Tout au plus la grecque et la latine.

It’s been a busy day, so I’ll just toss up this edifying quote from Jean de La Bruyère (courtesy of Laudator Temporis Acti):

Some people immoderately thirst after knowledge, and are unwilling to ignore any branch of it, so they study them all and master none; they are fonder of knowing much than of knowing some things well, and had rather be superficial smatterers in several sciences than be well and thoroughly acquainted with one. They everywhere meet with some person who enlightens and corrects them; they are deceived by their idle curiosity, and often, after very long and painful efforts, can but just extricate themselves from the grossest ignorance.

Other people have a master-key to all sciences, but never enter there; they spend their lives in trying to decipher the Eastern and Northern languages, those of both the Indies, of the two poles, nay, the language spoken in the moon itself. The most useless idioms, the oddest and most hieroglyphical-looking characters, are just those which awaken their passion and induce them to study; they pity those persons who ingenuously content themselves with knowing their own language, or, at most, the Greek and Latin tongues. Such men read all historians and know nothing of history; they run through all books, but are not the wiser for any; they are absolutely ignorant of all facts and principles, but they possess as abundant a store and garner-house of words and phrases as can well be imagined, which weighs them down, and with which they overload their memory, whilst their mind remains a blank.

Original French:

Quelques-uns, par une intempérance de savoir, et par ne pouvoir se résoudre à renoncer à aucune sorte de connaissance, les embrassent toutes et n’en possèdent aucune; ils aiment mieux savoir beaucoup que de savoir bien, et être faibles et superficiels dans diverses sciences que d’être sûrs et profonds dans une seule. Ils trouvent en toutes rencontres celui qui est leur maître et qui les redresse; ils sont les dupes de leur curiosité, et ne peuvent au plus, par de longs et pénibles efforts, que se tirer d’une ignorance crasse.

D’autres ont la clef des sciences, où ils n’entrent jamais; ils passent leur vie à déchiffrer les langues orientales et les langues du nord, celles des deux Indes, celles des deux pôles, et celle qui se parle dans la lune. Les idiomes les plus inutiles, avec les caractères les plus bizarres et les plus magiques, sont précisément ce qui réveille leur passion et qui excite leur travail; ils plaignent ceux qui se bornent ingénument à savoir leur langue, ou tout au plus la grecque et la latine. Ces gens lisent toutes les histoires et ignorent l’histoire; ils parcourent tous les livres, et ne profitent d’aucun; c’est en eux une stérilité de faits et de principes qui ne peut être plus grande, mais, à la vérité, la meilleure récolte et la richesse la plus abondante de mots et de paroles qui puisse s’imaginer: ils plient sous le faix; leur mémoire en est accablée, pendant que leur esprit demeure vide.


  1. I think both these descriptions fit me pretty well, actually.

  2. Me too.

  3. Stu Clayton says

    It’s amusing that lB in this passage demonstrates neither gross ignorance nor profound knowledge. He just bitches in the grand manner. Practitioners of censoriousness do tend to act as if they enjoyed a general dispensation.

  4. I have an abundant store, but had some trouble determining the contents and capacity of my garner house. I wanted it to be a sort of charnel house. The first pages of google didn’t provide a definition. But the very first hit, sublimely, gives a spot in Hatville.

    So I’ve decided to leave it at that. My place in Hatville is indeed abundant!

  5. And this too

    Another man criticises those people who make long voyages either through nervousness or to gratify their curiosity; who write no narrative or memoirs, and do not even keep a journal; who go to see and see nothing, or forget what they have seen; who only wish to get a look at towers or steeples they never saw before, and to cross other rivers than the Seine or the Loire; who leave their own country merely to return again, and like to be absent, so that one day it may be said they have come from afar; so far this critic is right and is worth listening to.

  6. Both descriptions sound very familiar to me as well.

    I see that “bruyère” is defined as “heather” but is also used for briar pipes. What’s going on? Is heather briar? Is briar heather?

  7. PlasticPaddy says

    Heather is the original sense. Fraoch means Heather in Irish and is from the same Celtic form as the ancestor of bruyère. Of this form Wikipedia says :
    Il est très probable que l’ancien celtique wroika et le grec ἐρείκη ont la même origine.
    Briar in English is unrelated. It is possible that briar pipe was originally “pipe en racine de bruyère “:
    “In the the mid-1800s briar pipe supplanted every other type of pipe for its resistance, economy and for the goodness that gave the taste of smoke. It’s hard to say where briar pipes born because many craftsmen in all of Europe claimed paternity. The most reliable thesis suggests that it is born in France, in the town of Saint-Claude.”


  8. David Marjanović says

    Il est très probable que l’ancien celtique wroika et le grec ἐρείκη ont la même origine.

    Hard to see how that could work. The Greek one shows the outcome of *h₁r-, not of *wr-; *h₁wr- would probably have given ἐυρ-, *wh₁r- was probably impossible.

  9. PlasticPaddy says

    Matasovic in his Etymological Dictionary of proto-celtic cites a form *wereyk as ancestral to the Greek. However he believes this form or the Proto-celtic *wroyko (or both) to be a loan from some non-IE language. He also mentions a Proto B-S *wrHko.

  10. It doesn’t apply to me, sorry. Leaving behind the familiar and commonsensical for the strange and exotic should be a means of illuminating that part of the familiar and commonsensical that is parochial, ingrown, and introverted, and that part that belongs to the whole world. If we study Eskimo (sorry, old name), it is because Eskimo offers a different view of language from what Latin and Greek give us, thus enriching our understanding of Eskimo, Latin, Greek, and all the other languages that have arisen from the human mind.

    We only become the caricature presented by La Bruyère if we seek out curiosities for curiosities’ sake, like circus-goers who in by-gone days went to the circus to see freaks of nature.

  11. Lars Mathiesen says

    Actually it seems to be Eskimo again, because the Yupik speakers don’t want to be called Inuit. Also there is now a different (preferred?) Algonquian derivation of the word that is not derogative.

    I admit I did a double take when first seeing it used in a modern academic context.

  12. Surely the Yupik speakers are Yuit?

  13. Lars Mathiesen says

    From a quick look at WP, Yup’ik seems to mean ‘real people’ and unlike the Inuit languages, the various languages are not widely known by their exonyms. So Yup’ik peoples and Yup’ik languages are what we have.

    (Yuit can mean ‘people’ (plural of person) in Central Siberian Yupik, it seems, and is also listed as an alternative name for that language, but I don’t think it can be used for the speakers of all the languages in the group).

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    Yup’ik does indeed mean (etymologically, at least) “real person” (perhaps less tendentiously, “prototypical person”) in Central Alaskan Yup’ik; the plural of yuk “person” is yuut.

    My favourite example of a word from that base is Yugngalnguk “Asian person”, “like a human being” (“humanoid”, perhaps), as opposed to Kass’aq “European” (“Cossack.”)

    It is apparently true that Alaskan Yup’ik prefer to be called “Eskimo”, on the reasonable enough grounds that they are in fact not Inuit; although there have been circumpolar conferences and suchlike at which the delegates all agreed on “Inuit” notwithstanding, I don’t know what the folk back home thought of that.

    “Eskimo” does indeed seem to be from an Algonquian word with the boring meaning “snowshoe-maker”; the original reference seems to have been to another Algonquian group.

    The Eskimo are not shy of derogatory ethnonyms for others: In CAY the word for American Indian is Ingqiliq “person with nits.” In return, most local Athapaskan words for “Eskimo” basically mean “enemy.”

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    According to Steven Jacobsen’s grammar, the speakers of Central Siberian Yupik call themselves Yupik (pl Yupiget) rather than Yuget “people” (though I guess if you live on St Lawrence Island all your life it’s a bit of a distinction without a difference.) He does mention “Yuit” in a footnote as one of the various things the language has been called, but does not explain further: in the language itself, the form is Yupigestun “like a real person” (equalis case.)
    For the language, Central Alaskan Yup’ik just has Yugcetun “like a person.”

    West Greenlandic is Kalaallisut “like a Greenlander” in Greenlandic.
    Incidentally the ethnonym Kalaallit is apparently from skrælingi.

  16. Stu Clayton says

    it’s a bit of a distinction without a difference

    Gregory Bateson defined a “bit of information” as “a difference that makes a difference”. [Among other things, he was the first husband of Margaret Mead. I recently read “With a Daughter’s Eye”, the memoir of them by their daughter Mary Catherine, as recommended by someone here (JC?). I knew of Bateson through Luhmann.]

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    Found what I was thinking of re “Eskimo”:

    I notice he does give “Yuit” for the St Lawrence Islanders and their language (but then he gives “Inupiaq” and “Yupik” as the self-designations for the languages, which are not the actual in-language forms, unlike “Inuktitut” and “Kalaallisut”; I suppose the moral is that Eskimos are perfectly entitled to call themselves and their languages whatever they like when speaking English.)

  18. American Indian

    I take it it’s no longer controversial term as well?

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    Returning to our moutons, it seems to me that La Bruyère sets up a false dichotomy: it’s perfectly possible to combine a magpie interest in languages with an in-depth knowledge of two or three. Or more, I imagine. A lot of the great names in linguistics seem to have been like that, prior to the dire Chomskyite turn. One thinks of Bloomfield, happily publishing in German, doing fieldwork in Menomenee with monoglot informants …

    Or our own host, who seems, for example, to know quite a bit of Russian, judging by oblique hints he throws out from time to time.

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    I take it it’s no longer controversial term as well?

    Well, less controversial than “Nit People”, anyway.

  21. In Canada the term Indian is considered outdated and could well be offensive depending on the context. It does still retain a legal meaning, however, to denote a person registered under the Indian Act. “Native” is also potentially offensive. (These are both fine in the US though). The preferred terms are “aboriginal” or “indigenous”.

    Eskimo is considered extremely offensive in Canada – Inuit is the correct term. But again, fine in America and very jarring to my ears.

  22. John Cowan says

    Well, less controversial than “Nit People”, anyway.

    Or “Knights Who Say ‘Ni!'”

    ᏣᎳᎩTsalagi, now the usual endonym, is < Cherokee, not the other way about. The origin of Cherokee is unclear, but it’s definitely an exonym. The original endonym is ᎠᏂᏴᏫᏯᎢ Aniyvwiyaʔi ‘main people’, where v is a nasal central vowel and glottal stop is not normally written.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    Aniyvwiyaʔi ‘main people’

    It would be interesting (though not interesting enough that I would actually want to do it myself) to list all the peoples throughout the word whose endonym is just “people” or “real people” or the like. It seems to correlate inversely with ethnic group size quite well, a fact (if it be a fact) that it’s easy to make up just-so stories to explain; but it includes some quite large groups too (like the Navajo, for a start.)

    There aren’t any in the bits of Africa I’m most familiar with, though there are some farther afield. It seems to be very common indeed in the Americas.

    “Bantu” means “people”, of course, but I don’t think any Bantu group actually calls itself that.

    Actually, that reminds me of one of the more annoying bits of “the X have a word for it” nonsense, that I am reminded of whenever I turn on my computer: the blether about “Ubuntu”:

    Ubuntu is an ancient African word meaning ‘humanity to others’. It is often described as reminding us that ‘I am what I am because of who we all are’.

    “Ancient African word.” Sheesh. It means “humanity” in Nguni, for crying out loud! Isn’t that enough to be going on with? (I gather that those in whose languages it is actually a word have a tendency to limit its reference to exclude pale European invader-descendents, but, hey, all words carry baggage in real languages …)

  24. it seems to me that La Bruyère sets up a false dichotomy

    That’s what French intellectual discourse is all about! The goal is to be striking, not to accurately describe the real world, a task they leave to the Germans. (Forgive the stereotype, but that’s my bias and I’m sticking to it.)

  25. David Eddyshaw says

    Surely the Germans prefer to describe the Ideal World? Or the World of Ideals (depending)?

  26. You’re talking about philosophers. I have no truck with them.

  27. I think it was Martha Nussbaum who pointed out that French postmodernism trafficks in modes that obscure rather than clarify or reveal. In this view the philosopher is the star, the object of fascination, their ideas and writings shrouded in mystery and therefore bound to them as the originating authority. The vagueness and evasive phrasing create an aura of authority, a sense that there must be something there, some dimension of understanding. But, to quote an American philosopher of the 80s, where’s the beef?

  28. John Cowan says

    (I gather that those in whose languages it is actually a word have a tendency to limit its reference to exclude pale European invader-descendents, but, hey, all words carry baggage in real languages …)

    The class 14 prefix ubu- creates abstract nouns in the Nguni languages, but the question is “Which abstract nouns?” In English, humanity first meant (as far as the OED shows) ‘humaneness’, the sense of humanitas, and only later ‘human nature’ and then ‘human beings collectively’ (though the gaps between first citations are not large). Wikt says that ubuntu in both Xhosa and Zulu also has these three senses, but of course there is no evidence which arose first or if any of them are calqued from English. (It does not seem to be used in the sense of ‘the humanities’.)

    In any case, again as far as the record shows, the philosophical and political sense of the term first appeared in the writings of Jordan Kush Ngubane, a Zulu novelist, journalist, and nationalist writing in both Zulu and English. So its application to those topics is not merely a gross misinterpretation by iggerant colonists.

  29. Small groups? Doesn’t ‘Deutsch’ mean ‘people’?

  30. Sorry about Eskimo. No offence was meant. I wanted to give a polysynthetic language, one that is quite unlike Latin.

    Speaking of ‘snowshoe makers’, one of the pejorative Mongolian words for the Chinese is шаахайтнууд shaakhaitnuud ‘those having shoes’ (шаахай shaakhai). This appears to refer to the cloth shoes that Chinese wore. Self-respecting Mongols wore boots (гутал gutal). With the urbanisation of Mongols, terms for footwear have, however, undergone changes.

  31. David Eddyshaw says


    Fair points, as usual. What I meant was not so much that ubuntu can’t have these various meanings (though the OS-Ubuntu site formulation is still unbearably twee); more that “humanity” has them too. And I don’t like the Said-Orientalism-type spin of “ancient African word” (the linguistic foolishness of “ancient” is just par for the course, naturally.) It’s understandable enough that nice modern white South Africans would tend to get all mystical about such matters, but it still seems a bit uncomfortably Magical Negro. I would have thought that a real commitment to ubuntu would entail pointing out its essential unity with the boring old humanist concept of “humanity”, rather than implying that it’s in some way particularly “African.” And what’s with this “African”, anyway? Big place, Africa. Would one talk about the “ancient Eurasian word” “humanity”?

    Although it’s not an exact parallel, my discomfort is parallel in some respects to that I get when listening to a sermon where the preacher gets to the word “peace” (usually in the New Testament), and then, always, explains that in the original Hebrew (usually not Aramaic) the word had a much broader meaning, “wholeness” …


    Indeed yes! The elephant in the room. So to speak. Have to make sure I apply the right sort of statistical tests to make my hypothesis come out valid. Obviously I need to count by-language rather than by-speaker (and German is just one language: clear?)

  32. Bathrobe I need to apologize for making you think you caused offense. i mean for one you are not in Canada so these rules don’t apply. I was just mentioning that to point out the divergence in terminology even within North America.

  33. Yes, that’s a striking case of divergence. I used to be surprised when Canadians got bent out of shape about “Eskimo,” but I’ve since learned the background.

  34. David Marjanović says

    Actually it seems to be Eskimo again, because the Yupik speakers don’t want to be called Inuit.

    I have seen Inuit-Yup’ik languages, though.

    Small groups? Doesn’t ‘Deutsch’ mean ‘people’?

    Somehow the second vowel dropped out: it’s diutisc, *deut-isch, meaning “what the common people speak, as opposed to the clergy” – “not Latin, and we can’t call it frencisg anymore”. The use as a noun for people is recent enough that Germans still vacillate between declining it as an adjective (wir Deutschen) or as a noun (wir Deutsche, which sounds flat-out ungrammatical to me, but that’s telling, isn’t it).

    The root, which once meant “people” all on its own, survives otherwise only in deuten “point, interpret”, auf etwas hindeuten “indicate sth.”, deutlich “clear” (of pronunciation, images or evidence) and a few names that nobody can deuten without an etymological dictionary, mostly Dieter.

  35. David Eddyshaw says

    It presumably helps that Canadian Eskimo actually are all Inuit, so there’s even less reason for not avoiding “Eskimo” if the people themselves find it offensive (and even if the origin of the offense is, from a purely linguistic view, a mistake.)


    I recall DM pointing this out before: like the Hausa, the Germans have named themselves after their language, rather than vice versa like most of us did.
    Actually, having said that, I can see a historic parallel: both groups have a history as numerous politically quite distinct entities (in the Hausa case, the seven ancient Hausa city-states, the Hausa Bakwai.) Mind you, neither group is alone in that, either …

  36. Errm, what about the Dutch, where did that come from?

    @ nemanja

    No need to apologise. I just have to be more careful about using old appellations in case I get myself in trouble.

    It is sometimes hard nowadays to cling to old ways. I am a holdout against the vilification of “Oriental”, a word which I have always found attractive since it identifies a part of the world that has maintained its independence and (with deep modifications) its traditional culture, unlike many other places that came under European control.

    But the denigration of “Oriental” has now virtually crowded that word out of polite discourse. I once received an email from a person claiming to be ethnic Chinese in the United States who found it offensive that I used the word “Oriental” with regard to the Far East (Japan, China, Vietnam) at my website. He found it “racist”. I can understand that an American Chinese might be offended if he is called “an Oriental”, but I am mystified why such a person has the right to forbid the use of this term for countries of which he is not a citizen, and, most likely, retains only vestiges of his ancestral culture. Terms meaning “Oriental” are still widely used in those countries, which makes his complaint even more ridiculous.

    But I am, of course, swimming against the tide of history and will accordingly have to remove any and all instances of the word “Oriental”.

  37. Stu Clayton says

    Does opprobrium attach to the word “Occidental” ? Perhaps its desuetude makes the matter moot. Everbody is happy now to say “Western”. Grands récits are the immune system of the mind.

    I think it was Martha Nussbaum who pointed out that French postmodernism trafficks in modes that obscure rather than clarify or reveal.

    Generations of TLS reviewers have pointed this out since the 60s. But I take on these phenomena with equanimity now. I regard the protagonists of French pomo as the leaders of a secular Pentacostalist cult. They speak in unknown tongues, which are easy to pick up.

    Discursive success requires only speaking in such a way that enough listeners can adopt the lingo and run with it. NL calls this requirement Anschlußfähigkeit. Derrida and Trump show how it is met.

  38. John Cowan says

    Does opprobrium attach to the word “Occidental” ?

    ObDigression: I take you briefly to Lois McMaster Bujold’s Universe of the Five Gods (who are a fact, though it is a question whether the Fifth God is really a God, as Quintarians think, or the chief of demons, as the Quadrenes believe). The first two books are set on the Ibran peninsula at a time when the hitherto separate nations of Ibra and Chalion are uniting due to a royal wedding.

    But as you can see from the map, the geography has been rotated 180°. So in addition to Chalion-Ibra, there is a smaller nation along the western coast and five Quadrene kingdoms along the northern coast, settled from an archipelago further out.

    To the west is Darthaca (the language is very difficult for Ibrans) and beyond that The Weald (where the language is completely different) and north of it The Cantons. There is no analogue of peninsular Italy, but the coast north of The Cantons is occupied by the dukedoms of Carpagamo, Adria and Trigonie. Beyond that is Cedonia (capital city Thasalon), which has not only its own language but its own script.

    So I am juuuust waiting for someone to write the story of how about twenty years afterwards an Adrian navigator comes to the court of Chalion-Ibra with a crazy plan to reach the Mysterious Occident, the source of the silk traded in Martensbridge (the de facto capital of The Cantons), by sailing east.

  39. Stu Clayton says

    ObOmination: What is this “Ob” business ?

  40. ob-

    (Internet, informal) Obligatory; prepended to the name of a topic being mentioned to avoid accusations of being off-topic.

  41. Stu Clayton says

    Thanks. So it avoids nothing, just as “full disclosure” will fool only the gullible. Off-topic remarks are still off-topic, even when that is denied under oath in the presence of a notary public. The only difference is that “ob-” is non-actionable. JW Brewer may need to correct this statement. (“Actionable” is a matter of civil law, is it not, whereas lying under oath is a matter of criminal law ?)

  42. David Eddyshaw says

    Errm, what about the Dutch, where did that come from?

    Hmph. German. One language, OK? For Science!

    It just occurred to me that David M’s explanation of Deutsch logically means that Deutschland = Vulgaria.

  43. Stu Clayton says

    It indicates a species of Germanness, like Psoriasis vulgaris.

  44. ‘real people’

    The Vainakh peoples (Russian: Вайнахи, apparently derived from Chechen вайн нах, Ingush вей нах “our people”; also Chechen-Ingush) are the speakers of the Vainakh languages. These are chiefly the ethnic Chechen, Ingush and Kist peoples of the North Caucasus, including closely related minor or historical groups.

  45. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    The Mapuche are also real people (or more exactly the Earth’s people). They speak Mapudungún, the Earth’s language.

  46. +
    The oldest known endonym of the Estonians is Maarahvas [‘land people’].

  47. David Marjanović says



    Errm, what about the Dutch, where did that come from?

    Counted as German till they didn’t anymore. In English the name stuck.

  48. In America talking heads sometimes call the populace “we the people”

  49. I remember seeing an early modern wanted poster in a Dutch museum that describe the suspect as speaking both low and high German (i.e. both Dutch and German).

  50. I remember someone in Hildebrandt’s Camera Obscura (a collection of the author’s literary sketches and stories from the middle of the 19th century) referring to German as hoogduits.

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