Sunday, 1 May 2016

Dalek translation

There are some interesting Sapir-Whorfy things happening in the latest season of Doctor Who.

As we all know, Daleks are bubbling lumps of hate in Mark 3 travel machines. The organic part is wired to the machine part, and controls the machine through thought. It seems that when a Dalek's machinary tries to interface with a non-Dalek, it can only interpret the thoughts in Dalek terms.

In The Witch's Familiar, Clara is hooked up to a Dalek travel machine, and whatever she says is repeated in a Dalek voice.
(NB The DALEKS voice is always a tiny fraction behind CLARA's. Also we only hear CLARA if we’re INSIDE the DALEK. While outside the DALEK, we just hear the DALEK voice.) 

But Clara and the Dalek don't always say the same thing.
Now say your name.
Just say it.
Inside the DALEK.
Clara.          Dalek.
CLARA frowns. What?
Try again.
CLARA                    DALEK
Clara Oswald.        Dalek. Dalek.
One more time!
CLARA.                                DALEK

(Visibly frustrated now).        I am a Dalek. I am a Dalek.

I am Clara Oswald. I am Clara Oswald!
Say “I love you”. Those exact words - don’t ask why, just do it.
CLARA            DALEK

I love you.            Exterminate!

Say “You are different from me.”
CLARA                                     DALEK

You are different from me.            Exterminate! Exterminate!
The machine is translating Clara’s English into Dalek, and Dalek has no way to say certain things. So are Daleks prevented from saying these things by their machines? Or are the organic and machine parts of the Daleks joined to form one mind? Thinking about how Dalek language must work gives me a headache of Embassytown proportions.

do Daleks just want to befriend other races, but their translation machines don't have the vocabulary?

This leads to a tense moment when the Doctor confronts the Dalek that Clara is trapped in, and she can't tell him that she is inside. She says her name, but the Dalek just says "Dalek".
THE DOCTOR, insensibly, raising the gun, levelling it at the DALEK.
Is Clara dead?
Inside the DALEK:
CLARA.                                                     DALEK

I’m Clara, I’m not dead, I’m right here.     I am a Dalek. I am alive.

 Those words cause a savage look of anger to cross THE DOCTOR's face.
Inside the DALEK:

CLARA (cont'd)                               DALEK (cont'd)
I’m your friend. Your friend!             I am your enemy. Your enemy.
THE DOCTOR steps forward, jamming the exterminator against the eyepiece.
CLARA (cont'd)                                                  DALEK (cont'd)
No, please, not don’t.                                              Mercy. Mercy.
... and THE DOCTOR pauses. What?

Frowns. What??

... you shouldn’t be able to say that.
That word shouldn’t exist in your vocabulary. How could Davros have taught you that?
This makes the Doctor think about how the Dalek machinery was able to say "mercy". Daleks can't understand mercy, therefore they can't say the word:

When you were in the Dalek, you made it say “mercy”. It shouldn’t have understood the concept, it shouldn’t have been able to say it. How did a tiny piece of mercy get into the DNA of the Daleks?
That's right, there is no word for "mercy" in Dalek. I bet they have a hundred words for "exterminate".

And the fact that the Dalek said a word it should not have known is all the Doctor needs to know in order to go back in time and teach a young Davros that concept. Is there a purer expression of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?

Of course, we've known about the Daleks' vocabulary limitations since 1975:
DALEK: All inferior creatures are to be considered the enemy of the Daleks and destroyed.
DAVROS: No, wait! Those men are scientists. They can help you. Let them live. Have pity!
DALEK: Pity? I have no understanding of the word. It is not registered in my vocabulary bank. Exterminate!
And then, in the very next episode, Under the Lake, four alien letters can rewrite your brain:
DOCTOR: Everything we see or experience shapes us in some way. But these words actually rewrite the synaptic connections in your brain. They literally change the way you are wired.

Saturday, 2 January 2016


Seen on Facebook: Yule is derived from the Old Norse word for wheel.

In reality, yule is from Old English geōl, geohol "Christmas Day". It is cognate with Old Norse jól, "a heathen feast lasting 12 days" (OED). Its further etymology is unknown.

Wordorigins has more on yule.

The idea that it is from the Old Norse for "wheel" probably originates in the Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, which says

Yule is derived into modern English from Jól deriving from Old Norse hjól, wheel, referring to the moment when the wheel of the year is at its low point, ready to rise again (compare to the Slavic karachun).

Skeat's Concise Dictionary of English Etymology says of yule "The attempt to connect this word with wheel is perfectly futile, and explains nothing."

Saturday, 28 November 2015


My problem with the character of Ashildr is a very small one.

She pronounces her name wrong.

She's a viking, and she says /əʃildə/ but this can't be right because Old Norse doesn't have /ʃ/.*

It should be something more like /ɒːshildə/. If you don't know IPA, think "oss-heelder" instead of "a-shielder".

According to a few sites Áshildr is composed of Old Norse áss "god" and hildr "battle". Old Norse áss is cognate with Old English ōs "god" as in Ōsweald "god's power", modern Oswald.

The Radio Times has a bit to say about the name.

*I could be wrong about this. But even if Old Norse does have /ʃ/, it is not represented by the spelling <sh>.

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.