiȝed eche wiȝt on hors & on fote,
    huntyng wiȝt houndes alle heie wodes
    til þei neyȝþed so neiȝh to nymphe þe soþe

    Note the clash of number between each wight and they, in a case where there is no question of gender.)

    In Gordon Dickson’s novel None But Man, the alien Moldaug’s (apparently universal) social organization involves groups of three individuals (prototypically sisters or brothers) who operate at all times and in all circumstances as a single social person till death do them part; even the king and a mythological demon are such. In rendering Moldaug dialogue into English, Dickson uses the reflexives to indicate the pronouns used in the Moldaug language (lingua franca?) for such persons, leading to such curious sentences as “Yourself is under complaint of myself” (from memory), meaning ‘I have a [implicature: justified] complaint against you.’


    Self is a wonderful language, not least because it is based on prototypes rather than Platonic classes, or even reified classes, as most programming languages these days are. (JavaScript is another exception, and both its design and its implementation show clear links to Self.)


    Gale and I [var. rdg. Gale and myself] got married in a rented house in the West Village, where we entertained (we hope) 36 guests. The only sour note was posed by our landlady, who insisted on being present (perhaps a sensible precaution) and in interfering with some of the activities (for which Gale told her off). In particular, she kept trying to give orders to the professional wedding photographer to stay away from this and confine herself to that, until Gale told her that the photographer was Gale’s oldest friend and a guest at the wedding who was providing her services as a wedding present.

  62. Wow. That goes into my collection of Obnoxious NYC Landlord stories. Really, you couldn’t have kept her out?

  63. David Eddyshaw says

    I would guess that the “and myself” construction has flourished because of anxieties about falling into the heinous “between you and I” error, avoided by all good Latinists. Sadly the fix has simply ended up being stigmatised in turn. There is no escape.


    “and myself” 29,000,000 hits
    “and yourself” 8,790,000
    “and himself” 15,900,000
    “and herself” 7,350,000
    “and itself” 1,460,000
    “and ourselves” 5,690,000
    “and yourselves” 1,070,000
    “and themselves” 11,500,000

    On the other hand “and me” is also much commoner than “and him”, so the figures may just reflect the fact that people like to write about themselves a lot.

  64. and myself: MWCDEU has a load of examples in the entry on myself. T.S. Eliot used it, so did E.B. White. You can find it in Early Modern English:

    between Sir G. Carteret and myself (Pepys’ Diary, 1 July 1663)
    The king, sir, hath laid, that in a dozen passes
    between yourself and him, he shall not exceed you
    three hits: (Hamlet 5.2)

    That’s before prescriptive anxiety comes into play. I suspect some variation in pronoun forms has always been there.

    *Myself did it: MWCDEU also points out that myself is found as a single subject occasionally in old poetry:

    Myself hath often over-heard them say (Titus Andronicus)
    Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell; (Paradise Lost)

    But that feels to me like simply dropping the “I” to fit the meter.

    Arnold Zwicky has a good post on reflexives used to introduce new discourse topics. Zwicky also has tons of posts on pronoun case in coordinated objects (“for you and I”).

  65. David Marjanović says

    (1) and (2) coordinate with a possessive, suggesting that there may be a second construction intermingled, in which myself is really my self ‘my body, my personality’ or the like.

    I don’t think that has happened since Titus Andronicus (note the third-person verb in myself hath). One part of what’s going on is emphasis (which also explains the use “to introduce new discourse topics”: “Myself, I think…”), the other is an attempt to avoid having to decide whether I or me is correct.

  66. John Cowan says

    If you’re renting your furnished house to someone for one afternoon only, I quite understand that you want to be on the premises to make sure the renters don’t damage it or your stuff, but there was no call for her to stick her nose in Party Business. She also had a lot to say about the strictly non-alcoholic nature of the event: it was outrageous that people couldn’t get drunk at our expense if they wanted to, apparently.

    Gale also suspects that she was probably rude to the servers from the caterer (our food was a salad bar from the — eheu fugaces! — restaurant Lincoln Square), whose presence she had insisted on in the first place, although we thought our guests were civilized enough (and sober enough) to serve themselves. (One guest did get pretty loaded on the non-alcoholic punch, but that’s just him.)

  67. John Cowan says

    Nancy Friday’s 1977 book is entitled My Mother/My Self, but it’s easy to find it referred to on the net as My Mother, Myself, so I don’t think the construction is as dead as you think.

    And I’m skeptical about the hypercorrection theory: it seems too much like the (definitely disproved) hypercorrection theory of “He went to the beach with Jim and I.”

  68. David Eddyshaw says

    Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell

    This use of “myself” as a “new discourse topic” seems quite similar in fact to the West African Pidgin use of sɛf in the sense “also, too, even.”

    The Cambridge grammar calls words like “also, even” “focussing modifiers” (I think a bit unhelpfully, given that this is a different sense of “focus” from the “informational focus” which is what is usually meant by the term.) Jeffrey Heath in his grammars calls them “emphatics”, which has the virtue at least of being pretty non-committal.

    They seem to be a fairly heterogeneous group of words which only have in common that they relate the constituent they have scope over to the discourse context – which can mean all sorts of things in practice. Logophoric and contrastive pronouns have that sort of role intrinsically, accounting for the cross-linguistic overlap between such pronouns and reflexives. Different languages use different strategies to achieve a reflexive meaning, the particular strategy chosen potentially overlapping with several quite different sorts of “focussing modification” depending on the language.

    Personally, I find these issues very hard to get a handle on; I don’t think I’m alone in that, judging by the numerous not-quite-compatible accounts of the phenomena in the literature. They do seem to be highly language-specific; I’ve read accounts denying that informational focus can be meaningfully defined cross-linguistically at all, for example (which seems a counsel of despair …)

  69. David Marjanović says

    One guest did get pretty loaded on the non-alcoholic punch, but that’s just him.

    Some (many?) people behave drunk when they think they’re expected to – they get drunk on placebos.

    the (definitely disproved) hypercorrection theory of “He went to the beach with Jim and I.”

    I missed the disproof; could you link to it?

  70. John Cowan says

    Shakespeare wrote “all debts are cleared between you and I” in The Merchant of Venice, deinitively before English-language prescriptivism was a thing.

  71. David Marjanović says

    Then I have no idea where it could come from.

  72. John Cowan says

    I can only suppose that in the general decay of case in English, at some point verbs stopped assigning case to pronouns in conjunctive constructions. “*Me had lunch with she” is not any kind of English, but “Don’t you remember, last year you and her had lunch with him and I?” is perfectly acceptable informal spoken Standard English.

  73. David Eddyshaw says

    But it seems to be only “I” that is treated this way. I don’t think I’ve ever heard *”with him and she”, for example. Nor have I encountered *”with I and he/him”; the aberration only occurs when “I” comes second.

    My own untutored spoken idiolect, which I think is pretty standard in this regard, uses “him and me” in all roles, including subject. When not speaking written English, I use “I, he” only like French je, il, which are likewise incapable of being coordinated. The insistence on putting the 1st pronoun in the unnatural second position rather than first is also a thing that schoolchidren used to be actively taught.

    My guess is that generations of being told to replace the perfectly natural “Me and him went” with “he and I went” has screwed up the system, with the artificial “he and I” being generalised to all cases where the proper form is “me and him.” (There’s a trope in the UK regarding the Queen’s introduction to her annual speech: “My husband and I”, taken as characteristic of a hifalutin unnatural spoken style.)

    Also, prescriptivity is surely much older than Shakespeare, and the idea that Latin has the One True Grammar goes back a long way.

  74. Surely it’s the remoteness of “my husband” instead of “Prince Phillip & I” that people laughed at, not that the queen ought to have said “Him and me…” though I like that image.

  75. David Eddyshaw says

    Re prescriptiveness, looking (and failing) to find something I evidently misremembered from Bloomfield’s Language, I found

    Indeed, diffidence as to one’s speech is an almost universal trait. The observer who sets out to study a strange language or a local dialect, often gets data from his informants only to find them using entirely different forms when they speak among themselves. They count these latter forms inferior and are ashamed to give them to the observer. An observer may thus record a language entirely unrelated to the one he is looking for.

    (The context is that LB is explaining how the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century “grammarians” ever got away with misleading the public about language the way they did. The ground was already prepared.)

  76. It also seems to be marginally more acceptable to use the compound form “X and I” as the object of a preposition than as a direct object. Back in 1992, there was some sneering at Bill Clinton for saying, “You can trust Al Gore and I.” To me, that sounds marginal, but something like, “Your problems with be the administration’s main focus with Al Gore and I,” sounds better.

  77. David Eddyshaw says

    Interesting point. It occurs to me that “between you and I” is straightforwardly explicable as due to the influence of thinking in Esperanto, as so many of us do.

  78. Lars (the original one) says

    Prinsen og jeg is iconic, more remarkable for the old-style close vowels than for the choice of words. But he died in February.

    Min mand (hustru/kone) og jeg vil gerne takke could start any formal acknowledgement speech at a wedding jubilee or similar occasion, quite far down the social orders.

  79. David Eddyshaw says

    “My wife and I …” is the standard introductory formula of the groom’s speech at a wedding, of course. You cheer noisily at the second word … (at least, you do in the sort of weddings I get invited to.)

  80. John Cowan says

    I would always say “My wife and I” in a context where I don’t expect her name to be known, e.g. at work; it doesn’t seem remote to me at all. Here at the Hattery I generally say “my wife” but I may call her “Gale” on second reference.

    In Latin the order was always “ego et tu et Gaius”, hence the names first, second, third person. I think the order “you and I” is a politeness rule. Pullum says the rule against dangling participles (“When walking down the street a great number of books are cumbersome to me”) is similarly a politeness rule: it avoids confusing the listener even momentarily, but it’s not ungrammatical.

  81. It’s all about the context. You use ‘My wife and I’ at times when there are people present who don’t know Gale. That’s no problem for the queen of England because everybody knows our Phil as well as they know the characters in Coronation Street (soap opera). Her using ‘My husband’ in those circumstances is almost like your saying ‘My wife and I’ when you talk to your grandchildren. You could also try ‘Mrs Cowan and I’ with your family but I can’t see them buying it.

  82. @David E, August 25, 2019 at 7:30 pm : to clarify, “Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell” is not a new discourse topic, it’s a variant to fit the meter. Zwicky’s observation is that (prose) writers often use “myself” — coordinated or not — when introducing themselves as an overt topic. Once he explained that pattern, I saw it everywhere. For example, here’s an essay on a TV show where the writer first describes the show, then brings up her personal perspective: “The overwhelming response from the Muslim American community, including myself as a first generation Muslim American, and even non-Muslims I’ve spoken to has been that we feel seen.” Then she uses “I” and “me” on later references to herself.

    There’s no usage guide in the world that teaches writers to use this introductory reflexive. Many prescriptivists would condemn it as “untriggered”. Yet people have, observably, learned to do it. This is how people *really* learn grammar: exposure trumps everything.

    Thanks again for the cross-linguistic data!

  83. PlasticPaddy says

    @ajp crown
    People may know Philip, but they have not been introduced????

  84. @John Cowan, verbs stopped assigning case to pronouns in conjunctive constructions: MWCDEU credits this theory to Chomsky! “…between can assign case only to the whole phrase and not to the individual words that make it up.” (MW’s paraphrase, not a Chomsky quote)

    @David E at 8:27 am: It’s not only “I”. Third person is less common, but far from unknown. See Zwicky’s examples and his bibliography, and definitely Language Hat: In Love With He (2013).

    Nobody ever taught Samuel Pepys any rules of English grammar, and he wrote both “between my wife and I” (more often) and “between my wife and me” (less often).

    @Brett, marginally more acceptable to use the compound form “X and I” as the object of a preposition than as a direct object: Yes, position matters. Zwicky has a lot of details.

  85. They don’t need terribly formal introductions nowadays, Plastic. A foot massage goes a long way.

  86. John Cowan says

    Marie-Lucie pointed out back in 2013 that one can have hypercorrection even without prescriptivism: a form can be hypercorrect if it attempts to imitate a perceived quality of upper-class speech but overdoes it, even if the rule being overapplied is not in anybody’s conscious awareness.

    This is why in the 18C etiquette books were such a threat to the social order: they let the canaille like George Washington pretend to be upper-class.

  87. David Marjanović says

    I think the order “you and I” is a politeness rule.

    That’s what I was explicitly taught when I was little.

  88. David Eddyshaw says

    Cardinal Wolsey is famously said to have been a good Latinist but a poor courtier because of his use of the formula ego et meus rex in his official letters on behalf of his boss.

  89. David Marjanović says

    See also: ego sum rex romanus et super grammaticos.

  90. David Eddyshaw says

    Sigismund seems to have claimed not merely to be superior to grammarians (well, duh!) but to grammar; the latter, of course, is hubris, and he was duly punished by Nemesis Grammatica by having his progeny cut off.

  91. Umami. A Japanese word that took a paragraph to describe. Meh. Am America term that means……… Shrug your shoulders when you say it and everyone knows what you mean. How does it translate?

  92. John Cowan says

    It takes a fair amount of time to describe a Japanese-specific vegetable, never mind a kind of basic taste that nobody in the West knew existed.

  93. Andrew Dunbar says


  94. Not part of American English, really, except in the sense of ‘tasty, appetizing’.

  95. “Summer savoury” is the vague American English term for Bohnenkraut. It has no taste, only a smell.

  96. Nobody ever taught Samuel Pepys any rules of English grammar, and he wrote… “between my wife and I”
    This is hard to believe. Erasmus having turned the position down, the first High Master of St Paul’s (my school as well as Pepys’s) was, beginning in 1510, William Lily, who wrote a famous Latin grammar. How do you use it if you haven’t learnt any English rules? (And “Between X and I” was normal colloquial usage in 17C London. There’s a logic to the history, which I’ve forgotten, but it doesn’t break any rules.)

  97. David Marjanović says

    Pikant in German usage seems to mean “salty and umami” – umami without salt doesn’t occur.

    (Unlike the original ça pique, it does not mean “hot/spicy”; that is scharf.)

    “Between X and I” was normal colloquial usage in 17C London. There’s a logic to the history, which I’ve forgotten, but it doesn’t break any rules.

    Huh. I hope you can find your source!

  98. How do you use it if you haven’t learnt any English rules?

    You need rules for a foreign language, not for your own. Nobody would speak English any the worse if not a single English grammar had ever been written. You need only think about the many thousands of languages for which no grammar has been written (in fact, most of which have never been written down at all) to realize the truth of that.

  99. You need rules for a foreign language, not for your own.

    No, I meant that even in 1520 you’d have needed to know the difference between a subject and an object or a noun and a verb if you were going to use Lily’s Grammar. And those distinctions apply as much to English as to Latin, so Pepys would presumably have recognised the English rules a hundred years later at the same school.

    “Between X and I” was normal colloquial usage in 17C London. There’s a logic to the history…
    Huh. I hope you can find your source!
    Well, it turns out Steve was my source, at Pepys Diary:

    language hat on 19 Mar 2003 •
    between him and I:
    Note that this is not a modern “mistake” but a long-standing feature of colloquial English!
    Latin and other languages are irrelevant; people have used this construction for centuries without knowing any other language than English. There is a long and well-considered discussion of the issue in The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, an excellent source that steers a reasoned course between the prescriptive and the descriptive and that I routinely recommend to people who want usage guidance. They say not enough is known about the history of the construction (which they place under the rubric of “between you and I”), but refer to Sweet’s theory that it “resulted from ‘you and I’ being so frequently joined together as subject of a sentence that the words formed a sort of group compound with an invariable last element.” It’s common from the late 16th century to the early 18th, then rare for 150 years (at least in written evidence), then becomes common again in the 20th. Shakespeare used it; so did Twain. M-W’s conclusion: “You are probably safe in retaining ‘between you and I’ in your casual speech… [but] it seems to have no place in modern edited prose.”

  100. No, I meant that even in 1520 you’d have needed to know the difference between a subject and an object or a noun and a verb if you were going to use Lily’s Grammar.

    But you could learn those from Lily’s Grammar itself. Similarly, you have to know the difference between ergative and nominative if you’re going to learn an ergative language, and you learn it from the relevant instructional book even though it has no applicability to English.

  101. Ergative, blimey.

    But you could learn those from Lily’s Grammar itself.
    That’s exactly what I’m trying to say. We know that Pepys probably used Lily’s Latin Grammar and though I’ve never looked at it, I imagine it contains some Latin language structure like declensions, conjugations etc. Having learnt those at the age of 12 or whatever, if someone asked the 40 year-old Sam Pepys what the subject, object and verb were in Englishmen that cannot forbear laughing and jeering at every thing that looks strange., he would have been able to answer based on the Latin equivalents he’d learnt at school. This might all be a linguistic anachronism but I’m just saying if there were recognised rules for Latin back then, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t have been able to apply them to English.

  102. Ah, I see what you mean. Quite so.

  103. You need rules for a foreign language, not for your own. Nobody would speak English any the worse if not a single English grammar had ever been written.

    Actually, you do need rules to be able to master the prestige dialect and literary language.

    This is especially true in England where lack of knowledge of correct pronunciation and grammar rules marks your lower class background (and decides your life career).

  104. David Marjanović says

    A colorful explanation of ergativity and its alternatives.

    language hat on 19 Mar 2003 •


  105. Actually, you do need rules to be able to master the prestige dialect and literary language.

    Sure, that’s part of the point. Keep out the hoi polloi.

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