Saturday, 23 August 2008

the simplicity of English spelling

There's a lot of talk about how English spelling is chaotic, confusing, and could do with a complete redo, and that's all true. But I recently talked to someone who says English spelling is easy.

He's an English language learner from Tibet. He likes the English alphabet because the letters never change their shape are written one after the other. The Tibetan alphabet has 30 basic consonant letters, and altho the script is written horizontally left to right, some consonant letters can be combined vertically. For instance, the letters ས sa, ག ga and ཪ ra are stacked to form སྒྲ sgra. (more detail.) It's quite complicated, and it's not hard to see how a Tibetan might welcome the 26 letters of English that don't stack and don't change their form depending on the letters on either side of them.

In fact, most Brahmi-derived scripts do the same as Tibetan. In Devanagari, the cluster dr̥ṣṭhva is written दृष्ठ्व - द da + ृ r̥ followed by ष ṣa + ठ ṭha + व va. What makes Tibetan potentially more difficult is the mismatch between spelling and pronunciation. The Buddhist sect pronounced Kagyu is spelled བཀའ་བརྒྱུད bka' brgyud. This is because Tibetan spelling reflects a much earlier form of the language. As I understand it, simply hearing a Tibetan word will not give you enough information to write it correctly. It's sorta like English that way.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

the use of linguistics

Finally, we may ask, of what use is linguistics? Very few people have clear ideas on the subject, and this is not the place to give a detailed answer. However, what can be said is that for obvious reasons linguistic questions are of interest to all those, including historians, philologist and others, who need to deal with texts. Even more obvious is the important of linguistics for culture in general. In the lives of individuals and of societies, language is a factor of greater importance than any other. For the study of language to remain solely the business of a handful of specialists would be a quite unacceptable state of affairs. In practice, the study of language is in some degree or other the concern of everyone. But a paradoxical consequence of this general interest is that no other subject has fostered more absurd notions, more prejudices, more illusions, or more fantasies. Form a psychological point of view, these errors are of interest in themselves. But it is the primary task of the linguist to denounce them, and to eradicate them as completely as possible. - Ferdinand de Saussure, Course de linguistique générale

Friday, 15 August 2008

phoney and anus

phoney is most likely an alternation of fawney "ring", a borrowing of Irish Gaelic fáinne "ring". A fawney rig was a swindle involving a fake ring, and has been in use since the middle of the nineteenth century (The Origin of 'Phoney', Peter Tamony, American Speech, Vol. 12 no. 2, pp. 108-110).

Irish Gaelic fáinne was an alternation of áinne, from Old Irish ánne. The Proto-Indo-European root is *āno- "ring", which became Latin ānus "ring, anus".

McBain's has

fàinne
a ring, Irish fáinne, áinne, Old Irish ánne, *ânniâ; Latin ânus, English annular.

The Early Irish Glossaries Project in the entry for áinne "ring; circuit; anus" has "Cf. fáinne", but no word on how they are exactly connected.

Where did the /f/ come from? I know Celtic languages have a habit of losing initial /f/, but this one was added.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

bracket, breeches, brogue

Gaulish brāca "trousers" was borrowed into Latin as brācae, the source of bracket, thru French braguette "codpiece". The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology tells us, "It has been suggested that the bracket of architecture and of shipbuilding was so called from its resemblance to a codpiece or a pair of breeches."

The ODEE says about breeches

Old English brēć (pl. only) [...] :- Common Germanic (except Gothic) *brōks, monosyllabic feminine. The further relations are obscure; some favour the early adoption of pre-Germanic *bhrāg- in Gaulish brāca, whence Latin brāca, bracca.

Pokorny claims that Gaulish brāca is a borrowing from Germanic, but doesn't deign to tell us what the Germanic word is.

brogue, which refers to a strong Irish accent and the shoes worn by people with strong Irish accents, is from Irish Gaelic bróg "shoe" from Old Irish bróc "trousers", borrowed from Old Norse brók (ODEE) or from Old English brōc, the singular of brēċ "breeches" (AHD). It seems these words are related to Gaulish brāca, but it's not clear how.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

fractal, sassafras, brioche

Our Proto-Indo-European root is *bʰreg- "to break". The zero-grade nasalized form *bʰr-n-g- became Latin frango "to break", pp. fractus "broken", giving us words like fractal, frangible, fragile.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology says sassafras is from Spanish sasafrás or Portuguese sassafraz, of unknown origin. But the AHD says the Spanish is from Late Latin saxifragus "rock-breaking" (from its being found in rock crevices), a combination of frango and saxum "rock" (from PIE *sek-). The plant genus Saxifraga is so named for the same reason.

*bʰreg- became Proto-Germanic *ƀrek- and English break and breach. The Proto-Germanic form was borrowed into Old French, becoming brier "to knead", then brioche.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

dance with the verb who brung you

I've recently encountered a mix of opinions about brang, brung: they're mutilations, they're stupid, they're not words, they're brand new words. I'd assumed that brang, brung were recent innovations by analogy with sang, sung. It seems they are not.

Cædmon's Metrical Paraphrase of parts of the Holy Scripture
ꝥ he þa bẏꞅene ꝼꞃom ᵹoꝺe ·
bꞃunᵹen hæꝼꝺe ·

( he þa bysene from gode ·
brungen hæfde ·)
"that from God those mandates he had brung"

Exeter Book, Riddle 25
Ic eom ... brungen of bearwum ond of burghleoþum
"I am brung from woods and fortress-heights (cliff-sides)"

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology claims that the Old English strong past participle gebrungen became modern dialectical brung. Bosworth & Toller has two Old English verbs: weak brengan, p. brōhte, pp. brōht, and strong bringan, p. brang or brong, pp. brungen.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

chintz and cheetah

Hobson Jobson has a quote showing that chintz, the "printed or spotted cotton cloth," wasn't always as déclassé as its adjective form chintzy might suggest:

No, let a charming chintz and Brussels lace
Wrap my cold limbs, and shade my lifeless face
Pope, An Essay on Man, i. 248., c. 1733

That's some fabric meant to be taken seriously. Or maybe not, I never got the hang of Pope.

And, when she sees her friend in deep despair,
Observes how much a chintz exceeds mohair.
Ibid., ii. 170

chintz is from Hindi छींट chīṇṭ "spot, speck, stain, blot; spattering, splash". This is probably from Sanskrit चित्र citra "conspicuous, excellent, distinguished; bright, clear, bright-coloured; variegated, spotted, speckled". (Altho Platts traces it to छींटना chīṇṭanā "to sprinkle, to scatter" from Sanskrit स्पृष्ट spṛṣṭa, past participle of स्पृश् spṛś "to touch or sip water, wash or sprinkle".)

The Indo-Aryan inherited lexicon traces citra to Proto-Indo-European *kʷit-ro- "conspicuous", but the link goes to *kʷei-1(t) "to observe, to appreciate". To make things even more confusing, the AHD and Pokorny claim that citra is from *(s)kai- "bright, shining", the source of hood in childhood, neighbourhood, cognate with the second element of the name Adelaide.

Anyway, *kʷei-1(t) happens to be the source of Old Irish cíall, a real word for "wisdom, intelligence" (as opposed to, say, another word).

citra also means "picture" as in Amar Chitra Katha (अमर चित्र कथा, "immortal picture stories"), the series of comic book retellings of Indian mythology.

citra is also found in Sanskrit चित्रकाय citrakāya "striped-body; tiger or panther", becoming Hindi चीता cītā, borrowed into English as cheetah.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

say wha3t?

Actress Esha Deol's tattoo of the gāyatrī mantra:



The first word is om, but it's written ओ३म o3m - that's the letter ओ (o), followed by the number ३ (3), then म् (m). It's represented this way on the flag of the Arya Samaj, a Hindu reform movement. It turns out that the 3 is the symbol for प्लुति pluti, an extra-long vowel. Wikipedia claims that it appears twice in the R̥gveda, representing question intonation, giving the example

10.129.5d adháḥ svid āsî3d upári svid āsī3t "was it above? was it below?"

But in most versions it is written as three vowels:

R̥gveda 10.129
तिरश्चीनो विततो रश्मिरेषामधः सविदासी.अ.अ.अत |
tiraścīno vitato raśmireṣāmadhaḥ savidāsī.a.a.at |

pluti also means "overflowing, a flood; a leap, jump; capering, curvet (one of a horse's paces)".

So the next time you want to represent a long drawn-out vowel, use a 3. That way no one can accuse you of using new-fangled textspeak!

Friday, 1 August 2008

beer and poison

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology informs us that beer is a West Proto-Germanic borrowing of monastic Latin biber "drink". The original Proto-Germanic word for the beverage was *aluþ- - modern English ale. Only English retains both beer and ale; the North Germanic languages have ale (Old Norse ǫl, Swedish öl, Danish øl), and the other West Germanic languages have beer (German Bier, Dutch bier). However, Old Norse also has bjórr, which according to Cleasby and Vigfusson

is a foreign word, as is indicated even by the expression in the Alvismál--öl heitir með mönnum, en með Ásum bjór, ale it is called by men, by gods beer.

Vulgar Latin biber is from Latin bibere "to drink", from the Proto-Indo-European *peh₃(i)- "to drink". (The Latin b is explained by assimilation: the reduplicated *pi-ph₃-o- was voiced to something like *pi-bo- then assimilated to *bi-bo-.)

The suffixed form *poh₃-ti- became Latin pōtiō, pōtiōnis "drink", then Old French puison, meaning "magic potion". potion is also from the same Latin word thru Old French.

Bosworth and Toller say:

Beer, made from malted barley, was the favourite drink of the Anglo-Saxons. In their drinking parties, they pledged each other in large cups, round at the bottom, which must be emptied before they could be laid down, hence perhaps the name of a tumbler. We are speaking of the earliest times, for beer is mentioned in Beowulf
Beowulf chapter 8:

ful ofꞇ ᵹebeoꞇeꝺon beoꞃe ꝺꞃuncne ofeꞃ ealo ƿæᵹe oꞃeꞇ mecᵹaſ ꝥ hıe ınbeoꞃſele bıꝺan ƿolꝺon ᵹꞃenꝺleſ ᵹuþe mıꝺ ᵹꞃẏꞃum ecᵹa ·

Seamus Heaney's version (480):

Ful oft gebēotedon     bēore druncne
ofer ealo-wǣge     ōret-mecgas
þæt hīe in bēor-sele     bīdan woldon
Grendles gūþe     mid gryrum ecga.

"Time and again, when the goblets passed
and seasoned fighters got flushed with beer
they would pledge themselves to protect Heorot
and wait for Grendel with whetted swords."

Here's another, ickier, occurrence, from a book of medicine:

Cockayne, Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England
ᵹenım beoꞃ ꝺꞃæſꞇan ⁊ ꞅapan · ⁊ æᵹeꞅ ꝥ hƿıꞇe ⁊ ealꝺe ᵹꞃuꞇ leᵹe on ƿıð omena ᵹeꞅƿelle.

"Take beer dregs and soap and the white of an egg and old groats, lay on for erysipelatous swelling."

Props to Language is the People's for talking about some cool brand names for the drink which gods call beer.