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26. Facebook, the gender binary, and third-person pronouns

The death rattle of the gender binary has been ringing for decades now, leaving us to wonder when it will take its last gasp. In this third decade of third wave feminism and the queer critique, dismantling the binary remains a critical task in the gender revolution. Language is among the most socially pervasive tools through which culture is negotiated, but in a language like English, with its minimal linguistic marking of gender, it can be difficult to find concrete signs that linguistic structures are changing to reflect new ways of thinking about the gender binary rather than simply repackaging old ideas.

Sign from Genderblur at Twin Cities Pride 2003. Photo by Transguyjay. CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr.
Sign from Genderblur at Twin Cities Pride 2003. Photo by Transguyjay. CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr.

One direction we might look, though, is toward the gendering of third person pronouns, which is what led me to write this post about pronouns on Facebook. Yes, Facebook. The social media giant may not be your first thought when it comes to feminist language activism, but this year’s shift in the way Facebook categorizes gender is among the most widely-felt signs of a sea change in institutional attitudes about gendered third person pronouns. Although Facebook does not have the same force as the educational system, governments, or traditional print media, it carries its own linguistic caché established through its corporate authority, its place in the cultural negotiation of coolness and social connection, and its near inescapable presence in everyday life.

In response to long-standing calls from transgender and gender non-conforming users to broaden its approach to gender, Facebook announced earlier this year that it would offer a new set of options. Rather than limiting members of the site to the selection of female or male, an extensive list of gender identities is offered, along with the option of a custom entry, including labels like agender, bigender, gender fluid, gender non-conforming, trans person, two-spirit, transgender (wo)man and cisgender (i.e. non-transgender) (wo)man.

Screenshot couresty of Lal Zimman.
Screenshot courtesy of Lal Zimman.

With all of the potential complexity afforded by these categories, Facebook couldn’t rely on a simple algorithm of assigning gendered pronouns for those occasions on which the website generates a third person reference to the user (e.g. “Wish ___ a happy birthday!”). Instead, it asks which set of pronouns a user prefers among three options: he/him/his, she/her/hers, or they/them/theirs. As a result, there are two important ways that Facebook’s reconsideration of its gender classification system goes beyond the listing of additional gender categories. The first is the more obvious of the two: offering singular they as an option for those who prefer gender neutral reference forms. The other is simply the practice of asking for a pronoun preference rather than deriving it from gender or sex.

Screenshot courtesy of Lal Zimman
Screenshot courtesy of Lal Zimman

Sanctioning the use of singular they as a gender neutral pronoun counters the centuries-old grammarian’s complaint that they can only be used in reference to plural third person referents. Proponents of singular they, however, point out that the pronoun has been used by some of the English-speaking world’s finest writers and that it was in wide-spread use even before blatantly misogynistic language policies determined that he should be the gender-neutral pronoun in official texts of the British government. More recently, an additional source of support for singular they has arisen: for those who do not wish to be slotted into one side of the gender binary or the other, they is perhaps the most intuitive way to avoid gendered third-person pronouns because of its already familiar presence in most dialects of English. (Other options include innovative pronouns like ze/hir/hirs or ey/em/em’s.) In this case, a speaker must choose between upholding grammatical conventions and affirming someone’s identity.

Courtesy of Lal Zimman.
Courtesy of Lal Zimman.

But wait, you might ask – don’t we need a distinction between singular and plural they? How are we supposed to know when someone is talking about a single person and when they’re talking about a group? Though my post isn’t necessarily meant to defend the use of singular they in reference to specific individuals (an argument others have made quite extensively), this point is worth addressing briefly if only to dispel the notion that the standard pronoun system is logical while deviations are somehow logically flawed. As the pronoun charts included here illustrate, there is already a major gap in the standard English pronoun system when compared to many other languages: a distinction between singular and plural you. Somehow we get by, however, relying on context and sometimes asking for clarification. Could we do the same with they?

Courtesy of Lal Zimman.
Courtesy of Lal Zimman.

The second pronoun-related change Facebook has made – asking for preferred pronouns rather than determining them based on gender category – is a more fundamental challenge to the normative take on assigning pronouns. According to conventional wisdom, a speaker will select whether to use she or he based on certain types of information about the person being referred to: how their bodily sex is perceived, how they present their gender, and in some cases other contextual factors like their name. To be uncertain about which gendered pronoun to use can be a source of great anxiety, exemplified by cultural artifacts like Saturday Night Live’s androgynous character from the 1990s known only as Pat. No one ever asks Pat about their gender because to do so would presumably be a grave insult, as Pat apparently has no idea that they have an androgynous appearance (were you able to follow me, despite the singular they’s?).

But transgender and queer communities are increasingly turning this logic on its head. Rather than risk being “mis-pronouned,” as community members sometimes call it, it is becoming the norm for introductions in many trans and queer contexts to include pronouns preferences along with names. For instance, my name is Lal and I prefer he/him/his pronouns. (Even the custom of calling these “male” pronouns has been critiqued on the basis that one needn’t identify as male in order to prefer he/him/his pronouns.) The goal behind this move is to remove the tension of uncertainty and to avoid potential offense or embarrassment before it takes place. But this is not just a practice for transgender and gender non-conforming people; the ideal is that no one’s pronoun preferences be taken for granted. Instead of determining pronouns according to appearance, they become a matter of open negotiation in which one can demonstrate an interest in using language that feel maximally respectful to others.

Facebook’s adoption of this new approach to pronouns, despite prescriptive grammarians’ objections, suggests that the acceptance and use of singular they is expanding. More than that, it furthers the normalization of self-selected pronouns since even those who are totally unfamiliar with the use of singular they as a preferred pronoun, or the very idea of pronoun preferences, may be faced with unexpected pronouns in their daily newsfeeds.

For those of us at academic institutions with sizable transgender and gender non-conforming communities, the practices discussed here may already be underway on campus. During my time teaching at Reed College, for instance, I found students to be enthusiastic about including pronoun preferences in our beginning-of-semester introductions even in classes where everyone’s pronoun preferences aligned with normative expectations.

My goal here isn’t to argue that the gender binary is dissolving in the face of new pronoun practices. Indeed, linguistic negotiations of gender and sexual binaries are far too complex to draw such a simple conclusion. However, what I do want to suggest is that we are in the midst of some kind of shift in the way pronouns are used and understood among speakers of English. Describing a more fully complete change of this sort, linguistic anthropologist Michael Silverstein has explained how religious and political ideology among speakers of Early Modern English resulted in a collapse of the second person pronouns thou (singular, informal) and you (plural, formal). In the present case, rapidly changing ideologies about the gender binary may be pushing us toward a different organization of third person pronouns of the sort illustrated by the non-binary pronoun chart above.

The effect of Facebook on linguistic practice more broadly has yet to be fully uncovered, but its capital-driven flexibility and omnipresence in contemporary social life suggests that it may be a powerful tool in ideologically-driven language change.

Headline image credit: People and gender. CC0 via Pixabay.

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27. Spicing Up Your Prose Part 4 of 6

This week, we continue to add to our collection of rhetorical devices.


Parallelism uses balance and three beats following a sentence or clause with a phrase that starts with a similar kind of word (adjective, adverb or noun).
         
 The book was damaged1, damaged beyond all hope of repair2. (balance)

Jane loved him more for it1, more than she loved her books2, more than she loved herself3. (3 beats)

Personification attributes an animal or inanimate object with human characteristics.
         
The book hid its secrets from her.

Phatics are used to begin or interrupt the flow of a sentence without adding meaning to it and act as speed bumps. They are used to strengthen the connection to the reader and can impart a confidential tone. It can raise or lower the dramatic potential of a clause, it can emphasize an important claim, certify content, or negate content. Be sure they are not used to preface an information dump. They include, but are not limited to:


  • after a fashion
  • after all
  • after all is said and done
  • almost inevitably
  • amazingly enough
  • and I agree that it is
  • and whatnot
  • as a matter of fact
  • as everybody knows
  • as I believe is the case
  • as is widely known
  • as it happens
  • as it turns out
  • as I’ve pointed out
  • as unlikely as it may seem
  • as we can see
  • as you can see
  • at any rate
  • believe it or not
  • curiously enough
  • fittingly enough
  • for God’s sake
  • for some reason
  • for that matter
  • hi
  • how are you
  • I am reminded
  • I can’t help but wonder
  • I might add
  • I suppose
  • if conditions are favorable
  • if I may call it that
  • if time permits
  • if truth be known
  • if you get right down to it
  • if you know what I mean
  • if you must know
  • in a way
  • in a sense
  • in my mind
  • in point of fact
  • in spite of everything
  • in the final analysis
  • it goes without saying
  • it is important to note
  • it is important to remember
  • it occurs to me
  • it seems to me
  • it turns out
  • just between us
  • just between you and me
  • let’s face it
  • let me tell you
  • make no mistake
  • my Lord
  • not to mention
  • of course
  • one might ask
  • or as unlikely as it may seem
  • shall we say
  • strangely enough
  • to a certain extent
  • to be honest
  • to my dismay
  • to everyone’s surprise
  • to no one’s surprise
  • to my relief
  • to my way of thinking
  • to some extent
  • what's up
  • we should remember
  • when all is said and done
  • you know
  • you know what



Next week, we will contine to stock your prose shelf.

For the complete list of spices and other revision layers, pick up a copy of: 



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28. Kissing from a strictly etymological point of view

Like every other custom in life, kissing has been studied from the historical, cultural, anthropological, and linguistic point of view. Most people care more for the thing than for the word, but mine is an etymological blog, so don’t expect a disquisition on the erotic aspects of kissing, even though a few lines below will lead us in that direction. Did the ancient Indo-Europeans, the semi-mythic people who lived no one knows exactly when and where kiss? And if they did, what was their method of performing this “gesture”? Did they rub one another’s nose, the way many people do? Did they kiss their children before putting them to their nomadic beds? Did they kiss goodbye to lost objects, blow a kiss to a friend, or kiss the hand of the woman whose affections they hoped to gain? Alas, we will never know. Even a common Indo-European word for “head” does not exist, and if there is no head, how does one kiss in a truly Proto-Indo-European way? Our records, beginning with Ancient Egypt, the Old Testament, and Vedic texts are quite old but not old enough.

In 1897 Kristoffer Nyrop (1858-1931), a distinguished student of Romance linguistics and semantic change, wrote a book called Kysset og dets historie (The Kiss and Its History; being a nineteenth-century Dane, he stuck to the reactionary habit of writing his works in Danish, but the book was translated into English almost immediately and is still available.) The 190-page study reads like a novel. A week after its publication, all the copies were sold out, and Nyrop was asked to prepare a second edition and do so in a wild hurry, to be ready for Christmas sales. As could be expected, he complied. Regrettably, he said nothing about the origin of the word. Yet the literature on the etymology of kiss is huge.

As usual, I’ll begin with Germanic. The ancestors of the Modern Germans, Dutch, Frisians, Scandinavians, and English had almost the same word for “kiss,” approximately koss (coss). Part of the New Testament in Gothic has come down to us. Gothic is a Germanic language, recorded in the fourth century, and the word for the verb kiss in it is kukjan. As early as 1861, Dutch dialectal kukken surfaced in a scholarly work, and somewhat later an almost identical East Frisian form was set in linguistic circulation. It became clear that at one time Germanic speakers had two forms—one with -ss-, the other with -kk-. Their relation has never been explained to everybody’s satisfaction.

Solomon in The Song of Songs mentions passionate kisses on the mouth, and Judas must also have kissed Jesus on the mouth. At least, such was the general perception in the Middle Ages (for example, this is how Giotto and Fra Angelico, but more explicitly Giotto, represented the scene), so the Hebrews and the Romans kissed as we do, and Wulfila, the translator of the Gothic Bible, probably had a similar image before his eyes while working with the Greek text. So the speakers of the Germanic languages called “kiss” a kuss- (the vowels might differ slightly) or a kukk-.

Whenever the ritual of kissing came into being, some kisses were used to show respect and in other situations served a purpose comparable to shaking hands (think of a handshake sealing a bargain). Kissing the foot of a king or the Pope belongs here too. Dutch zoenen has the root of a verb meaning “reconcile” (a cognate of German versöhnen). Consequently, people kissed to mark the end of hostilities. Later the Dutch verb broadened its meaning and began to denote any kiss. Something similar happened in Russian, in which the verb for “kiss” is akin to the adjective for “whole”: tselovat’ (stress on the last syllable), from tsel. A kiss must have been a gesture signifying “be healthy, gesundheit.” Another Dutch verb for “kiss” (this time, dialectal), with a close analog in dialectal German, is poenen ~ puunen and seems to have meant “push, plunge, thrust; come into contact.” Here the emphasis was obviously on the movement in the direction of another person. Then there is Engl. smack, believed to be sound-imitative: apparently, when one kisses someone, smack is heard. Onomatopoeia is always hard to prove, but compare Russian chmok, which means exactly the same as smack. Latin savium, of obscure origin, designated an erotic kiss, while osculum goes back to the word for “mouth” (os). Neither is sound-imitative.

Klimt's The Kiss
Klimt’s The Kiss

Where then does Old Germanic kuss- ~ kukk- belong? Many researchers have suggested that it is sound-imitative, like smack. Perhaps we really hear or think we hear smack, chmok, kuss, and kukk when we kiss. However, even an onomatopoeic word can have a protoform. Reconstructing any protoform is pure algebra. For example, the Gothic for come is qiman (pronounced as kwiman). Its indisputable Latin cognate is venire. To make the two belong together, we should posit an ancestor beginning with gw-. In Latin, g was lost, and in Germanic it yielded k, according to the law of the consonant shift (b, d, g to p, t, k). Did the ancestors of Latin speakers ever say gwenire? Most likely, they did.

In the same way, kiss was tentatively connected with Latin gustare “to taste,” on the assumption that at one time the sought-for form began with gw-. Although this suggestion can be found in one of the best Germanic etymological dictionaries, it now has few, if any, supporters. More instructive is the fact that the Hittite for “kiss” was kuwaszi, and it resembles Sanskrit ṡvaṡiti “to blow; snort” (k- and s- alternate according to a certain rule, while u and w are variants of the same phonetic entity). Add to them Greek kuneo “kiss,” in whose conjugation -s- appears with great regularity: the future was kuso and the aorist ekusa, earlier ekussa. On the basis of this evidence, several authoritative modern dictionaries posit a Proto-Indo-European form of kiss. Can we imagine that three or so thousand years ago there was a common verb for kiss that has come down to our time? Possibly, if “kiss” designated something very common and important, that is, if, for example, it existed as a religious term, something like “worship an idol by touching the image with one’s lips.”

Other hypotheses also exist. Kiss was compared with the verb for “speak,” from which English has the antiquated preterit quoth; Engl. choose and chew; Swedish kuk “penis,” Low (= Northern) German kukkuk “whore; vulva,” Irish bel “lip,” and especially often with Latin basium “kiss” (noun) ~ basiare “kiss” (verb), recognizable today from its cognates: French baiser, Italian baciare, and Spanish besar. All those conjectures should probably be dismissed as unprofitable. The origin of basiare is unknown, and nothing good ever comes from explaining one obscure word by referring it to another equally obscure one.

We are left with two choices. Perhaps there indeed once existed a proto-verb for kiss sounding approximately like it, but who kissed whom or what and in what way remains undiscovered. Or, while kissing, different people heard a sound that resembles either kuss or kukk. Neither solution inspires too much confidence, but, in any case, the long consonant (-ss and -kk) points to the affective nature of the verb. Perhaps an ancient expressive verb belonging to the religious sphere had near universal currency, with Hittite, Sanskrit, and Germanic still having its reflexes. If so, the main question will be about the application of that verb. The sex-related look-alikes (“penis,” “vulva,” and the rest) should, almost certainly, be ascribed to coincidence.

To prevent the Indo-European imagination from running wild, one should remember that alongside kiss, Engl. buss exists. Although it sounds like Middle Engl. bass (the same meaning), bass could not become buss, and it is anybody’s guess whether bass is of French or Latin origin. Swedish dialectal puss corresponds to German Bavarian buss, which is remembered because Luther used it. French, Spanish, Portuguese, Lithuanian, Persian, Turkic, and Hindu have almost identical forms (Spanish is sometimes said to have borrowed its word from Arabic), while Scottish Gaelic and Welsh bus means “lip; mouth.” Even Engl. ba “to kiss” has been recorded. This array of b-words seems to tip the scale toward the onomatopoeic solution, the more so because, to pronounce b, we have to open the lips. For millennia people have kussed (no pun intended), kossed, kissed, kukked, bassed, and bussed, to show affection and respect, to conclude peace, and just for the fun of it, without paying too much attention to origins. This is not giving a kiss of death to etymological research: it is rather a warning that some things are hard to investigate.

Nowadays the question where does a certain sentence occur? has lost its edge. Google will immediately provide the answer. So find out who wrote: “‘A gentleman insulted me today’, she said, ‘he hugged me around the waist and kissed me’.” Then read, laugh, and weep with the heroine.

Image credits: (1) “The prince awakened Sleeping Beauty.” From Kinder und Hausmarchen, von Jakob L. und Wilhelm K. Grimm; illus. von Hermann Vogel. Dritte Auflage), 1893. NYPL Digital Gallery. Digital ID: 1698628. New York Public Library (2) The Kiss. Gustav Klimt. 1907-1908. Austrian Gallery Belvedere. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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29. Is Arabic really a single language?

All language-learners face the difficulties of regional variations or dialects. Usually, it takes the form of an odd word or turn of phrase or a peculiar pronunciation. For most languages, incomprehension is only momentary, and the similarity — what linguists often refer to as the mutual intelligibility — between the standard language taught to foreigners and the regional speech pattern is maintained. For a language such as French, only the most extreme cases of dialectical differences, such as between Parisian and Québécois or Cajun, pose considerable difficulties for both learners and native speakers of dialects close to the standard. For other languages, however, differences between dialects are so great as to make most dialects other than the standard totally incomprehensible to learners. Arabic is one such language.

The problem that faces most learners of Arabic is that the written language is radically different from the various dialects spoken throughout the Arab world. Such differences appear in a variety of forms: pronunciation, vocabulary, syntax, and tenses of verbs. The result is that even the most advanced learner of standard Arabic (or ‘the standard’) might find herself completely at sea on the streets of Beirut, while it is also conceivable for a student to complete a year of immersion in Cairo and not be able to understand a text written in the standard language.

The most diligent and ambitious of Arabic students, therefore, is required to learn both the standard and a regional variant in order to cover all the social situations in which they might use the language. This, however, will not solve their dilemma in its entirety: Moroccan Arabic is foreign to Levantines, while Iraqi can be quite a puzzle for Egyptians. Even the mastery of a regional variant along with the standard will only ease the learner’s task in part of the Arab World, while making it no easier in other regions. This phenomenon, in which a number of quasi- or poorly-intelligible dialects are used by speakers of a particular language depending on the situation in which they find themselves, is known as diglossia.

Two pages from the Galland manuscript, the oldest text of The Thousand and One Nights. Arabic manuscript, back to the 14th century from Syria in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Two pages from the Galland manuscript, the oldest text of The Thousand and One Nights. Arabic manuscript, back to the 14th century from Syria in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

A many-headed beast

The source, or rather sources, of diglossia in the Arab world are both manifold and contentious. In part, regional differences come about from contact between Arabic speakers and non-Arabic speakers. Moroccan Arabic, for example, borrows from Berber, while Levantine dialects (spoken in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and Jordan) have Aramaic elements in them. The dialects of the Persian Gulf area show the influence of Persian and Hindi, both of which were the languages of important trading partners for the region’s merchants. Finally, the languages of imperial or colonial administration left their imprint on virtually all dialects of the Arab World, albeit in different measures. It is for this reason that native speakers may choose from a variety of words, some foreign and others Arabic, in order to describe the same concept. Thus a Moroccan might use henna (from Berber) or jidda for grandmother; a Kuwaiti might buy meywa (from Farsi) or fawaakih when he has a craving for fruit; and a Lebanese worker might say she is going to the karhane (from Ottoman Turkish) or masna` when heading off to the factory.

Dialectical differences are not just a matter of appropriations and borrowings. Just as many non-native learners have grappled with the complex structure of the Arabic language, so too have many native speakers of Arabic. For all its complexity, however, there are certain nuances that standard Arabic does not express with efficiency or ease. This is why the regional dialects are marked by a number of simplifications and innovations, intended to allow for greater agility and finesse when speaking.

For example, Levantine dialects make use of agent participles (faakira, the one thinking; raayihun, the ones going; maashi, the one walking) instead of actually conjugating the verb (‘afkuru, I am thinking; yaruuhuuna, they are going; tamshiina, you are going). However, these same dialects, as well as Egyptian, have also created a series of verbal prefixes — small non-words that come before the conjugated verb — in order to refine the duration and timing of an action when conjugated verbs are used: baya’kal, he eats; `am baya’kal, he is eating; raH ya’kal or Ha ya’kal, he will eat. Such distinctions are familiar to speakers of English, but are not immediately apparent in Arabic, whose verbal system seeks to stress other types of information.

The more the merrier

Indeed, this display of innovation and human creativity is one of the strongest motivations for learning Arabic, whether standard or colloquial. Arabic might require as much effort and commitment as the acquisition of two or three Indo-European languages in order for a non-native speaker to be able to communicate in a meaningful way. However, it also opens the door to understanding the manner in which humans use and adapt language to their particular contexts. The diglossia issue is one that causes complications for non-native learners and native Arabic speakers alike, but it is also a fascinating showcase of the birth and evolution of languages that challenges our preconceived notions about good and bad speech, and the relative importance and value of dialects.

Heading image: Golden calligraphy by Quinn Dombrowski, CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

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30. The victory of “misgender” – why it’s not a bad word

In August 2014, OxfordDictionaries.com added numerous new words and definitions to their database, and we invited a few experts to comment on the new entries. Below, Reid Vanderburgh, retired marriage and family therapist and contributor to Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, discusses misgender. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford Dictionaries or Oxford University Press.

Misunderstand.
Misidentify.
Mistaken.
Misogyny.
Miscegenation.
Miscreant.
Misadventure.
Misalign.

The list goes on and on. A two-second search turned up a long list of words beginning with the prefix ‘mis.’ None seem very positive. Now we have a new word to add to the lexicon: misgender.

Officially appearing on Oxford Dictionaries’ list of new words, the definition is:

misgender /mɪsˈjendər/ ▶v. [with obj.] refer to (someone, especially a transgender person) using a word, especially a pronoun or form of address, that does not correctly reflect the gender with which they identify

EXAMPLE:various media outlets have continued to misgender her.”

Though not a positive word, its appearance in the dictionary is a positive step. Gandhi once said, “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. Then they fight you. Then you win.” Depending on geographical location and the demographics of who you’re talking to, transgender people live in all three of the first stages of Gandhi’s process – ignored in some places (through invisibility of identity, not through complete acceptance), ridiculed in many, embattled in others. Though some transgender people live in areas where civil rights are theirs, I doubt any would say “Yay, we’ve won!”

The appearance of misgender in a dictionary is a sign of (a) not being ignored, and (b) not being ridiculed. To be misgendered deliberately is to be fought against. To have someone sincerely apologize and then move on from the mistake without a second thought, is to win.

In recent years, words have begun appearing in the lexicon that have moved our culture further toward the “we win” state for transgender people. For instance, the word cisgender entered the lexicon in the mid-2000s, creating a word for non-transgender people. Now, in etymological terms, we have equally-balanced words: transgender and cisgender, co-existing as do straight and gay/lesbian. Though there is still an imbalance in terms of cultural power, the first stage (being ignored) is surmounted through appearing in dictionaries.

Though many transgender people still wish to live private lives, not proclaiming their transgender identity publicly, the power of the Internet and post-9/11 security laws make such privacy increasingly difficult to maintain. Transgender identities of various kinds have become increasingly visible as a result; like it or not, the “being ignored” stage is passing quickly. This will probably create the tension of being ridiculed, and the pain/suffering of being fought. However, continuing to create a non-pathologizing, non-judgmental lexicon with which to discuss transgender identity moves our culture ever further from the “ignore you” stage, into the realm of “this is normal.” Then we win.

Headline image: Gender neutral toilets at department of sociology, Gotenburg University, Gothenburg, Sweden. Public doman via Wikimedia Commons.

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31. Post 450, descriptive of how the Oxford Etymologist spent part of this past August

Yes, this is Post 450. The present blog was launched on March 1, 2006 and has appeared every Wednesday ever since, rain or shine. Another short year, and the jubilant world will celebrate the great number 500.

In summer, when there are no classes, I put in my bag one thick book in German or Icelandic and one thick book in English (those in Russian are taken for granted). This past August, the German book I picked up (as a matter of fact, I read two) was particularly depressing, in consequence of which I decided to return to The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. So I checked out the original edition and plodded joyfully through all 609 pages of it. Like most linguists, I usually pay attention not only to the plot but also to the writer’s language. Although I read the Pickwick Papers when I was sixteen years old, I remembered fairly well what happened there, but I have learned a good deal about Dickens since I was a schoolboy and therefore noticed a few things that escaped me then. For example, I was amazed to discover the amount of spirits everybody consumed, not excluding Mr. Pickwick. The characters of Erich Maria Remarque and Ernest Hemingway look rather sober in comparison. It was also curious to observe how true Dickens remained to some of his favorite types and situations (winsome widows entrapping silly men, swooning and weeping ladies, arch maids, henpecked husbands, misfits sent to the colonies to make good, and so forth) and to the mannerisms of his younger days, but I don’t think he ever produced an equal of Sam Weller’s touching oration in which he refused to leave his master.

A few notes on Dickens’s usage may not be wholly uninteresting to our readers, though I realize that 177 years after the appearance of that novel nothing I can say about it will be new.

A few morsels of grammar.

It will be remembered that Peggotty, David Copperfield’s nurse, pronounced the name of her nephew Ham “as a morsel of English grammar” (that is, without an ‘h). Some other morsels are also “worthy of remark,” as Dickens might say.

  • “…and there was a dinner which would have been cheap at half-a-crown a mouth, if any moderate number of mouths could have eat it in that time” (p. 375), and “Here Mr. Sam Weller, who had silently eat his oysters with tranquil smiles, cried ‘Hear!’ in a very loud voice” (590);
  • “…Sam having ladled out, and drank two full glasses of punch in honor of himself, returned thanks in a neat speech” (p. 400).
  • One of the footmen says: “In fact, that’s the only thing between you and I, that makes service worth entering into” (p. 398).
Mr. Pickwick Picnics by Fred Barnard, 1870s. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Mr. Pickwick Picnics by Fred Barnard, 1870s. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Favorite words.

Indefatigable assiduity. Not too long ago, in connection with the phrase indefatigable assiduity that occurs in the opening paragraph of the Pickwick Papers, it was pointed out in our discussion that similar phrases were common in Dickens’s days. So they were, but Dickens used their components with rare assiduity indeed.

  • “…she… would have gone off, had it not been for the indefatigable efforts of the assiduous Goodwin” (p. 183);
  • “…three or four fortunate individuals, who… were staring through it [a grating] with the same indefatigable perseverance with which…” (p. 255);
  • “‘It looks a nice warm exercise that, doesn’t it?’” he inquired of Wardle, when that gentleman was thoroughly out of breath, by reason of the indefatigable manner in which…” (p. 312);
  • “Mr. Weller communicated this secret with great glee, and winked so indefatigably after doing so, that…” (p. 346).
  • “It must not be supposed that any of these people have the least shadow of business in, or the remotest connexion with, the place they so indefatigably attend” (p. 456);
  • “‘No, I don’t, Sir’, replied Mr. Weller, beginning to button with extraordinary assiduity” (p. 474);
  • “…which the fat boy… expressed his perfect understanding of, by smirking, grinning and winking, with redoubled assiduity” (582).

Another favorite word is peremptory, which turns up even more often than indefatigable. Dickens’s characters occasionally “sally forth,” “fall into a violent perspiration,” and have cadaverous faces. Villains, when attacked, already then were in the habit of saying: “You will smart for this” (here Dodson and Fogg, and later Uriah Heep). However, none of those phrases became clichés with him.

Ajar. Mrs. Cluppins testifies: “‘I was there, …when I see Mrs. Bardell’s street on the jar’.” ‘On the what?” exclaimed the little Judge. “‘Partly open, my lord’,” said Sergeant Snubbin. “‘She said on the jar’,” said the little Judge, with a cunning look. “‘It’s all the same, my lord’,” said Sergeant Snubbin. The little Judge looked doubtful, and said he’d make a note of it” (p. 361).

Odds and ends. “The cloth was laid by an occasional chairwoman.…” (p. 408). Chairwoman for charwoman is supposed to have died out by the nineteenth century. Apparently, it did not. Skates is regularly spelled skaits, and visitor appears once as visiter (perhaps a misprint). Badinage, which also occurs only once, was in 1837 still printed in italics, and the most common synonym for exclaim was ejaculate (in grammar books, as late as the end of the nineteenth century, the usual term for interjection was ejaculation). Obviously, no dirty mind objected, for in the preface Dickens expressed his conviction that “throughout the book, no incident or expression occurs which could call a blush into the most delicate cheek.” The attributive use of slang “impertinent, etc.” was not too rare, but Dickens picked it up and ran away with it: “…a man… was performing the most popular steps of a hornpipe with a slang and burlesque caricature of grace and lightness…” (p. 441). Sam Weller’s father was sure that only an alibi could save Mr. Pickwick in the trial, and he, like most of us, had ideas about word origins: “…if your governor don’t prove a alleybi, he’ll be what the Italians call reg’larly flummoxed, and that’s all about it” (p. 345).

On America.

Here is what that gentleman (I mean Mr. Weller) thought of America. He proposed a plan to smuggle Mr. Pickwick out of prison and send him overseas: “The ‘Merrikin’ gov’ment will never give him up, ven vunce they finds as he’s got money, to spend, Sammy. …and then let him come back and write a book about ’Merrikins as’ll pay all his expenses and more, if he blows ’em up enough” (p. 485). Did Dickens remember this advice while writing Martin Chuzzlewit?

Election season.

Finally, now that our election season is coming to a head, we should not ignore the experience of our predecessors. The scene is set in Eatanswill, in which two parties, the Blues and the Buffs, fight. The honorable Mr. Slunkey, a Blue candidate, seems to have greater support, but at the moment the future of the seat is undecided. He is ready to greet the populace and is advised that “nothing has been left undone… there are twenty washed men at the street door for you to shake hands with; and six children in arms that you’re to pat on the head, and inquire the age of; be particular about the children, my dear Sir,—it has always a great effect, that sort of thing.” “…and perhaps, my dear Sir—if you could… manage to kiss one of ’em, it would produce a very great impression on the crowd.” “‘Would it have as good an effect if the proposer or seconder did that?’”… “‘Why, I am afraid it wouldn’t’,” replied the agent” (pp. 128-129). The candidate kissed them all and won. Both crowds were terribly excited, and Mr. Snodgrass did not know with which to shout. “‘Shout with the largest’, replied Mr. Pickwick. “Volumes could not have said more” (p. 122).

This is what I have scribbled for myself while reading the Pickwick Papers. Even if I happened to pursue my subject “with a perseverance worthy of a better cause,” I hope you have read my notes with “unruffled composure” and “unimpaired cheerfulness,” because they were “calculated to afford [you] the highest gratification.” And now that I have divested myself of all I know, I am empty and will have to go hungry, as the Big Bad Wolf said after Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother jumped out of him undigested.

Headline image credit: Mr. Pickwick addresses the club. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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32. Why study paradoxes?

Why should you study paradoxes? The easiest way to answer this question is with a story:

In 2002 I was attending a conference on self-reference in Copenhagen, Denmark. During one of the breaks I got a chance to chat with Raymond Smullyan, who is amongst other things an accomplished magician, a distinguished mathematical logician, and perhaps the most well-known popularizer of `Knight and Knave’ (K&K) puzzles.

K&K puzzles involve an imaginary island populated by two tribes: the Knights and the Knaves. Knights always tell the truth, and Knaves always lie (further, members of both tribes are forbidden to engage in activities that might lead to paradoxes or situations that break these rules). Other than their linguistic behavior, there is nothing that distinguishes Knights from Knaves.

Typically, K&K puzzles involve trying to answer questions based on assertions made by, or questions answered by, an inhabitant of the island. For example, a classic K&K puzzle involves meeting an islander at a fork in the road, where one path leads to riches and success and the other leads to pain and ruin. You are allowed to ask the islander one question, after which you must pick a path. Not knowing to which tribe the islander belongs, and hence whether she will lie or tell the truth, what question should you ask?

(Answer: You should ask “Which path would someone from the other tribe say was the one leading to riches and success?”, and then take the path not indicated by the islander).

Back to Copenhagen in 2002: Seizing my chance, I challenged Smullyan with the following K&K puzzle, of my own devising:

There is a nightclub on the island of Knights and Knaves, known as the Prime Club. The Prime Club has one strict rule: the number of occupants in the club must be a prime number at all times.

Pythagoras paradox.png
Pythagoras paradox, by Jan Arkesteijn (own work). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Prime Club also has strict bouncers (who stand outside the doors and do not count as occupants) enforcing this rule. In addition, a strange tradition has become customary at the Prime Club: Every so often the occupants form a conga line, and sing a song. The first lyric of the song is:

“At least one of us in the club is a Knave.”

and is sung by the first person in the line. The second lyric of the song is:

“At least two of us in the club are Knaves.”

and is sung by the second person in the line. The third person (if there is one) sings:

“At least three of us in the club are Knaves.”

And so on down the line, until everyone has sung a verse.

One day you walk by the club, and hear the song being sung. How many people are in the club?

Smullyan’s immediate response to this puzzle was something like “That can’t be solved – there isn’t enough information”. But he then stood alone in the corner of the reception area for about five minutes, thinking, before returning to confidently (and correctly, of course) answer “Two!”

I won’t spoil things by giving away the solution – I’ll leave that mystery for interested readers to solve on their own. (Hint: if the song is sung with any other prime number of islanders in the club, a paradox results!) I will note that the song is equivalent to a more formal construction involving a list of sentences of the form:

At least one of sentences S1 – Sn is false.

At least two of sentences S1 – Sn is false.

————————————————

At least n of sentences S1 – Sn is false.

The point of this story isn’t to brag about having stumped a famous logician (even for a mere five minutes), although I admit that this episode (not only stumping Smullyan, but meeting him in the first place) is still one of the highlights of my academic career.

Frances MacDonald - A Paradox 1905.jpg
Frances MacDonald – A Paradox 1905, by Frances MacDonald McNair. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Instead, the story, and the puzzle at the center of it, illustrates the reasons why I find paradoxes so fascinating and worthy of serious intellectual effort. The standard story regarding why paradoxes are so important is that, although they are sometimes silly in-and-of-themselves, paradoxes indicate that there is something deeply flawed in our understanding of some basic philosophical notion (truth, in the case of the semantic paradoxes linked to K&K puzzles).

Another reason for their popularity is that they are a lot of fun. Both of these are really good reasons for thinking deeply about paradoxes. But neither is the real reason why I find them so fascinating. The real reason I find paradoxes so captivating is that they are much more mathematically complicated, and as a result much more mathematically interesting, than standard accounts (which typically equate paradoxes with the presence of some sort of circularity) might have you believe.

The Prime Club puzzle demonstrates that whether a particular collection of sentences is or is not paradoxical can depend on all sorts of surprising mathematical properties, such as whether there is an even or odd number of sentences in the collection, or whether the number of sentences in the collection is prime or composite, or all sorts of even weirder and more surprising conditions.

Other examples demonstrate that whether a construction (or, equivalently, a K&K story) is paradoxical can depend on whether the referential relation involved in the construction (i.e. the relation that holds between two sentences if one refers to the other) is symmetric, or is transitive.

The paradoxicality of still another type of construction, involving infinitely many sentences, depends on whether cofinitely many of the sentences each refer to cofinitely many of the other sentences in the construction (a set is cofinite if its complement is finite). And this only scratches the surface!

The more I think about and work on paradoxes, the more I marvel at how complicated the mathematical conditions for generating paradoxes are: it takes a lot more than the mere presence of circularity to generate a mathematical or semantic paradox, and stating exactly what is minimally required is still too difficult a question to answer precisely. And that’s why I work on paradoxes: their surprising mathematical complexity and mathematical beauty. Fortunately for me, there is still a lot of work remains to be done, and a lot of complexity and beauty remaining to be discovered.

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33. A wrapping rhapsody

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (ODEE) says about the verb wrap (with the abbreviations expanded): “…of unknown origin, similar in form and sense are North Frisian wrappe stop up, Danish dialectal vrappe stuff; and cf. Middle Engl. bewrappe, beside wlappe (XIV), LAP3.” XIV means “the 14th century,” and LAP3 is a synonym of wrap (as in overlap), related to lap “front part of a skirt,” which has a solid etymology. The quotation from The ODEE repeats what can be found in the OED. For “cf. wlappe” some dictionaries offer the dogmatic, unsupported statement that wrap is a doublet (so Skeat) or “corruption” of lap.

So once again we encounter the off-putting formula “origin unknown.” But, as we have seen more than once, in etymology, “unknown” is a loose concept. Minsheu, the author of the first etymological dictionary of English (1617), cited two words, which, in his opinion, could be akin to wrap. One of them was German raffen “to pile, to heap.” In 1854 the same idea occurred to a certain D.B., a contributor to Southern Literary Messenger (Richmond, Va.), the author of a four-page article on word origins. Like Minsheu, he also cited two probable cognates. To both authors’ second candidates we will briefly return below. D.B., I assume, was not a famous researcher, and Southern Literary Messenger is not everybody’s regular source of information on linguistic issues (again a mere guess). But in 1904 Heinrich Schröder, contrary to the semi-anonymous D.B., a distinguished, even brilliant German scholar, published a very long article in a leading philological journal and, and among many other things, proposed Minsheu and D.B.’s etymology as his own. Like Cato, who never stopped rubbing in his appeal Carthago delenda est (“Carthage should be destroyed”), I will keep repeating that we need summaries of everything ever said about word origins in any given language and only then shed words of wisdom to the public eager for reliable information. In the absence of summaries and surveys, etymologists, naturally, hit on the same, seemingly attractive hypotheses again and again, without realizing that the wheel has already been invented and even reinvented more than once.

Thus, three people suggested the affinity of wrap to German raffen. But not a single German dictionary I have consulted contends that raffen is akin to wrap, though, obviously, if A is related to B, B must also be related to A. This is another curious comment on the state of the art. While working on the entry raffen, the authors of German etymological dictionaries never thought of looking up wrap. And why should they have done so? In their sources, the comparison does not occur, and no one alerted them to the fact that in the English-speaking world some etymologists had tackled their word.

Closer to home than raffen is Engl. warp, whose original meaning was “to throw,” as evidenced by Dutch werpen and German werfen. Time and again, beginning with Minsheu, it has been said that wrap is a metathesized variant of warp. However, when a word falls victim to metathesis, which is a mechanical phonetic change not caused by semantic factors, the new form, with the sounds transposed (and this is what metathesis is all about), it continues meaning the same as its “parent,” while “to throw” and “to enfold” do not look like even remote synonyms. Another putative etymon of wrap that appears in some old sources is rap (so, for instance, in D.B.’s article). It is unclear which of several verbs spelled rap is meant. Perhaps it is rap “to give a quick blow, etc.,” still dimly recognized in the archaic phrase rap and rend? But that rap seems to have once had h before r, while in wrap, w- is genuine. The initial group wr- was simplified in southern English and subsequently in the Standard only in the seventeenth century, so that the fourteenth-century spelling of wrap inspires confidence. The other rap “to strike” may be a sound-imitative verb of Scandinavian origin, and neither h- nor w- has been recorded in it in any Scandinavian language.

The origin of this wrap is  known only too well.  (Lunchtime salad wrap. Photo by Jessica Spengler. CC BY 2.0 via wordridden Flickr.)
The origin of this wrap is known only too well. (Lunchtime salad wrap. Photo by Jessica Spengler. CC BY 2.0 via wordridden Flickr.)

Other conjectures are even less appealing. For instance, Old Engl. wrion “bend, contort” (its reflexes are hidden in Modern Engl. wry and wriggle) is phonetically too remote from wrap. Among several look-alikes, attention has been called to the short-lived and rare late Middle English words wrabble “to wriggle,” wrabbed “perverse,” and wraw “to mew.” The last of them is obviously onomatopoeic, like mew, moo, and the rest. The original sense of the Modern English verb warble was “to whirl”; hence “to sing with trills and quavers.” This verb had hw- at one time. The enigmatic wlappe “wrap” is said in the OED to be apparently a blend of the verb lap and wrap. But so little is known about most of those words that their mutual ties cannot be reconstructed. It only seems that at least some verbs beginning with wr- and hr- were sound-imitative and possibly sound symbolic. One of them was Greek raptein (historically, with initial h-) “to stitch together,” whence rhapsody (“the stitching of songs”), in English from Greek via Latin.

The initial sense of many such verbs was “to bend, twist, stitch; wriggle; *fold, *connect, *cover.” They crossed borders with ease. Engl. wrap may be a borrowing from Frisian. If it is so, we are left with the question about its origin there. The root of the Romance verbs that have become Engl. develop and envelop seems also to be lost in obscurity, but it is characteristic that envelop sounds somewhat like lap and means approximately the same as overlap. If all of them are “fanciful” sound symbolic formations, the similarity causes little surprise. Lap in lap up is obviously sound imitative.

What then is the summary? The verb wrap appeared in English in the middle period. It has a cognate, almost a twin, in Northern Frisian. Perhaps it was coined long before it surfaced in texts, at a time when Frisian and English were closer than in the fourteenth century, but borrowing in either direction cannot be excluded. Wrap is not a doublet of warp. Nor does it have direct ties with rap in any of its senses. German raffen is hardly related to it either. Wrap has no ancient (“Indo-European”) heritage. It looks like one of a sizable number of words beginning with wr- and wl- meaning “bend, twist.” Rare Middle Engl. wrabble and wrabbed are, most probably, related to it. Without certainty, warble can be added to the group. We have no way of knowing whether Middle Engl. wlappe had an independent existence or was a blend of lap and wrap. Some words structured like rap and lap (without initial h- and w-) were close to wrap, so that confusion between and among them was possible.

Despite all the caution required by such a hard case, it can probably be stated that wrap is a sound symbolic verb. The evidence at our disposal is meager and inconclusive, but I will repeat what I have said so many times: too often the verdict “origin unknown” fails to do justice to the words we discuss. Sometimes there is indeed nothing else one can say (notably so while dealing with slang), but a verdict that presupposes death sentence should not be returned without serious deliberation.

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34. How does color affect our way of seeing the world?

There is a study of color perception that has gotten around enough that I would like to devote this post to how I see it, according to my take on whether, and how, language “shapes” thought and creates a “worldview.”

The experiment involved the Himba people, and is deliciously tempting for those seeking to show how language creates a way of seeing the world.

There are two parts to the experiment. Part One: presented with a group of squares, most of them various shades of green and one of them a robin’s egg-style blue, Himba tended to have a hard time picking out which square was “different.” That would seem to suggest that having a single word for green and blue really does affect perception.

Part Two: presented with a number of squares which, to Western eyes, seem like minimally different shades of green, Himba people often readily pick out a single square which is distinct from the others. This, too, seems to correlate with something about their language. Namely, although they only have four color terms (similarly to many indigenous groups), those terms split up what we think of as the green range into three pieces – one color corresponds to various dark colors including dark green, one to “green-blue,” and then another one to other realms of green (and other colors).

Both of these results – on film, a Himba woman seeming quite perplexed trying to pick out the blue square, and meanwhile a Himba man squinting a bit and then picking out what looks to us like just one more leafy green square – seem to confirm that how your language describes a color makes a huge difference to how you see the color. The implications are obvious for other work in this tradition addressing things like terms for up and down, gender for inanimate objects, and the like.

But in fact, both cases pan out in ways quite unlike what we might expect. First, the blue square issue. It isn’t for nothing that some have speculated in all seriousness that if the Himba really can’t perceive the difference between forest green and sky blue, then the issue might be some kind of congenital color blindness (which is hardly unknown among isolated groups for various reasons).

Autumn colour (10311552835)
Autumn colour, by Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
 

That may seem a little hasty. But no one studying color terms, or language and thought, has ever denied that colors occur along a spectrum, upon which some are removed from one another to an extent that no humans have ever been claimed not to be able to perceive. Russians can suss out where dark blue starts shading into light a teensy bit faster than English speakers because they have separate words for light and dark blue – indeed. But no one claims that an English speaker plain can’t see the difference between navy blue and sky blue.

Along those lines, no one would remotely expect that a Himba speaker, or anyone, could actually not see the difference between spectographically distinct shades such as sky blue and forest green. One suspects that issues to do with familiarity with formal tests and their goals may have played a role here – but not that having the same word for green and blue actually renders one what we would elsewhere term color-blind.

Then, as to the shades of green, I’m the last person to say that the man on film didn’t pick out that shade of green faster than I would have expected. However, the question is whether we are seeing a “world view,” we must decide that question according to a very simple metric. The extent to which we treat something in someone’s language as creating a “cool” worldview must be the same extent to which we are prepared to accept something in someone’s language that suggests something “uncool” – because there are plenty of such things.

A demonstration case is Chinese, in which marking plurality, definiteness, hypotheticality, and tense are all optional and as often as not, left to context. The language is, compared to English, strikingly telegraphic. An experiment was done some time ago suggesting that, for example, the issue with hypotheticality meant that to be Chinese was to be less sensitive to the hypothetical than an English speaker is. That is, let’s face it, a cute way of saying that to be Chinese is to be not quite as quick on the uptake as a Westerner.

No one liked that, and I assume that most of us are quite prepared to say that whatever the results of that experiment were, they can’t have anything significant to do with Chinese perception of reality. Well, that means the verdict has to be the same on the Himba and green – we can’t think of him as seeing a world popping with gradations of green we’d never dream of if we can’t accept the Chinese being called a tad simple-minded. This is especially when we remember that there are many groups in the world whose color terms really don’t divvy up any one color in a cool way – they just don’t have as many names for colors, any colors, as we do. Are we ready to condemn them as not seeing the world in colors as vivid as we do because of the way they talk?

Surely not, and that’s the lesson the Himba experiment teaches. Language affects worldview in minuscule ways, of a sort you can tease out in a lab. However, the only way to call these minuscule ways “worldviews” is to accept that to be Chinese is to be dim. I don’t – and I hope none of the rest of us do either.

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35. Why learn Arabic?

To celebrate the launch of our new Oxford Arabic Dictionary (in print and online), the Chief Editor, Tressy Arts, explains why she decided to become an Arabist.

When I tell people I’m an Arabist, they often look at me like they’re waiting for the punchline. Some confuse it with aerobics and look at me dubiously — I don’t quite have the body of a dance instructor. Others do recognize the word “Arabic” and look at me even more dubiously — “What made you decide to study that!?”

Well, my case is simple, if probably not typical. In the Netherlands, where I grew up, you can learn a lot of languages in secondary school, and I tried them all. So when the time came to choose a university study, “a language that isn’t like the others” seemed the most attractive option — and boy, did Arabic deliver.

Squiggly lines and dots?

It started with the script. A lot of people are put off by Arabic’s script, because it looks so impenetrable — all those squiggly lines and dots. At least if you are unfamiliar with Italian you can still make out some of the words. However, the script is really perfectly simple, and anyone can learn it in an hour or two. Arabic has 28 letters, some for sounds that don’t exist in English (and learning to pronounce these can be tricky and cause for much hilarity, like the ‘ayn which I saw most accurately described as “imagine you are at the dentist and the drill touches a nerve”), some handily combining a sound for which English needs two letters into one, like th and sh. Vowels aren’t usually written, only consonants. The dots are to distinguish between letters which have the same basic shape. And the reason it all looks so squiggly is that letters within one word are joined up, like cursive. Once you can see that, it all becomes a lot more transparent.

So once we mastered the script, after the first day of university, things got really interesting. The script unlocked a whole new world of language, and a fascinating language it was. Arabic is a Semitic language, which places it outside the Indo-European language family, and Semitic languages have some unique properties that I had never imagined.

Arabic
Quran Pak by Shakreez. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Root-and-pattern

For example, Arabic (and other Semitic languages) has a so-called “root-and-pattern” morphology. This means that every word is built up of a root, usually consisting of three consonants, which carries the basic meaning of that word; for example the root KTB, with basic meaning “writing”, or DRS “studying”. This root is then put in a pattern consisting of vowels and affixes, which manipulate its meaning to form a word. For example, *aa*i* means “the person who does something”, so a KaaTiB is “someone who writes”: a writer; and a DaaRiS is “someone who studies”: a researcher. Ma**a* means “the place where something takes place”, so a maKTaB is an office, a maKTaBa a library or bookshop, a maDRaSa a school.

This makes learning vocabulary both harder and easier. On the one hand, in the beginning all words sound the same — all verbs have the pattern *a*a*a: KaTaBa, BaHaTHa, DaRaSa, HaDaTHa, JaMaʿa — and you may well get utterly confused. But after a while, you get used to it, and if you encounter a new word and are familiar with the root and recognize the pattern, you can at least make an educated guess at what it might mean.

Keeping things logical . . . usually

Another wonderful aspect of Arabic is that it doesn’t have irregular verbs, unlike, for example, French (I’m looking at you pouvoir). But before you all throw out your French text books and switch to Arabic, let me warn you that there are about 250 different types of regular verb, each of which conjugates into 110 forms. This led to Guy Deutscher remarking, “if the Latin verbal system looked uncomfortably complex, here is an example which makes Latin seem like child’s play: the verbal system of the Semitic languages, such as Arabic, Aramaic and Hebrew.” Fair enough, it’s complex, but it’s all logical, and regular. I, for one, had much less trouble learning these Arabic verbs than the Latin and French ones, simply because there is such an elegant method to them.

There are other aspects of Arabic that are less logical. The numbers, for instance. I won’t go too deep into them, but suffice it to say that if you have three books the three is feminine because books are masculine and if you have three balls it’s vice versa, and then if you have thirteen of something the three is the opposite gender but the ten is the same, the counted word is suddenly singular and for no reason at all the whole lot has become accusative. Then at twenty it all changes again. It’s a wonder the Arab world proved so proficient in mathematics.

Other reasons to learn Arabic

Which leads me to the many other reasons one might want to learn Arabic. I focused on its fascinating linguistics above, because that is my personal favorite field, but there are the cultures steeped in rich history, the fascinating literature ranging from ancient poetry to cutting-edge modern novels, and of course the fact that every Muslim must know at least a little bit of Arabic in order to fulfill their religious duties (shahada, Fatiha, and salat), and for gleaning a deep understanding of the sources of Islam, Arabic is essential. Arabic is also a very wanted skill in many professions, and not just the obvious ones. I recall one of the recruiters at the Arabists’ Career Fair, speaking for a law firm, stating, “We can teach you law. Law is easy. What we need are people with a firm knowledge of Arabic.”

Featured image credit: Learning Arabic calligraphy by Aieman Khimji. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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36. Doing things with verve

It occurred to me to write a short essay about the word verve by chance. As a general rule, I try to stick to my last and stay away from Romance etymology, even though the logic of research occasionally makes me meddle with it. About two months ago near the street where I live (for a story to win confidence, it usually has to contain a few superfluous references to time, place, and exact numbers), I noticed an ad by a realty called “Verve” and decided that, if not only producers of energy drinks and admirers of female beauty but also real estate agents find it possible to adopt such a pompous name, there would be little harm in devoting a few lines to its use and history in this blog.

Verve goes back to Old French. It surfaced there in the eleven-hundreds, occurred rarely (as a rule, in the plural), and seems to have meant “talk” or perhaps “fantasies” before, in the seventeenth century, it acquired its modern sense “high spirits, animation, enthusiasm.” (More about this word’s original sense will be said below.) Also close to the end of that century verve appeared in English, endowed with an almost technical meaning “special bent, vein, or talent in writing” (OED). “Intellectual vigor, especially as manifest in literary productions; great vivacity of ideas and expression” became common from approximately 1870. In general use the word signifies “energy, vigor, spirit.”

For a long time verve must have been unintelligible to the English public. The OED quotes Ouida, who italicized the word as late as in 1863. But Ouida’s first language was French, and, her bizarre habits and penchant for ostentation notwithstanding, she may have been wary of sounding snobbish. It is certainly a high-flown word. (I am pleased to report that the house was sold in a week. This is what it means for a business to have an appealing name.) Today verve often graces reviews and articles dealing with music and all kinds of performances, and is expected to demonstrate their authors’ mastery of the language.

English lexicographers first treated verve as an intruder. It is absent from the early editions of Webster. The etymologists Mueller and Wedgwood ignored it, and Skeat featured it only in the fourth (last) edition of his dictionary. Sometimes verve appeared marked as an exclamation with a single reference: French. Modern English dictionaries, when they do not copy the “standard” etymology from French sources, often say: “Of dubious (uncertain, unknown) origin,” and indeed, as we will see, some doubts about its derivation remain. In 1886, after all the opinions on this matter had been offered and the best one seemingly agreed upon, August Scheler, an outstanding French etymologist, did not object to the solution rejected by most. In searching for the origin of a difficult word, it pays off to consult more reference works than one.

As usual, some conjectures have no justification. Such is tracing verve to fervor, because the initial consonants do not match. The same holds for such improbable etymons of verve as German werfen (Dutch verpen) “to throw,” Latin vertere “to turn” (here even the meanings are too remote), French vertige “dizziness; vertigo,” and French vertu “courage, valor; virtue.” But the oldest conjecture, though it was wide of the truth, found a curious justification in later scholarship. The first great French linguist of the post-medieval period was Gilles Ménage (1613-1692). He derived verve “enthusiasm” from Verbe Divin “Divine Word,” associated with The Son of God (filius Dei), the second person of the Trinity.

People jumping at sunset. © RossellaApostoli via iStock
Doing it with real verve. (People jumping at sunset. © RossellaApostoli via iStock)

A serious exploration of the etymology of verve, as of so many other French words, began with Friedrich Diez, the founder of Romance comparative philology. He cited Latin verva “ram’s head used as an ornament on the wall.” This may have been a so-called popular word, mot populaire, because it occurred only in an inscription. Readers of Latin prose may remember vervex “wether, castrated ram.” The connection between the animal name and verve was allegedly provided by words like Italian capriccio. Capriccio, caprice, capriole, and in English its abbreviated form caper refer us to Latin caper “goat,” an animal famous for its leaps and “capers.”

To buttress Diez’s conclusion, a clever argument has been offered. “Ram” designated not only the animal but also a siege weapon used to beat down walls, that is, a battering ram. The way from an efficient weapon to force and vigor is short. Diez’s explanation was accepted by some of his illustrious contemporaries, including Littré, the author of a celebrated French dictionary. However, all the words listed above, both French and Italian, have suffixes. A change from an animal name to an abstract noun would be unusual. Verve was also approached from Latin verber (or rather from its more frequent plural verbera) “lash, whip, flogging, blow.” The loss of final -r between Latin and French does not appear troublesome.

Diez also considered another derivation of verve, which he rejected but which despite his rejection ultimately won the day. In Old French, verve meant “talk” (sometimes “insincere talk” or possibly “fantasies”) and “proverb.” Definitive conclusions about its meaning in the medieval period are hard to draw, for Old French verve has been attested in few places, and it was traditionally coupled with serve. In some places, it had no other justification except as being a filler for rhyme. In the other Romance languages, verve has no cognates. Those who paid special attention to “talk” and “proverb” set up Latin verba “words” (the plural of verbum) as the etymon of verve. The sense development was reconstructed approximately so: from “words” to “(empty) talk,” further to “fantasies,” and finally to “animation.”

To accept this reconstruction (and the same holds for verbera), one should account for the change of the group -rb- to -rv- between Latin and French. Such a change occurred, but most rarely. The only credible example is verbena “sacred foliage,” whose Spanish and Portuguese reflex is verbena, but the French name of the plant is verveine; hence Engl. vervain. However, the idea that in Vulgar Latin rb tended to become rv is, in principle, acceptable. Franz Settegast (the scholar mentioned in the post on baron), who set up verbera as the etymon of verve and reconstructed the path from “blow” to “verve,” thought of some metaphor like the lashing of the tongue (his examples are French).

The most authoritative dictionaries of French offer only the verba-verve etymology. If it is correct, Ménage, as mentioned earlier, has been partly vindicated, for he may have pointed to the word that did ultimately yield verve. What then is the end result? It is true that an abstract noun cannot go back to an animal name without some suffixes added to it (sheepish, from sheep, is fine, but sheep for “shyness” is not), so that reference to goats probably misses its target. But the now almost universally accepted etymology does not look like a revelation either. Although verbera is a bit too long to have yielded verve, Settegast’s hypothesis does not look hopeless.

We may perhaps ignore the phonetic difficulty (rb to rv), but the semantic path from “words” to “verve” or, for that matter, from “blow” to “verve,” is not straight, even though “fantasies” provides an intermediate stage and castigate could imply both moral and physical punishment. Yet those who say that verve is “of unknown origin” need not do so. “Unknown” is a strong word. It suggests that no information on the subject is available. With regard to verve this is clearly wrong, and, since in this case English etymologists contributed nothing to the discovery of the truth, it would be fair to reproduce the verdict of the most reliable French dictionaries and add a caveat. Nor should it be recommended to repeat the derivation of verve from verba without a caveat. The main aim of a good etymological dictionary should be discussion rather than perpetuating dogma.

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37. Translating untranslatable words

For most language learners and lovers, translation is a hot topic. Should I translate new vocabulary into my first language? How can I say x in Japanese? Is this translated novel as good as the original? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told that Pushkin isn’t Pushkin unless he’s read in Russian, and I have definitely chastised my own students for anxiously writing out lengthy bilingual wordlists: Paola, you’ll only remember trifle if you learn it in context!

Context-based learning aside, I’m all for translation: without it, we wouldn’t understand each other. However, I remain unconvinced that untranslatable words really exist. In fact, I wrote a blog post on some of my favorite Russian words that touched on this very topic. Looking at the responses it received both here and in the Twitterverse, I decided to set out on my own linguistic odyssey: could I wrap my head around ‘untranslatable’ once and for all?

It’s all Greek to me!

Many lovely people of the internet are in accordance: untranslatable words are out there, and they’re fascinating. A quick Google brings up articles, listicles, and even entire blogs on the matter. Goya, jayus, dépaysement — all wonderful words that neatly convey familiar concepts, but also “untranslatable” words that appear accompanied by an English definition. This English definition may well be longer and more complex than the foreign-language word itself (Oxford translates dépaysement as both “change of scenery” and “disorientation,” for example), but it is arguably a translation nonetheless. A lot of the coffee-break reads popping up on the internet don’t contain untranslatable words, but rather language lacking a word-for-word English equivalent. Is a translation only a translation if it is eloquent and succinct?

Genoveva in der Waldeinsamkeit by Hans Thoma. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Genoveva in der Waldeinsamkeit by Hans Thoma. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Translation vs. definition

When moving from one language to another, what’s a translation and what’s a definition — and is there a difference? Brevity seems to matter: the longer the translation, the more likely it is to be considered a definition. Does this make it any less of a translation? When we translate, we “express sense;” when we define, we “state or describe exactly the nature, scope, or meaning.” If I say that toska (Russian) means misery, boredom, yearning, and anguish, is that a definition or a translation? Or even both? It is arguably a definition — yet all of the nouns above could, dependent on context, be used as the best translation.

If we are to talk about what is translatable and what isn’t, we need to start talking about language, rather than words. The Spanish word duende often features in lists of untranslatable words: it refers to the mystical power by which an artist or artwork captivates its audience. Have I just defined duende, or translated it? I for one am not so sure anymore, but I do know that in context, its meaning is clear: un cantante que tiene duende becomes “a singer who has a certain magic about him.” The same goes for the French word dépaysement. By itself, dépaysement can mean many things, but in the phrase les touristes anglais recherchent le dépaysement dans les voyages dans les îles tropicales, it’s clear from context that the sense required is “change of scene” (“English tourists look for a change of scene on holidays to tropical islands”). Does this mean that all words are translatable, as long they are in context?

Saying no to stereotypes

One of my biggest beefs with untranslatable word memes is the suggestion that these linguistic treasure troves are loaded with cultural inferences. Most of the time they’re twee, rather than offensive: for example, the German word Waldeinsamkeit means “the feeling of being alone in the woods.” Gosh, how typical of those woodland-loving Germans, wandering around the Black Forest enjoying oneness with nature! The existence of an “untranslatable” word hints at some kind of cultural mystery that is beyond our comprehension — but does the lack of a word-for-word translation of Waldeinsamskeit mean that no English speaker (or French speaker, or Mandarin speaker) can understand the concept of being alone in the woods? Of course not! However, these misinterpretations of Waldeinsamskeit, Schadenfreude, Backpfeifengesicht et al. make me think: what about those words that really do have a particular cultural resonance? Can we really translate them?

Excuse me, can I borrow your word?

Specialized translation throws up its own variety of “untranslatable” words. For example, if you are translating a text about the Russian banya into a language where steam baths are not the norm, how do you go about translating nouns such as venik (веник)? A venik is a broom, but in the context of the banya it is a collection of leafy twigs (rather than dried twigs) that is used to beat those enjoying the restorative steam. Translating venik as “broom” here would be wildly inaccurate (and probably generate some amusing mental images). The existence of a word-for-word translation doesn’t provide the whole answer if cultural context is missing. We can find examples of “untranslatable” words in relation to almost any culture-specific event, be it American Thanksgiving, Spanish bullfighting, or Balinese Nyepi. If I were to translate an article about bullfighting and retain tienta rather than use “trial” (significantly less specific), does that mean that tienta in this context is really untranslatable?

So what has all this research taught me about translation? Individual words may not be translatable, but language is. And as for the accuracy of the translation? That often depends on how we, as speakers of a particular language, attribute our own meaning. Sometimes, the “translation” just has to be Schadenfreude.

What do you think? Are some words untranslatable? Share your thoughts in the “Translation and language-learning” board of the Oxford Dictionaries Community.

A version of this blog post first appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Featured image: Timeless Books by Lin Kristensen. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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38. Reading demeanor in the courtroom

When it comes to assessing someone’s sincerity, we pay close attention to what people say and how they say it. This is because the emotion-based elements of communication are understood as partially controllable and partially uncontrollable. The words that people use tend to be viewed as relatively controllable; in contrast, rate of speech, tone of voice, hesitations, and gestures (paralinguistic elements) have tended to be viewed as less controllable. As a result of the perception of speakers’ lack of control over them, the meanings conveyed via paralinguistic channels have tended to be understood as providing more reliable evidence of a speaker’s inner state.

Paradoxically, the very elements that are viewed as so reliable are consistent with multiple meanings. Furthermore, people often believe that their reading of another person’s demeanor is the correct one. Many studies have shown that people – judges included – are notoriously bad at assessing the meaning of another person’s affective display. Moreover, some research suggests that people are worse at this when the ethnic background of the speaker differs from their own – not an uncommon situation when defendants address federal judges, even in 2014.

The element of defendants’ demeanor is not only problematic for judges; it is also problematic for the record of the proceedings. This is due to courtroom reporters’ practice of reporting the words that are spoken and excluding input from paralinguistic channels.

One of the original Victorian Courtrooms at the Galleries of Justice Museum. Photo by Fayerollinson. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
One of the original Victorian Courtrooms at the Galleries of Justice Museum. Photo by Fayerollinson. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I observed one case in which this practice had the potential for undermining the integrity of the sentencing hearing transcript. In this case, the defendant lost her composure while making her statement to the court. The short, sob-filled “sorry” she produced mid-way through her statement was (from my perspective) clearly intended to refer to her preceding tears and the delays in her speech. The official transcript, however, made no reference to the defendant’s outburst of emotion, thereby making her “sorry” difficult to understand. Without the clarifying information about what was going on at the time – namely, the defendant’s crying — her “sorry” could conceivably be read as part of her apology to the court for her crime of robbing a bank.

Not distinguishing between apologies for the crime and apologies for a problem with delivery of one’s statement is a problem in the context of a sentencing hearing because apologies for crimes are understood as an admission of guilt. If the defendant had not already apologized earlier, the ambiguity of the defendant’s words could have significant legal ramifications if she sought to appeal her sentence or to claim that her guilty plea was illegal.

As the above example illustrates, the exclusion of meaning that comes from paralinguistic channels can result in misleading and inaccurate transcripts. (This is one reason why more and more police departments are video-recording confessions and witness statements.) If a written record is to be made of a proceeding, it should preserve the significant paralinguistic elements of communication. (Following the approach advocated by Du Bois 2006, one can do this with varying amounts of detail. For example, the beginning and ending of crying-while-talking can be indicated with double angled brackets, e.g., < < sorry > >.) Relatedly, if a judge is going to use elements of a defendant’s demeanor in court to increase a sentence, the judge should be prepared to defend this decision and cite the evidence that was employed. Just as a judge’s decision based on the facts of the case can be challenged, a decision based on demeanor evidence deserves the same scrutiny.

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39. New words, new dialogues

In August 2014, OxfordDictionaries.com added numerous new words and definitions to their database, and we invited a few experts to comment on the new entries. Below, Janet Gilsdorf, President-elect of Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society, discusses anti-vax and anti-vaxxer. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford Dictionaries or Oxford University Press.

It’s beautiful, our English language — fluid and expressive, colorful and lively. And it’s changeable. New words appear all the time. Consider “selfie” (a noun), “problematical” (an adjective), and “Google” (a noun that turned into verbs.) Now we have two more: “anti-vax” and “anti-vaxxer.” (Typical of our flexible vernacular, “anti-vaxxer” is sometimes spelled with just one “x.”) I guess inventing these words was inevitable; a specific, snappy short-cut was needed when speaking about something as powerful and almost cult-like as the anti-vaccine movement and its disciples.

When we string our words together, either new ones or the old reliables, we find avenues for telling others of our joys and disappointments, our loves and hates, our passions and indifferences, our trusts and distrusts, and our fears. The words we choose are windows into our minds. Searching for the best terms to use helps us refine our thinking, decide what, exactly, we are contemplating, and what we intend to say.

Embedded in the force of the new words “anti-vax” and “anti-vaxxer” are many of the tales we like to tell: our joy in our children, our disappointment with the world; our love of independence and autonomy, our hate of things that hurt us or those important to us; our passion for coming together in groups, our indifference to the worries of strangers; our trust, fueled by hope rather than evidence, in whatever nutty things may sooth our anxieties, our distrust in our sometimes hard-to-understand scientific, medical, and public health systems; and, of course, our fears.

Fear is usually a one-sided view. It is blinding, so that in the heat of the moment we aren’t distracted by nonsense (the muddy foot prints on the floor, the lawn that needs mowing) and can focus on the crisis at hand. Unfortunately, fear may also prevent us from seeing useful things just beyond the most immediate (the helping hands that may look like claws, the alternatives that, in the end, are better).

Image credit: Vaccination. © Sage78 via iStockphoto. - See more at: http://blog.oup.com/2014/04/vaccines-world-immunization-week/#sthash.9VlGEhJM.dpuf
Image credit: Vaccination. © Sage78 via iStockphoto.

For the anti-vax group, fear is the gripping terror that awful things will happen from a jab (aka shot, stick, poke). Of course, it isn’t the jab that’s the problem. Needles through the skin, after all, deliver medicines to cure all manner of illnesses. For anti-vaxxers, the fear is about the immunization materials delivered by the jab. They dread the vaccine antigens, the molecules (i.e. pieces of microbes-made-safe) that cause our bodies to think we have encountered a bad germ so we will mount a strong immune response designed to neutralize that bad germ. What happens after a person receives a vaccine is, in effect, identical to what happens after we recover from a cold or the flu — or anthrax, smallpox, or possibly ebola (if they don’t kill us first). Our blood is subsequently armed with protective immune cells and antibodies so we don’t get infected with that specific virus or bacterium again. Same for measles, polio, or chicken-pox. If we either get those diseases (which can be bad) or the vaccines to prevent them (which is good), our immune system can effectively combat these viruses in future encounters and prevent infections.

So what should we do with our new words? We can use them to express our thoughts about people who haven’t yet seen the value of vaccines. Hopefully, these new words will lead to constructive dialogues rather than attacks. Besides being incredibly valuable, words are among the most vicious weapons we have and we must find ways to use them responsibly.

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40. An etymological journey paved with excellent intentions

As can be guessed from the above title, my today’s subject is the derivation of the word road. The history of road has some interest not only because a word that looks so easy for analysis has an involved and, one can say, unsolved etymology but also because it shows how the best scholars walk in circles, return to the same conclusions, find drawbacks in what was believed to be solid arguments, and end up saying: “Origin unknown (uncertain).” The public should know about the effort it takes to recover the past of the words we use. I am acutely aware of the knots language historians have to untie and of most people’s ignorance of the labor this task entails. In a grant application submitted to a central agency ten or so years ago, I promised to elucidate (rather than solve!) the etymology of several hundred English words. One of the referees divided the requested number of dollars by the number of words and wrote an indignant comment about the burden I expected taxpayers to carry (in financial matters, suffering taxpayers are always invoked: they are an equivalent of women and children in descriptions of war; those who don’t pay taxes and men do not really matter). Needless to say, my application was rejected, the taxpayers escaped with a whole skin, and the light remained under the bushel I keep in my office. My critic probably had something to do with linguistics, for otherwise he would not have been invited to the panel. In light of that information I am happy to report that today’s post will cost taxpayers absolutely nothing.

According to the original idea, road developed from Old Engl. rad “riding.” Its vowel was long, that is, similar to a in Modern Engl. spa. Rad belonged with ridan “to ride,” whose long i (a vowel like ee in Modern Engl. fee) alternated with long a by a rule. In the past, roads existed for riding on horseback, and people distinguished between “a road” and “a footpath.” But this seemingly self-evident etymology has to overcome a formidable obstacle: in Standard English, the noun road acquired its present-day meaning late (one can say very late). It was new or perhaps unknown even to Shakespeare. A Shakespeare glossary lists the following senses of road in his plays: “journey on horseback,” “hostile incursion, raid,” “roadstead,” and “highway” (“roadstead,” that is, “harbor,” needn’t surprise us, for ships were said to ride at anchor.) “Highway” appears as the last of the four senses because it is the rarest, but, as we will see, there is a string attached even to such a cautious statement. Raid is the Scots version of road (“long a,” mentioned above, developed differently in the south and the north; hence the doublets). In sum, road used to mean “raid” and “riding.” When English speakers needed to refer to a road, they said way, as, for example, in the Authorized Version of the Bible.

No disquisition, however learned, will answer in a fully convincing manner why about 250 years ago road partly replaced way. But there have been attempts to overthrow even the basic statement. Perhaps, it was proposed, road does not go back to Old. Engl. rad, with its long vowel! This heretical suggestion was first put forward in 1888 by Oxford Professor of Anglo-Saxon John Earle. In his opinion, the story began with rod “clearing.” The word has not made it into the Standard, but we still rid our houses of vermin and get rid of old junk. Rid is related to Old Engl. rod.

Earle’s command of Old English was excellent, but he did not care much about phonetic niceties. In his opinion, if meanings show that certain words are allied, phoneticians should explain why something has gone wrong in their domain rather than dismissing an otherwise persuasive conclusion as invalid. This type of reasoning cut no ice with the etymologists of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Nor does it thrill modern researchers, even though at all times there have been serious scholars who refused to bow to the tyranny of so-called phonetic laws. Such mavericks face a great difficulty, for, if we allow ourselves to be guided by similarity of meaning in disregard of established sound correspondences, we may return to the fantasies of medieval etymology. Earle tried to posit long o in rod, though not because he had proof of its length but because he needed it to be long. A. L. Mayhew, whom I mentioned in the post on qualm, and Skeat dismissed the rod-road etymology as not worthy of discussion. Surprisingly, it was revived ten years ago (without reference to Earle), now buttressed by phonetic arguments. It appears that rod with a long vowel did exist, but, more probably, its length was due to a later process. In any case, Earle would have been thrilled. I have said more than once that etymology is a myth of eternal return.

Before 1917, crowds of prisoners in shackles marched along the Vladimir Highway, known as Vladimirka, to the place of their exile in Siberia. (Isaak Levitan. The Vladimirka (1892). Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Before 1917, crowds of prisoners in shackles marched along the Vladimir Highway, known as Vladimirka, to the place of their exile in Siberia. (Isaak Levitan. The Vladimirka (1892). Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Whatever the origin of road, we still wonder why its modern sense emerged so late. In 1934, this question was the subject of a lively exchange in the pages of The Times Literary Supplement. In response to that discussion the German scholar Max Deutschbein showed that Shakespeare never used road “way” without making it clear what he meant. Once he used the compound roadway. Elsewhere some road is followed by as common as the way between…. We read about the even road of a blank verse, easy roads (for riding), and a thievish living on the common road. The word way helps us understand what is meant in You know the very road (= “journey”: OED) into his kindness, / and cannot lose your way (Coriolanus). Deutschbein concluded that Shakespeare hardly knew our sense of road.

This sense had become universally understood only by the sixteen-seventies (Shakespeare died in 1616), and Milton (1608-1624) used it “unapologetically.” So how did it arise? Extraneous influences—Scottish and Irish—have often been considered; the arguments for their role are thin. The anonymous initiator of the discussion in The Times Literary Supplement (I am sure the author’s name is known) spun a wonderful yarn about how Shakespeare met a group of Scotsmen, learned something about the Scots, and picked up a new word. The story is clever but not particularly trustworthy. The Irish connection is even less likely. Deutschbein noted that, according to the OED, the compound roadway reached the peak of its popularity in the seventeenth century and disappeared once road established itself. Is it possible that this is where we should look for the solution of the riddle? Etymological riddles are always hard, while solutions are usually simple, and the simpler they are, the higher the chance that they are correct.

No citations for the noun roadway antedating 1600 have been found. We don’t know how early in the sixteenth century it arose, but in this case an exact date is of little consequence. The OED suggests that the earliest meaning of roadway was “riding way,” and so it must have been. At some time, speakers probably reinterpreted this noun as a tautological compound (which it was not), a word like pathway, apparently, a sixteenth-century coinage, and many others like them. Words having this meaning are prone to be made up of two near-synonyms (way-way, road-road, path-path); see my old post on such compounds. Roadway could have continued its existence for centuries, but at some time the second element was dumped as superfluous. For a relatively short period road coexisted with way as its equal partner, but then they divided their spheres of influence: road began to refer to physical reality and way to more abstract situations. We speak of impassable roads and road maps, as opposed to the way of all flesh and ways and means committees. Extraneous influences were not needed for such a process to happen.

I often complain that the scholarly literature on some words is meager. By contrast, the literature on road is extensive. A long paper devoted to it was published as recently as a year ago, whence an extremely detailed etymological introduction to the entry road in the OED online. Even if I failed to discern the complexity of the problem and untie or cut the knot, my intentions were good.

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41. Redundant Words

Redundant words are so common they are hard to recognize. Redundancies use two words when one will do.  They are found in newspapers, broadcasts, and magazine articles.

A character would use redundancies in conversation. Few speak that formally.

Search for them all. Choose which ones to keep and which to kill.

Cutting some of them feels like amputating a limb. 

Yes, this rule is frequently broken . You will find redundancies everywhere. You decide.

Here is a short list to get you started:

  • absolutely essential
  • absolutely perfect
  • absolutely positive
  • actual fact
  • advance forward
  • advance planning
  • advance preview
  • advance reservations
  • advance warning
  • add an additional
  • add up
  • added bonus
  • affirmative yes
  • aid and abet
  • all-time record
  • alternative choice
  • A.M. in the morning
  • and etc.
  • anonymous stranger
  • annual anniversary
  • armed gunman
  • artificial prosthesis
  • ascend up
  • ask the question
  • assemble together
  • attach together
  • ATM machine
  • autobiography of his/her own life



REVISION TIPS

Do a search using [Control] [F] for redundant words. Eliminate one of the redundant words.
If you keep a redundancy, use it sparingly and for effect.
If you disagree with this rule, ignore it. Make sure your editor and agent feel the same way.

 For a larger list of some common redundancies and other revision layers, pick up a copy of: 


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42. Like We Say Back Home, Vol. 3

Martha Rebecca Johnston Alexander

In the past couple years my mom has taught me and reminded me of a few more of my Texan granny’s favorite expressions. Some highlights:

  • Quiet as a little mouse peeing on cotton. (Usually used when someone reacts with stunned silence to some sort of diatribe or revelation.)
  • You can’t get all your coons up one tree. (You can’t get everything you want.)
  • Told them how the cows ate the cabbage. (Describes a serious dressing-down.)
  • Pitiful as a sick kitten on a hot rock. (Depressed and listless, very sympathetically so.)
  • She got her tail up over her back. (In preparation to sting, like a scorpion. My grandmother called scorpions “stinging lizards.”)
  • Happy as a dead pig in the sunshine. (In blissful unawareness of some terrible or embarrassing thing.)
  • Put that in your pipe and smoke it. (A phrase my grandmother often used when schooling my father on the ways of my mom, i.e., the intractability of Texan women in general.)
A lot of my favorites are in the prior installments, here and here. The second one is also a goldmine of contributions from readers. 

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43. Quebec French and the question of identity

By Anne-Laure Jousse

 

A brief history of the French language in Quebec

The French language came to North America with the first French settlers in the 17th century. French and British forces had long been at war before the final victory of Britain in the mid 18th century; after the loss of New France, France lost contact with its settlers and Quebec French became isolated from European French. The two languages evolved in different ways, leaving Quebec French with older forms of pronunciation and expressions that later died out in France. Until the emergence of radio and television broadcasting, French Canadian society had been completely dominated by English, which was the language of the ruling class.

During the 1960s, Quebec went through a period of intense change called the Révolution tranquille (Quiet Revolution). This period marked the transition from political conservatism and sociocultural immobility, mainly orchestrated by the Roman Catholic Church, to a modern era characterized by major social development and an increase of Quebecois control over the province’s economy. The Quiet Revolution was also characterized by the affirmation of the Quebecois identity, closely related to their linguistic affirmation.

The French language spoken in Quebec was no longer a simple linguistic matter, but became an ideological, political, academic, and economic issue — the symbol of a society willing to get rid of its alienated minority status. The modernization of Quebec society had repercussions on the language itself, which was seen by the francophone elite as underdeveloped and corrupted by its contact with English. Laws were voted to promote French as the only official language of the province of Quebec, and plans to replace pervasive English terminology were supported by the Office Québécois de la Langue Française. At the same time, an eager desire to standardize and to improve Quebec French in line with the Metropolitan French norm was observed. This drew criticism from a lot of Quebecois, who claimed that their language was an integral part of their identity. Today, even if the status of Quebec French still remains slightly ambiguous, the Quebecois have mainly lost their feeling of inferiority toward Metropolitan French. The media now uses what is called ‘standard Quebec French’, and people are proud of its deviations from European French.

Quebec-French

Quebec French and Metropolitan French

There are several types of differences between Metropolitan French (MF) and Quebec French (QF). Besides phonetic differences that will not be addressed here, the more obvious ones are lexical. Here is an overview of what they look like.

There are plenty of words in QF that are falling out of use or sound old-fashioned in MF: for example, soulier (shoe) rather than chaussure in MF, bas (socks) instead of chaussette in MF. We can also observe some small discrepancies that can cause confusion, since word meanings are not always completely equivalent. For example, “birthday” is anniversaire in MF but more commonly fête in QF, while fête in MF (meaning “party”) is party in QF (pronounced as [paʀte]). Thus, the expression fête d’anniversaire (“birthday party”) is usually party de fête in QF. In QF foulard is the equivalent of both écharpe (scarf) and foulard (light scarf) in MF. Where MF requires a precise word for each relationship, the informal word chum in QF can encompass husband, common-law husband, and boyfriend.

But differences between these two forms of French go beyond the lexical level. Although some Quebecois tend to deny it, there are also some syntactic differences. One can observe the use of prepositions in QF where MF would not allow them. For instance, in QF il vient à tous les soirs (he comes every night) is il vient tous les soirs in MF. Twenty years ago, the verb aider (to help) was still a transitive verb with an indirect object: aider à quelqu’un instead of aider quelqu’un.

While the use of the interrogative pronoun in a declarative sentence such as je ne sais pas qu’est ce qu‘il faut faire is seen as an uneducated mistake in MF (where people say je ne sais pas ce qu’il faut faire), this form is commonly used in QF.

Finally, more surprisingly, morphological differences can be noticed between the two languages. While trampoline is a feminine noun in QF, it is a masculine one in MF. On the contrary, moustiquaire (mosquito net) is a feminine noun in MF and a masculine one in QF. Cash machine is translated as distributeur de billets in MF and distributrice de billets in QF. Some recent linguistic borrowings have different genders too: feta and mozzarella are feminine nouns in MF but masculine ones in QF; job is a masculine noun in MF and a feminine one in QF, and so forth. One can also observe some nouns with a floating gender in QF, for instance, sandwich is either feminine or masculine.

Quebec French and English

About two thirds of Montreal’s population are francophones, most of whom are bilingual. However, in Quebec City and rural Quebec, even the youngest aren’t necessarily fluent in English. Some people do not have any knowledge of English whatsoever. Yet, since the province of Quebec is surrounded by English-speaking regions (i.e. the rest of Canada and the United States), even if people fiercely fight it, QF is inevitably and strongly influenced by the English language. Some Anglicisms are so commonly used that they have become assimilated into the particularities of QF: for example, tomber en amour literally means “to fall in love,” and prendre une marche is literally “to take a walk.” There are a lot of mispronounced English words that have been introduced to QF, such as gagne from gang, bécosse (toilet) from back house, bobépine from bobby pin, paparmanne from peppermint, and pinotte from peanut.

One can observe some Anglicisms that are not the same as those in MF. We find in QF être conservateur (to be conservative), faire le party (to party), and avoir une date avec quelqu’un (to have a date with someone), where in MF one would say être prudent, faire la fête, and avoir un rendez-vous (galant). Instead of week-end, parking, and email commonly used in MF, QF uses fin de semaine, stationnement, and courriel respectively.

Even if the Office Québécois de la Langue Française has done a very good job of promoting French terminology in many technical areas, some of them are still dominated by English. For instance, a lot of Quebecois, even the non-English speakers, do not know the French equivalent for “windshield,” “muffler,” or “clutch.”

In asserting itself, Quebec French faces two issues: it stands between the ongoing invasion of English and the will to fight against it, and also between a desire to conform itself to Metropolitan French and to claim proudly its own particularities. Over the years, Quebec French has moved from a very popular English-mixed dialect to a valuable distinct and recognized French language. The Quebecois like to consider it as a true language and are eager to protect it, since it guarantees the liveliness of their particular culture in an English-speaking North America.

This article originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Anne-Laure Jousse works as a lexicographer for Druide Informatique Inc. (Antidote) in Montreal after having studied French linguistics at both Paris VII and University of Montreal.

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44. Colloquialisms


Colloquialisms are words or phrases that we use in conversation or informal situations. 

An example would be the different ways people refer to carbonated beverages: cola, soda, soda pop, and pop.

Another example is cooked batter: pancake, griddle cake, flap jack, Johnny cake, and short stack.

They can be words (gonna), phrases (hang on), or aphorisms (when the going gets tough, the tough get going).

A few examples of colloquialisms include: 

  • bat out of hell 
  • beating a dead horse 
  • bigger than a barn 
  • bump on a log 
  • couldn't care less 
  • crazy as a loon 
  • deader than a doornail 
  • dumb as stump 
  • drunk as a monkey 
  • happy as a pig in shit 
  • hell for leather 
  • hotter than hell 
  • knocked into next week 
  • like flies on shit 
  • like white on rice 
  • meaner than a snake 
  • neat as a pin 
  • not the brightest crayon 
  • older than dirt 
  • one fry short of a happy meal 
  • piece of cake 
  • shut your pie hole 
  • slow as molasses 
  • tighter than a banjo string 
Colloquialism, clichés, and slang are close cousins and hard to differentiate. In general, colloquialisms are limited to a specific geographic location (the southern states) and slang is more widespread (America).

It isn't important for the sake of revision to worry about the finer points of distinction. We aren't in English class anymore. The important point is to use them wisely.

Both colloquialisms and slang can be used as a dialogue plant and payoff: a phrase repeated two or three times at critical points in the story between two characters.


Creating unique colloquialisms and slang for your fantasy world can add a dash of spice. Don't over do it.

Getting the historical slang wrong will earn you e-mails pointing out that the phrase was not used until _____. Nitpickers love this stuff.

Both can add color to your prose and dialogue. Sprinkled throughout a manuscript, they are fine. A few sprinkled in a paragraph is considered overdoing it.



Revision Tips
? Turn on the Clichés, Colloquialisms, and Jargon option in the toolbox in Word. These items will be marked for you. As you read through your draft, decide which to keep and which to kill. Have you used the cliché intentionally?
? Can you twist it or make it fresh?
? Have you committed colloquialism abuse? Should you trim them?
? Does the languge fit the time and place?
? Does the languge fit the background and personality of the character uttering it?

For all of the revision tips on colloquialisms and other revision layers, pick up a copy of: 

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45. How I created the languages of Dothraki and Valyrian for Game of Thrones

By David J. Peterson


My name is David Peterson, and I’m a conlanger. “What’s a conlanger,” you may ask? Thanks to the recent addition of the word “conlang” to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), I can now say, “Look it up!” But to save you the trouble, a conlanger is a constructed language (or conlang) maker — i.e. one who creates languages.

Language creation has been around since at least the 12th century, when the German abbess Hildegard von Bingen created her Lingua Ignota — Latin for “hidden language” — an invented vocabulary she used for writing hymns. In the centuries that followed, philosophers like Leibniz and John Wilkins would create languages that were intended to serve as grand classification systems, and idealists like L. L. Zamenhof would create languages intended to simplify international communication. All these systems focused on the basic utility of language — its ability to encode and convey meaning. That would change in the 20th century.

Tolkien: the father of modern conlanging

Before crafting the tales of Middle-Earth, J. R. R. Tolkien was a conlanger. Unlike the many known to history who came before him, though, Tolkien created languages for the pure joy of it. Professionally, he became a philologist, but he continued to work on his own languages, eventually creating his famous Lord of the Rings series as an extension of the linguistic legendarium he’d been crafting for many years. Though his written works would become more famous than his linguistic creations, his conlangs, in particular Sindarin and Quenya, would go on to inspire new generations of conlangers throughout the rest of the 20th century.

Due to the general obscurity of the practice, many conlangers remained unknown to each other until the early 1990s, when home internet use started to become more and more common. The first dedicated meeting place for conlangers, virtual or otherwise, was the Conlang Listserv (an online mailing list). Some list members came out of interest in Tolkien’s languages, as well as other large projects, like Esperanto or Lojban, but the majority came to discuss their own work, and to meet and learn from others who also created languages.

Since the founding of the original Conlang Listserv, many other meeting places have sprung up online, and through a couple of decades of regular conlanger interaction, the practice of conlanging has evolved.

Game of Thrones dragon

Conlang typology

Conlangs have been separated into different types since at least the 19th century. First came the philosophical languages, as discussed, then the auxiliary languages like Esperanto (also known as auxlangs), but with Tolkien emerged a new type of language: the artistic language, or artlang. At its most basic, an artlang is a conlang created for artistic purposes, but that broad definition includes many wildly divergent languages (compare Denis Moskowitz’s Rikchik to Sylvia Sotomayor’s Kēlen). Finer-grained distinctions became necessary as the community grew, and so emerged the naturalistic conlang.

This is where the languages of HBO’s Game of Thrones and Syfy’s Defiance come in. The languages I’ve created for the shows I work on come out of the naturalist tradition. The goal with a naturalistic conlang is to create a language that’s as realistic as possible. The realism of a language is grounded in the reality (fictional or otherwise) of its speakers. If the speakers are more or less human (or humanoid) and are intended to be portrayed in a realistic fashion, then their language should be as similar as possible to a natural language (i.e. a language that exists here on Earth, like Spanish, Tagalog, or Cham).

The natural languages we speak are large, but also redundant and imperfect in a uniquely human way. Conlangers have gotten pretty good at emulating them over the years, usually employing one of two different approaches. The first, which I call the façade method, is to create a language that looks like a modern natural language by replicating the various features of a modern natural language. Thus, if English has irregular plurals, such as mouse~mice, then the conlang will have irregular plurals, too, by targeting certain nouns and making their plurals irregular in some way.

The historical method: making sense of irregular plurals in Valyrian

Game of Thrones DaenerysA contrasting approach is the method that Tolkien pioneered called the historical method. With the historical method, an ancestor language called a proto-language is created, and the desired language is evolved from it, via simulated linguistic evolution. The process takes a lot longer, but in some ways it’s simpler, since irregularities will naturally emerge, rather than having to be created by hand. For example, in Game of Thrones, the High Valyrian language Daenerys speaks differs from the Low Valyrian the residents of Slaver’s Bay speak. In fact, the latter evolved from the former. As the language evolved, it produced some natural irregularities. Consider the following nouns and their plurals from the Valyrian spoken in Slaver’s Bay:

hubre “goat” hubres “goats”
dare “queen” dari “queens”
aeske “master” aeske “masters”

Given that the singular forms all end in ‘e’, one has to say at least two of the plurals presented are irregular. But why the arbitrary differences in the plural forms? It turns out it’s because the three nouns with identical singular terminations used to have very different forms in the older language, High Valyrian, as shown below:

hobres “goat” hobresse “goats”
dāria “queen” dārī “queens”
āeksio “master” āeksia “masters”

Each of these alternations is quite regular in High Valyrian. In the simulated history, a series of sound changes which simplified the ends of words produced identical terminations for each of the three words in the singular, leaving later speakers having to memorize which have irregular plurals and which regular.

Conceptualizing time

Simulated evolution applies to both grammar and the lexicon, as well. For example, natural languages often derive terminology for abstract concepts metaphorically from terminology for concrete concepts. Time, for instance, is an abstract concept that is frequently discussed using spatial terminology. How it’s done differs from language to language. In English, events that occur later in time occur after the present (where “after” derives from “aft,” a word meaning “behind”), and events that occur earlier in time occur before the present. Thus, time is conceptualized as a being standing in the present, facing the past, with the future behind them.

In Irathient, a language I created for Syfy’s Defiance, time is conceptualized vertically, rather than horizontally. The word for “after”, in temporal terms, is shei, which derives from a word meaning “above”; “before”, on the other hand, is ur, which also means “below” or “underneath”. The general metaphor that the future is up and the past is down bears out throughout the rest of the language, where if one wanted to say “Go back to what you were saying before”, the literal Irathient translation would be “Go down to what you were saying underneath”.

Ultimately, what one hears on screen sounds and feels like a natural language, regardless of whether or not one knows the work that went on behind the scenes. Since the prop used on screen is a language, though, rather than a costume or a piece of the set, the words can be recorded and analyzed at any time. Consequently, a conlang needs to be real in a way that a throne or a 700 foot wall of ice does not.

It’s still extraordinary to me that in less than 25 years, we came from a time when many conlangers were not aware that there were other conlangers to a time where our work is able to add to the authenticity of some of the best productions the big and small screen have to offer. The addition of the word “conlang” to the OED is a fitting capper to an unbelievable quarter century.

David J. Peterson is a language creator who works on HBO’s Game of Thrones, Syfy’s Defiance, and Syfy’s Dominion. You can find him on Twitter at @Dedalvs or on Tumblr.

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Images: Game of Thrones Season 3 – Dragon Shadow Wallpaper and Game of Thrones Season 3 - Daenerys Wallpaper. ©2014 Home Box Office, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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46. Monthly etymology gleanings for July 2014

By Anatoly Liberman


Since I’ll be out of town at the end of July, I was not sure I would be able to write these “gleanings.” But the questions have been many, and I could answer some of them ahead of time.

Autumn: its etymology

Our correspondent wonders whether the Latin word from which English, via French, has autumn, could be identified with the name of the Egyptian god Autun. The Romans derived the word autumnus, which was both an adjective (“autumnal”) and a noun (“autumn”), from augere “to increase.” This verb’s perfect participle is auctus “rich (“autumn as a rich season”). The Roman derivation, though not implausible, looks like a tribute to folk etymology. A more serious conjecture allies autumn to the Germanic root aud-, as in Gothic aud-ags “blessed” (in the related languages, also “rich”). But, more probably, Latin autumnus goes back to Etruscan. The main argument for the Etruscan origin is the resemblance of autumnus to Vertumnus, the name of a seasonal deity (or so it seems), about whom little is known besides the tale of his seduction, in the shape of an old woman, of Pomona, as told by Ovid. Vertumnus, or Vortumnus, may be a Latinized form of an Etruscan name. A definite conclusion about autumnus is hardly possible, even though some sources, while tracing this word to Etruscan, add “without doubt.” The Egyptian Autun was a creation god and the god of the setting sun, so that his connection with autumn is remote at best. Nor do we have any evidence that Autun had a cult in Ancient Rome. Everything is so uncertain here that the origin of autumnus must needs remain unknown. In my opinion, the Egyptian hypothesis holds out little promise.

Vertumnus seducing Pomona in the shape of an old woman. (Pomona by Frans de Vriendt "Floris" (Konstnär, 1518-1570) Antwerpen, Belgien, Hallwyl Museum, Photo by Jens Mohr, via Wikimedia Commons)

Vertumnus seducing Pomona in the shape of an old woman. (Pomona by Frans de Vriendt “Floris” (Konstnär, 1518-1570) Antwerpen, Belgien, Hallwyl Museum, Photo by Jens Mohr, via Wikimedia Commons)

The origin of so long

I received an interesting letter from Mr. Paul Nance. He writes about so long:

“It seems the kind of expression that should have derived from some fuller social nicety, such as I regret that it will be so long before we meet again or the like, but no one has proposed a clear antecedent. An oddity is its sudden appearance in the early nineteenth century; there are only a handful of sightings before Walt Whitman’s use of it in a poem (including the title) in the 1860-1861 edition of Leaves of Grass. I can, by the way, offer an antedating to the OED citations: so, good bye, so long in the story ‘Cruise of a Guinean Man’. Knickerbocker: New York (Monthly Magazine 5, February 1835, p. 105; available on Google Books). Given the lack of a fuller antecedent, suggestions as to its origin all propose a borrowing from another language. Does this seem reasonable to you?”

Mr. Nance was kind enough to append two articles (by Alan S. Kaye and Joachim Grzega) on so long, both of which I had in my folders but have not reread since 2004 and 2005, when I found and copied them. Grzega’s contribution is especially detailed. My database contains only one more tiny comment on so long by Frank Penny: “About twenty years ago I was informed that it [the expression so long] is allied to Samuel Pepys’s expression so home, and should be written so along or so ’long, meaning that the person using the expression must go his way” (Notes and Queries, Series 12, vol. IX, 1921, p. 419). The group so home does turn up in the Diary more than once, but no citation I could find looks like a formula. Perhaps Stephen Goranson will ferret it out. In any case, so long looks like an Americanism, and it is unlikely that such a popular phrase should have remained dormant in texts for almost two centuries.

Be that as it may, I agree with Mr. Nance that a formula of this type probably arose in civil conversation. The numerous attempts to find a foreign source for it carry little conviction. Norwegian does have an almost identical phrase, but, since its antecedents are unknown, it may have been borrowed from English. I suspect (a favorite turn of speech by old etymologists) that so long is indeed a curtailed version of a once more comprehensible parting formula, unless it belongs with the likes of for auld lang sine. It may have been brought to the New World from England or Scotland and later abbreviated and reinterpreted.

“Heavy rain” in languages other than English

Once I wrote a post titled “When it rains, it does not necessarily pour.” There I mentioned many German and Swedish idioms like it is raining cats and dogs, and, rather than recycling that text, will refer our old correspondent Mr. John Larsson to it.

Ukraine and Baltic place names

The comment on this matter was welcome. In my response, I preferred not to talk about the things alien to me, but I wondered whether the Latvian place name could be of Slavic origin. That is why I said cautiously: “If this is a native Latvian word…” The question, as I understand, remains unanswered, but the suggestion is tempting. And yes, of course, Serb/Croat Krajna is an exact counterpart of Ukraina, only without a prefix. In Russian, stress falls on i; in Ukrainian, I think, the first a is stressed. The same holds for the derived adjectives: ukrainskii ~ ukrainskii. Pushkin said ukrainskaia (feminine).

Slough, sloo, and the rest

Many thanks to those who informed me about their pronunciation of slough “mire.” It was new to me that the surname Slough is pronounced differently in England and the United States. I also received a question about the history of slew. The past tense of slay (Old Engl. slahan) was sloh (with a long vowel), and this form developed like scoh “shoe,” though the verb vacillated between the 6th and the 7th class. The fact that slew and shoe have such dissimilar written forms is due to the vagaries of English spelling. One can think of too, who, you, group, fruit, cruise, rheum, truth, and true, which have the same vowel as slew. In addition, consider Bruin and ruin, which look deceptively like fruit, and add manoeuver for good measure. A mild spelling reform looks like a good idea, doesn’t it?

The pronunciation of February

In one of the letters I received, the writer expresses her indignation that some people insist on sounding the first r in February. Everybody, she asserts, says Febyooary. In such matters, everybody is a dangerous word (as we will also see from the next item). All of us tend to think that what we say is the only correct norm. Words with the succession r…r tend to lose one of them. Yet library is more often pronounced with both, and Drury, brewery, and prurient have withstood the tendency. February has changed its form many times. Thus, long ago feverer (from Old French) became feverel (possibly under the influence of averel “April”). In the older language of New England, January and February turned into Janry and Febry. However powerful the phonetic forces may have been in affecting the pronunciation of February, of great importance was also the fact that the names of the months often occur in enumeration. Without the first r, January and February rhyme. A similar situation is well-known from the etymology of some numerals. Although the pronunciation Febyooary is equally common on both sides of the Atlantic and is recognized as standard throughout the English-speaking world, not “everybody” has accepted it. The consonant b in February is due to the Latinization of the French etymon (late Latin februarius).

Who versus whom

Discussion of these pronouns lost all interest long ago, because the confusion of who and whom and the defeat of whom in American English go back to old days. Yet I am not sure that what I said about the educated norm is “nonsense.” Who will marry our son? Whom will our son marry? Is it “nonsense” to distinguish them, and should (or only can) it be who in both cases? Despite the rebuke, I believe that even in Modern American English the woman who we visited won’t suffer if who is replaced with whom. But, unlike my opponent, I admit that tastes differ.

Wrap

Another question I received was about the origin of the verb wrap. This is a rather long story, and I decided to devote a special post to it in the foreseeable future.

PS. I notice that of the two questions asked by our correspondent last month only copacetic attracted some attention (read Stephen Goranson’s response). But what about hubba hubba?

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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47. Why metaphor matters

By James Grant


Plato famously said that there is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry. But with respect to one aspect of poetry, namely metaphor, many contemporary philosophers have made peace with the poets. In their view, we need metaphor. Without it, many truths would be inexpressible and unknowable. For example, we cannot describe feelings and sensations adequately without it. Take Gerard Manley Hopkins’s exceptionally powerful metaphor of despair:

selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless,
thoughts against thoughts in groans grind.

How else could precisely this kind of mood be expressed? Describing how things appear to our senses is also thought to require metaphor, as when we speak of the silken sound of a harp, the warm colours of a Titian, and the bold or jolly flavour of a wine.  Science advances by the use of metaphors – of the mind as a computer, of electricity as a current, or of the atom as a solar system. And metaphysical and religious truths are often thought to be inexpressible in literal language. Plato condemned poets for claiming to provide knowledge they did not have. But if these philosophers are right, there is at least one poetic use of language that is needed for the communication of many truths.

In my view, however, this is the wrong way to defend the value of metaphor. Comparisons may well be indispensable for communication in many situations. We convey the unfamiliar by likening it to the familiar. But many hold that it is specifically metaphor – and no other kind of comparison – that is indispensable. Metaphor tells us things the words ‘like’ or ‘as’ never could. If true, this would be fascinating. It would reveal the limits of what is expressible in literal language. But no one has come close to giving a good argument for it. And in any case, metaphor does not have to be an indispensable means to knowledge in order to be as valuable as we take it to be.

Metaphor may not tell us anything that couldn’t be expressed by other means. But good metaphors have many other effects on readers than making them grasp some bit of information, and these are often precisely the effects the metaphor-user wants to have. There is far more to the effective use of language than transmitting information. My particular interest is in how art critics use metaphor to help us appreciate paintings, architecture, music, and other artworks. There are many reasons why metaphor matters, but art criticism reveals two reasons of particular importance.

735px-Hermann_Herzog_-_Venetian_canal

Take this passage from John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice. Ruskin describes arriving in Venice by boat and seeing ‘the long ranges of columned palaces,—each with its black boat moored at the portal,—each with its image cast down, beneath its feet, upon that green pavement which every breeze broke into new fantasies of rich tessellation’, and observing how ‘the front of the Ducal palace, flushed with its sanguine veins, looks to the snowy dome of Our Lady of Salvation’.

One thing Ruskin’s metaphors do is describe the waters of Venice and the Ducal palace at an extraordinary level of specificity. There are many ways water looks when breezes blow across its surface. There are fewer ways it looks when breezes blow across its surface and make it look like something broken into many pieces. And there are still fewer ways it looks when breezes blow across its surface and make it look like something broken into pieces forming a rich mosaic with the colours of Venetian palaces and a greenish tint. Ruskin’s metaphor communicates that the waters of Venice look like that. The metaphor of the Ducal palace as ‘flushed with its sanguine veins’ likewise narrows the possible appearances considerably. Characterizing appearances very specifically is of particular use to art critics, as they often want to articulate the specific appearance an artwork presents.

A second thing metaphors like Ruskin’s do is cause readers to imagine seeing what he describes. We naturally tend to picture the palace or the water on hearing Ruskin’s metaphor. This function of metaphor has often been noted: George Orwell, for instance, writes that ‘a newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image’.

Why do novel metaphors evoke images? Precisely because they are novel uses of words. To understand them, we cannot rely on our knowledge of the literal meanings of the words alone. We often have to employ imagination. To understand Ruskin’s metaphor, we try to imagine seeing water that looks like a broken mosaic. If we manage this, we know the kind of look that he is attributing to the water.

Imagining a thing is often needed to appreciate that thing. Knowing facts about it is often not enough by itself. Accurately imagining Hopkins’s despondency, or the experience of arriving in Venice by boat, gives us some appreciation of these experiences. By enabling us to imagine accurately and specifically, metaphor is exceptionally well suited to enhancing our appreciation of what it describes.

James Grant is a Tutorial Fellow in Philosophy at Exeter College, Oxford. He is the author of The Critical Imagination.

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Image credit: Hermann Herzog: Venetian canal, by Bonhams. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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48. There are more ways than one to be thunderstruck

By Anatoly Liberman


On 20 November 2013, I discussed the verbs astonish, astound, and stun. Whatever the value of that discussion, it had a truly wonderful picture of a stunned cat and an ironic comment by Peter Maher on the use of the word stunning. While rereading that short essay, I decided that I had not done justice to the third verb of the series (stun) and left out of discussion a few other items worthy of consideration. The interested readers may look upon this post as Part 2, a continuation of the early one.

Astonish and astound, despite the troublesome suffix -ish in the first of them and final -d in the second, are close cognates. Both go back to a Romance form reconstructed as ex-tonare. Latin tonare meant “to thunder”; tone, intone, and tonality contain the same root. To quote Ernest Weekley, “Some metaphors are easy to track. It does not require much philological knowledge to see that astonish, astound, and stun all contain the idea of ‘thunder-striking’, Vulgar Latin *ex-tonare.” (The asterisk designates an unattested form reconstructed by linguists.) Those lines saw the light in 1913. A century later “philological knowledge” has reached such a stage among the so-called general public that people’s readiness to draw any conclusions about the history of language should be taken with caution. But as regards the content, Weekley was right: the idea behind astonish ~ astound is indeed “thunderstruck.”

Thor, the thunder god   (Bronzestatue „Christ or Þor“ aus dem isländischen Nationalmuseum, Photo by L3u, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Thor, the thunder god (Bronzestatue „Christ or Þor“ aus dem isländischen Nationalmuseum, Photo by L3u, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Weekley did not explain how a-s-toun- and thun-der are related.  The hyphenation above shows that a- is a prefix. The root stoun- has a diphthong because the original vowel was long. Likewise, down, house, now, and many other words with ou (ow) had “long u” (the vowel of poo) in Middle English. The change is regular. Initial s- in stoun- is what is left of the prefix ex-; Old French already had estoner (Modern French lost even the last crumb: étonner). A Germanic correspondence of Latin t is th, as in tres ~ three, pater ~ father, and so forth; hence thunder (d has no claim to antiquity). All this is trivial. However, there are two suspicious details in our story: German staunen “to be amazed” and Engl. stun.

In my 2013 post, I followed old sources and called staunen a respectable relative of astonish and stun. However, its respectability and even relatedness to the English group has been rejected by modern scholars, so that an explanation is in order. (I am “astonished” that no one offered a correction. Usually the slightest misstep on my part—real or imaginary—arouses immediate protest.) Staunen, a verb borrowed by the Standard from Swiss German, originally meant “to stare” and has been compared with several words like stare that have nothing to do with thunder. “Stare; look dreamily” yielded, rather unexpectedly, the modern sense “to be amazed.” The recorded history of staunen “to be amazed” and erstaunen “amaze” cannot be questioned, but their etymology looks a bit strained, and I wonder whether some foreign influence could contribute to the similarity between astound and staunen.

A much thornier question concerns the history of Engl. stun. Old English had the verb stunian “crash, resound, roar; impinge; dash.” It looks like a perfect etymon of stun. Skeat thought so at the beginning of his etymological career and never changed his opinion. He compared stunian with a group of words meaning “to groan”: Icelandic stynja, Dutch stenen, German stöhnen, and their cognates elsewhere. Those are almost certainly related to thunder. Apparently, the congeners of tonare did not always denote a great amount of din.

The presence of s- in stenen and the rest is not a problem. This strange sound is like a barnacle: it attaches itself to the first consonant of numerous roots, though neither its function nor its origin has been explained in a satisfactory way. Such a good researcher as Francis A. Wood even mocked those who believed in its existence. Only a good name for this “parasite” exists (s mobile), and it has become a recognized linguistic term. S mobile disregards linguistic borders: doublets abound in the same language, as well as in closely and remotely related languages and outside it. For instance, the German for sneeze is niesen. Similar examples can be cited by the hundred.

This is not a phenomenon that happens only in old languages: in modern dialects, such doublets are also common. That is why some scholars who, in the past, tried to discover the origin of the word slang believed that they were dealing with French langue and s mobile; compare the modern jocular blend slanguage. (A convincing etymology of slang, which does not depend on s mobile, has been known for more than a hundred years, but dictionaries are unaware—fiction writers and journalists like to say blissfully unaware—of this fact.) Consequently, s-tun can be related to thunder—that is, if we recognize the existence of the capricious s mobile, an entity of the type “now you see it, now you don’t.”

However, stun “daze, render unconscious” surfaced in texts only in the early fourteenth century, while stunian “crash, etc.” does not seem to have survived into Middle English; only stonien “make a noise” has been recorded. The first edition of the OED stated cautiously that stun goes back to Old French estoner. (This word has yet to be revised for the new edition on OED Online.) The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology gives the solution endorsed by Murray and Bradley as certain. The Century Dictionary followed Skeat but admitted confusion with the French verb that yielded astonish and astound. Other respectable sources hedge, copy from their great predecessors, and prefer to stay noncommittal.

I have returned to my old post for one reason only. In investigating the history of stun, astound, and its look-alikes, we encounter the well-known difficulty: a word resembles another word in the same or another language, and it is hard to decide where, in making a connection, we hit the nail on its proverbial head and where we are on a false tack.

In 2013, I mentioned an old hypothesis according to which stun is related to stone. This hypothesis cannot be defended: at present we have sufficient means to disprove it. (In etymology it is usually easier to show that some conclusion is untenable than that it is true.) But in two other cases we may or should hesitate. Astound and staunen are so much alike in sound and sense that rejecting their affinity unconditionally may be too hasty. The situation is even more complicated with stun. Tracing it to Old French without a footnote produces the impression that ultimate clarity has been attained, but it has not. In etymology, the door is only too often open for legitimate doubt.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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49. Children learning English: an educational revolution

By Fiona Copland and Sue Garton


Did you know that the introduction of languages into primary schools has been dubbed the world’s biggest development in education? And, of course, overwhelmingly, the language taught is English. Already the world’s most popular second language, the desire for English continues apace, at least in the short term, and with this desire has come a rapid decrease in the age at which early language learning (ELL) starts. From the kindergartens of South Korea to classes of 70+ in Tanzania, very young children are now being taught English. So is it a good idea to learn English from an early age? Many people believe that in terms of learning language, the younger the better. However, this notion is based on children learning in bilingual environments in which they get a great deal of input in two or more languages. Adults see children seemingly soaking up language and speaking in native-like accents and think that language learning for children is easy. However, most children do not learn English in this kind of bilingual environment. Instead, they learn in formal school settings where they are lucky if they get one or two hours of English tuition a week. In these contexts, there is little or no evidence that an early start benefits language learning. Indeed, it has been argued that the time spent teaching English is better spent on literacy, which has been shown to develop children’s language learning potential.

So why are children learning from so young an age? One answer is parent power. Parents see the value of English for getting ahead in the global world and put pressure on governments to ensure children receive language tuition from an early age. Another answer is inequality. Governments are aware that many parents pay for their children to have private tuition in English and they see this as disadvantaging children who come from poorer backgrounds. In an attempt to level the playing field, they introduce formal English language learning in primary schools. While this is admirable, research shows that school English is not generally effective, particularly in developing countries, and in fact tends to advantage those who are also having private lessons. Another argument for sticking to literacy teaching?

Student teacher in China

Of course, government policy eventually translates into classroom reality and in very many countries the introduction of English has been less than successful. One mammoth problem is the lack of qualified teachers. Contrary to popular belief, and despite representations in film and television programmes, being able to speak English does not equate to an ability to teach English, particularly to very young children. Yet in many places unqualified native English speaking teachers are drafted into schools to make good the shortfall in teacher provision. In other countries, local homeroom teachers take up the burden but may not have any English language skills or may have no training in language teaching. Other problems include a lack of resources, large classes and lack of motivation leading to poor discipline. Watch out Mr Gove — similar problems lie in store for England in September 2014! (When the new national curriculum for primary schools launches, maintained primary schools will have to teach languages to children, and yet preparation for the curriculum change has been woefully inadequate.)

Why should we be in interested in this area of English language teaching when most of it happens in countries far away from our own? David Graddol, our leading expert on the economy of English language teaching, suggests that the English language teaching industry directly contributes 1.3 billion pounds annually to the British economy and up to 10 billion pounds indirectly through English language education related activities. This sector is a huge beneficiary to the British economy, yet its importance is widely unacknowledged. For example, in terms of investigating English language teaching, it is extremely difficult in England to get substantial funding, particularly when the focus is on countries overseas.

From the perspective of academics interested in this topic, which we are, the general view that English language teaching is not a serious contender for research funding is galling. However, the research funding agencies are not alone. Academic journals rarely publish work on teaching English to young learners, which has become something of a Cinderella subject in research into English language teaching. There are numerous studies on adults learning English in journals of education and applied linguistics, but ELL is hardly represented. This might be because there is little empirical research or because the area is not considered important. Yet as we suggest, there are huge questions to be asked (and answered). For example, in what contexts are children advantaged and disadvantaged by learning English in primary schools? What are the most effective methods for teaching languages to children in particular contexts? What kind of training in teaching languages do primary teachers need and what should their level of English be? The list of questions, like the field, is growing and the answers would support both the UK English language industry and also our own approach to language learning in primary schools, where there is very little expertise.

ELT Journal is a quarterly publication for all those involved in English Language Teaching (ELT), whether as a second, additional, or foreign language, or as an international Lingua Franca. The journal links the everyday concerns of practitioners with insights gained from relevant academic disciplines such as applied linguistics, education, psychology, and sociology. A Special Issue of the ELT Journal, entitled “Teaching English to young learners” is available now. It showcases papers from around the world that address a number of key topics in ELL, including learning through online gaming, using heritage languages to teach English, and the metaphors children use to explain their language learning.

Fiona Copland is Senior Lecturer in TESOL in the School of Languages and Social Sciences at Aston University, Birmingham, UK, where she is Course Director of distance learning MSc programmes in TESOL. With colleagues at Aston, Sue Garton and Anne Burns, she carried out a global research project titled Investigating Global Practices in Teaching English to Young Learners which led to the production of a book of language learning activities called Crazy Animals and Other Activities for Teaching English to Young Learners. She is currently working on a project investigating native-speaker teacher projects. Sue Garton is a Senior Lecturer in TESOL and Director of Postgraduate Programmes in English at Aston University. She worked for many years as an English language teacher in Italy before joining Aston as a teacher educator on distance learning TESOL programmes. As well as leading the British Council funded project on investigating global practices in teaching English to young learners, she has also worked on two other British Council projects, one looking at the transition from primary to secondary school and the other, led by Fiona Copland, on investigating native-speaker teacher schemes. They are editors of the ELT Journal Special Issue on “Teaching English to young learners.

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Image: Student teacher in China by Rex Pe. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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50. Michael Jackson, 10,000 hours, and the roots of creative genius

By Arturo Hernandez


That any person could become an expert in something if they simply spend about 3 hours per day for ten years learning it is an appealing concept. This idea, first championed by Ericsson and brought to prominence by Gladwell, has now taken root in the popular media. It attempts to discuss these differences in terms of the environment. The idea is that practice with the purpose of constantly gathering feedback and improving can lead any person to become an expert. If becoming an expert requires 10,000 hours, does a prodigy need 20,000.

Lets consider, Michael Jackson, as an example of a prodigy. He grew up in a musical family in Gary, Indiana just outside Chicago. His father Joe played in an R&B band. All of his siblings played music in one way or another. Unlike his siblings and father, Jackson did not really play any instruments. However, he would compose songs in his head using his voice. One morning he came in and had written a song which eventually became ‘Beat It’. In the studio, he would sing each of the different parts including the various instruments. Then the producers and artists in the studio would work on putting the song together, following his arrangements.

Work in cognitive neuroscience has begun to shed light on the brain systems involved in creativity as being linked to psychometric IQ. Work by Neubauer and Fink suggests that these two different types of abilities, psychometric IQ and expertise, involve differential activity in the frontal and parietal lobes. They also appear for different types of tasks. In one study, taxi drivers were split into a high and low group depending on their performance on a paper and pencil IQ test. The results showed that both groups did equally well on familiar routes. The differences appeared between groups when they were compared on unfamiliar routes. In this condition, those with high IQs outperformed those with low IQ. So expertise can develop but the flexibility to handle new situations and improvise requires more than just practice.

Reports of Michael Jackson’s IQ are unreliable. However, he is purported to have had over 10,000 books in his reading collection and to have been an avid reader. His interviews reveal a person who was very eloquent and well spoken. And clearly he was able to integrate various different types of strands of music into interesting novel blends. If we were to lay this out across time, we have perhaps the roots of early genius. It is a person who has an unusual amount of exposure in a domain that starts at an early age. This would lead to the ability to play music very well.

Michael_Jackson_with_the_Reagans

Jackson came from a family filled with many successful musicians. Many were successful as recording artists. Perhaps Michael started earlier than his siblings. One conclusion we can draw from this natural experiment is that creative genius requires more than 10,000 hours. In the case of Michael Jackson, he read profusely and had very rich life experiences. He tried to meld these experiences into a blended musical genre that is uniquely his and yet distinctly resonant with known musical styles.

The kind of creativity is not restricted to prodigies like Michael Jackson. Language, our ultimate achievement as a human race, is something that no other animal species on this planet shares with us. The seeds of language exist all over the animal kingdom. There are birds that can use syntax to create elaborate songs. Chinchillas can recognize basic human speech. Higher primates can develop extensive vocabularies and use relatively sophisticated language. But only one species was able to take all of these various pieces and combine them into a much richer whole. Every human is born with the potential to develop much larger frontal lobes which interconnect with attention, motor, and sensory areas of the brain. It is in these enlarged cortical areas that we can see the roots of creative genius. So while 10,000 hours will create efficiency within restricted areas of the brain, only the use of more general purpose brain areas serve to develop true creativity.

Arturo Hernandez is currently Professor of Psychology and Director of the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience graduate program at the University of Houston. He is the author of The Bilingual Brain. His major research interest is in the neural underpinnings of bilingual language processing and second language acquisition in children and adults. He has used a variety of neuroimaging methods as well as behavioral techniques to investigate these phenomena which have been published in a number of peer reviewed journal articles. His research is currently funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development. You can follow him on Twitter @DrAEHernandez. Read his previous blog posts.
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Image credit: Michael Jackson with the Reagans, by White House Photo Office. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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