Monday, 23 November 2015

sleep no more

I'm one of the four people who enjoyed Sleep No More, Mark Gatiss's weird and scary story set in a world where India and Japan have combined forces. The writing on the walls, flags and screens is a clever mix of Indic and Japanese characters.

Click to embiggen:

This looks like पाॅ

Some of these look like Devanagari and some look like kanji.

This looks upside down to me, even though it's made up.

Devanagari क with a kanji-like box, and Japanese は with a Devanagari-like horizontal line.

These characters are completely fabricated; I don't think they're based on anything real.

This is straight-up Devanagari: ऋ झ

Sunday, 12 April 2015

se betsta læcedóm

An Old English recipe kills a superbug!

I found the recipe on page 34 of Leechdoms, wortcunning, and Starcraft of early England, being a 1864 translation of Bald’s Leechbook, the Old English book of medicine where the cure was found. I have mentioned this book before, in connection with beer.

Ƿýrc aegsealfe ƿiþ ƿænne gením cropleac ⁊ garleác begea em fela gecnuƿa ƿel tosomne gením ƿín ⁊ fearres geallan begea em fela gemeng ƿiþ þy leace do þonne on arfæt læt standan nigon niht on þam arfate aƿring þurh claþ ⁊ gehlyttre ƿel do on horn · ⁊ ymb niht do mid feþere on ꝥ eage se betsta læcedóm.

"Work an eye salve for a wen, take cropleek and garlic, of both equal quantities, pound them well together, take wine and bullocks gall, of both equal quantities, mix with the leek, put this then into a brazen vessel, let it stand nine days in the brass vessel, wring out through a cloth and clear it well, put it into a horn, and about night time apply it with a feather to the eye ; the best leechdom."

Most of these words have survived into modern English. It becomes clearer if you replace the letter ƿ with the modern w:
wyrc: work
eag: eye
sealfe: salve
wiþ: with
wænne: wen
crop: crop
garleac: garlic
leace: leek
wel: well
win: wine
geallan: gall
þy, þam: the
gemengan: among
do: do
þonne: then
arfæt: vat (minus the ar- prefix)
læt: let
standan: stand
nigon: nine
niht: night
awring: wring (minus the a- prefix)
þurh: through
claþ: cloth
horn: horn
feþere: feather
betsta: best
læcedom: leechdom - -dom is found in kingdom. Leech the doctor is not related to leech the animal.

Words that did not survive:
begea: "both"
em: "equal"
fela: "many, much" (German viel)
gecnuwian: "to pound together"
tosomne: "together" (German zusammen)
fearr: "bull"
gehlyttrian: "to make clear"

A word that sort of survived:
The past participle of genim "take" survives in numb.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

world and Fergus

Proto-Indo-European *wiH-ro- "man" combined with *-ald- "age" to form Proto-Germanic *wer-ald- "life or age of man" and English world.

*wiH-ro- became Old Irish fer "man", combining with *ǵeus- "to taste, choose" to form the name Fergus apparently meaning "having the strength of men".

*wiH-ro- is also found in werewolf.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Word crimes

I knew that Weird Al Yankovic was a grammar snob, but this song is just insulting. People who use less with count nouns (like Shakespeare) were raised in a sewer. People who use figurative "literally" (like Dickens and Fitzgerald) are stupid. Use any words that Yankovic doesn't like and you're a "moron", "dumb mouth-breather", "spastic", haven't finished second grade.

I'd like to think he's aware of the irony, that he's being just as childish as he accuses others of being. 

Wednesday, 23 April 2014


From Snuff by Terry Pratchett:
'So Sybil's used to come along and talk to the hermit whenever they were faced with a philosophical conundrum, yes?” 
Willikins looked puzzled. “Good heavens, no, sir, I can't imagine at any of them would ever dream of doing that. They never had any truck with philosophical conundra.* They were aristocrats you see? Aristocrats don't notice philosophical conundra.” 
*Later on Vimes pondered Willikins’ accurate grasp of the plural noun in the circumstances, but there you were; if someone hung around in houses with lots of books in them, some of it rubbed off just as, come to think of it, it had on Vimes. 

But conundra isn't the plural of conundrum. It's not even Latin; the OED Online says

Etymology: Origin lost: in 1645 (sense 3) referred to as an Oxford term; possibly originating in some university joke, or as a parody of some Latin term of the schools, which would agree with its unfixed form in 17–18th cent.
It's been pluralized conundrums, conimbrumsquinombromsConuncrumsQuadundrumsCunnunders, and conundrums, but hardly ever conundra.

A little later on there is a bit of "no words for X, lots of words for Y":

Do you know that they [goblins] have only five names for colours? Even trolls have around sixty, and a lot more than that if they find a paint salesman! Does this mean goblins are stupid?No, they have a vast number of names that even poets haven't come up with, for things like the way colours shift and change, the melting of one hue into another. They have single words for the most complicated of feelings; I know about two hundred of them, I think, and I'm sure there are a lot more! What you may think are grunts and growls and snarls are in fact carrying vast amounts of information! They're like an iceberg, commander: most of them is where you can't see or understand, and I'm teaching Tears of the Mushroom and some of her friends so that they may be able to speak to people like you, who think goblins are dumb.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Annoy a Linguist Day

It's that time of year again. This time I want to write about the fetish for avoiding the passive voice. Recently I've spoken to writers who think it's their duty to avoid the passive at all costs. The irony is sweet when they proceed to misidentify the passive. Look at this article on passive avoidance where of all the examples the writer gives of the evil passive voice, only one is actually passive.

I'm baffled at this hostility towards a completely normal and useful grammatical structure. I like to blame Orwell, but it's older than that. Supposed grammar experts tell us that the passive voice is dull, it's sneaky, it's feeble, it's not used by good writers - and none of these things are true, as Geoff Pullum explains. I've been told it's hard to understand but I don't think that is true either.

I’ve also been told it is unclear, because it hides the agent (the person doing the action). The implication is that all we have to do is avoid the passive, and our writing will be automatically clearer. This seems like very bad advice. The agent can be hidden in the active voice, and it's possible to write passive sentences where the agent is expressed.

I’ll talk about the second point first. 1a is active, and 1b is passive, and the agent (me) is equally clear in both:

1a. I wrote a book.
1b. The book was written by me.

Yes, passive sentences can omit the agent, as in 2:

2a. We served dinner.
2b. Dinner was served.

If you want to focus on the dinner then you could argue that 2b is better, because it places the dinner at the beginning of the sentence, and omits unnecessary information. Clarity has nothing to do with expressing the agent, it's to do with making clear what you want to make clear.

And non-passive sentences can omit the agent as well. These sentences are all non-passive, but they have no agents:

3. The book fell off the table. (Who pushed it?)
4. The case took on racial overtones. (Whose fault was that?)
5. The beer pours easily. (Who's pouring it?)
6. I am afraid. (What’s scaring me?)

Many passive sentences can easily be made non-passive with no change in semantics:

7a. The window is displayed.
7b. The window appears. (Who made it appear?)

8a. Mistakes were made.
8b. Mistakes happened. (Who made them?)

9a. I was given a gift.
9b. I received a gift. (Who gave it to me?)

The A sentences are passive, the B sentences are non-passive. I don't see how the non-passive sentences are clearer than the passive sentences. The agent is equally invisible in both.

Simply avoiding the passive voice doesn't help you write clearly. If your goal is to express the agent, then you need to think about what the agent is, and make sure you've expressed it, and you can do this with either a passive or non-passive sentence. And if you want to focus on something other than the agent, you can do this with either a passive or non-passive sentence.

Previously on Annoy a Linguist Day:
taking grammar seriously
What is grammar anyway?

Sunday, 2 March 2014

sorry and sorrow

are not related! Not etymologically related anyway. They were associated with each other phonologically and semantically in Middle English.

sorry and sore are from PIE *seh₂i- "suffering" (Old English sār "painful" and sārig "distressed, sad" (cognate with West Frisian searich "sore, spotty, scabby")).

sorrow is from PIE *swergh- "worry, be sick" (Old English sorg "anxiety, sorrow").