Wednesday, 25 March 2009

more (un)etymological plurals

I have encountered the opinion that the correct plurals of octopus and platypus are octopodes and platypodes, because that's how they are pluralized in Greek. This argument might make sense if a) the words were borrowed from Greek, or b) these plural forms were found in English usage.

But neither is true. The words are borrowed from scientific Latin octopus and Platypus, which in turn are borrowed from Greek. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage notes that octopodes is never found in context; it's only used in discussions, like this one, about whether it is the correct plural form. (But I did find one in-context occurrence.) The same situation seems to hold with platypodes. The OED lists octopodes and platypodes as plural forms, but provides no actual citations with these forms. Judging from the citations, the most common plurals are octopuses and platypuses, closely followed by octopi and platypi.

I don't know if the scientific Latin words even have plural forms. If they had plurals, I'm pretty sure they wouldn't be formed with -podes. And since they are borrowed from Greek, they are not second declension -us nouns and would not be pluralized octopi and platypi. But octopi and platypi, altho they are unetymological, are in use in English, and usage trumps etymology every time.

It's also interesting to note that the Greek words don't mean what the English words mean: ὀκτώπους (oktōpous) means "eight feet long", and πλατύπους (platupous) means "flat-footed".

Update! It seems that Greek third declension nouns are borrowed as Latin third declension nouns with the stem change mimicking the stem change in Greek, so the Latin plural of "octopus" would indeed be "octopodes".

maelstrom and blintz

Some dictionaries say that maelstrom is borrowed from Danish malstrøm. I'll go with the OED, which says it's borrowed from early modern Dutch maelstrom (nowadays spelled maalstroom). Both the Danish and Dutch words are related, being composed of the words for "whirl" and "stream". Dutch malen "to grind, whirl round" is from Proto-Indo-European *melh₂- "to crush, grind".

*melh₂- possibly became Old Russian mlinŭ, blinŭ (млинъ/блинъ) "pancake" which became the diminutive blinets (блинец?), borrowed into Yiddish as בלינצע blintse, and then into English as blintz(e). Similar food-related senses are found in the English cognates meal (as in cornmeal), and mill "building for grinding grain into flour".

Sunday, 22 March 2009

ooze and virus

Proto-Indo-European *weis- "to flow" became Old English wāse "mire, mud" and English ooze "soft mud or slime".

There's another ooze: "to flow slowly" from Old English wosen. The spelling was influenced by the first ooze but it is unrelated (OED).

*weis- became Latin uīrus "poisonous secretion, venom". This was borrowed into Middle English as virus with the meaning of "semen", and it didn't take on its modern meaning until 1900.

Some think the plural of English virus is viri or virii because that's what it might have been in Latin. But in fact the Latin uīrus doesn't have an attested plural. And it's a neuter noun, so if it did have a plural, it wouldn't have been *uīri. It's possible the Latin word had an incomplete paradigm, or it had a plural that doesn't survive in writing, or that it was a noncount noun with no plural. This last possibility is supported by the fact that its first appearance in English is as a noncount noun.

a1398 J. TREVISA tr. Bartholomaeus Anglicus De Proprietatibus Rerum (BL Add.) f. 60, Among þe gentals [read genitals], on hatte þe pyntyl veretrum in latyn, for it is a man his owne membre oþer for virus come ouȝt þerof.

The only plural given in the OED is viruses.

Monday, 16 March 2009

words of Celtic origin

banshee from Irish Gaelic bean sídhe "woman of the fairies"

bracket, breeches, brogue possibly from Gaulish brāca "trousers"

ceilidh from Irish Gaelic céilidh "social gathering"

coracle from Welsh corwgl

corgi from Welsh, from cor "dwarf" and ci "dog"

crag of Celtic origin, compare Irish/Scots Gaelic creag, Manx cregg, Welsh craig, altho the relationship between these Celtic words is obscure (OED)

cwm from Welsh cwm "valley"

Donald from Old Irish Domnall

druid from Latin druidae, from Proto-Celtic *dru-wid- "priest"

Fergus from Old Irish fer "man"

flummery from Welsh llymru "soft jelly from sour oatmeal"

galore from Irish Gaelic go leór "enough"

leprechaun from Irish Gaelic lupracán

MacKay from Scots Gaelic mac aoidh "son of the fiery one"

McIntyre from Irish Gaelic mac an tsaoir "son of the carpenter"

menhir from Breton maen-hir "long stone"

phoney from Irish Gaelic fáinne "ring"

ptarmigan from Scots Gaelic tàrmachan

qualtagh from Manx quaaltagh "the first person one meets after leaving the house"

slogan from Irish Gaelic sluagh-ghairm "battle-cry"

Tory from Old Irish tóir "pursue"

town from Proto-Germanic *tūnaz, thought to be borrowed from Proto-Celtic *dūnon "hill, stronghold"

whiskey from Irish Gaelic uisce beatha "water of life"

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Singh and Siegfried

This one is controversial, but wouldn't it be cool.

Sanskrit सिंह siṃha "powerful one, lion" is the source of the personal name Singh, thru Hindi (says the OED).

The Sanskrit word is found in Sri Lanka's Sinha Stout, and also in the language Sinhala.

The American Heritage Dictionary tells us that the name for Singapore is from Sanskrit, being a combination of siṃha and pura "city". It goes on to say that the origin of siṃha is unknown, but that it's probably related to Swahili simba - I have no idea how.

In fact most dictionaries don't give an etymology for siṃha. The Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon is the only source I could find that does - it says siṃha is probably from sah "to prevail, be victorious; to resist". The IEED project's Indo-Aryan inherited lexicon asserts that sah is from Proto-Indo-European *seǵʰ- "to hold".

*seǵʰ- became Proto-Germanic *siǥiz- "victory", then Old High German Sigifrith meaning "having victorious peace" (-frith "peace" is from *priH-), then modern German Siegfried.

Monday, 9 March 2009

namaste and nemoral

The next episode of Lost is called Namaste.

नमस्ते namaste is a greeting, from Sanskrit namas "bow, obeisance" plus te, a dative second person singular enclitic (cognate with thee). So etymologically it means "obeisance to you." A more formal form is नमस्कार namaskār, from namas plus kāra "making, doing".

(As I understand it, namas is a neuter consonant-stem noun, with the nominative/accusative form namaḥ. Therefore the s in namaste is due to sandhi.)

namas is from the Proto-Indo-European root *nem- "to bend". (Not this *nem-.) According to Pokorny, *nem- is the source of various words meaning "grove" or "valley" (a valley being a "bent or curved place"), including Lithuanian Nemenas (the Neman river), Greek νέμος "wooded pasture", Latin nemus "grove", Old Irish nemed "holy place", and Welsh nant "valley".

The Latin word gives us nemoral, defined by the OED as "Of, relating to, or characteristic of groves or woods; living in or frequenting groves or woods".

Example sentence?

All of them require nemoral snails. - 1657 R. TOMLINSON tr. J. de Renou Medicinal Dispensatory 524

Friday, 6 March 2009

prune and Tory

Prune as in "to cut off or remove dead or living parts or branches" is from Old French prooignier, perhaps from pro plus rooignier "pare away; clip". Rooignier is from Vulgar Latin *rotundāre from rotundus "round" (OED). I'm not sure what the semantic connection is here between "round" and "pare away".

Rotundus is from Proto-Indo-European *reth₂- "run, roll".

In Celtic, *reth₂- is found in the combined form *to-wo-ret- "a running up to": *to- "to" and *wo- "under, up, up from under". This became Old Irish tóir "pursue", then *tóraighe "pursuer". This was borrowed into English as tory. The earliest meaning of tory is

1. a. In the 17th c., one of the dispossessed Irish, who became outlaws, subsisting by plundering and killing the English settlers and soldiers; a bog-trotter, a rapparee; later, often applied to any Irish Papist or Royalist in arms. Obs. exc. Hist.


2. With capital T: A nickname given 1679-80 by the Exclusioners (q.v.) to those who opposed the exclusion of James, Duke of York (a Roman Catholic) from the succession to the Crown.


3. a. Hence, from 1689, the name of one of the two great parliamentary and political parties in England, and (at length) in Great Britain.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

the only word they know is grunt and they can't spell it

Mahendra has asked me to comment on this story: 'Oldest English words' identified. Here are some more articles on the same subject.

I'm afraid I must apologize; I can't comment on these stories because I don't know what they are really about. Here are some things they might be about:

  • playing scrabble with cavemen (like this?)
  • using computer models to travel back in time and talk to William the Conqueror (instead of using, say, an Old French dictionary)
  • how the oldest English words are two, three, five, who and I (but not four, bafflingly), which have remained unchanged in sound and meaning for tens of thousands of years, in fact these words would be understood in Ice Age Europe! But then why are the cognates of five (fünf, cinq, coig, pāñc, pjat', pénte1) so different from each other? Or the cognates of who (wer, qui, cia, kaun, kto, poi1)?
  • how the words dirty, squeeze and guts will be the next words to disappear from English - so use them now while you can!

The Log tells us that the research behind this media frenzy is Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history, in Nature 2007. But as presented in the news, it has nothing to do with Proto-Indo-European, at least as I understand it. The time depths given - 15,000 years, 20,000 years, 40,000 years - are way older than the estimate for the breakup of Proto-Indo-European, which Fortson suggests is 2500 BC.

1. German, French, Scots Gaelic, Hindi, Russian, Ancient Greek

Sunday, 1 March 2009

national grammar day

March 4 is National Grammar Day. What is grammar, anyway? This is from Ronald Wardhaugh's Proper English: Myths and Misunderstandings about Language:

Whatever a grammar of a language is, it is largely impervious to human intervention. That is, the really interesting rules and principles are so basic that we cannot do anything at all about them. What we can do is try to influence some of the minor outcomes, for example, try to insist that people say I drank instead of I drunk or It's I instead of It's me. Essentially that is tinkering with matters of no linguistic consequence. To elevate the study of grammar to the task of trying to bring about "correction" in such matters is to trivialize that study. These matters may be of social consequence and often are, but that is a social observation and not a linguistic one, because I drunk and It's me are linguistically on a par with I drank and It's I. Furthermore, it is an observation that tells us much about social organization and the function of trivia in such organization and nothing about the structure of language.

So what are these basic rules and principles that form the really interesting part of grammar? I think they might be things like the following.

Why is 2 ok

1 I gave a present to him.
2 I gave him a present.

but 4 is not?

3 I explained the problem to him.
4 *I explained him the problem.

Why is the position of adverbs in a sentence relatively free, but we can't put the adverb between the verb and the object?

5 I explained the problem to him clearly.
6 I clearly explained the problem to him.
7 I explained the problem clearly to him.
8 *I explained clearly the problem to him.

In these sentences

9 When I get home, he will be cooking dinner.
10 *When I will get home, he will be cooking dinner.

both clauses describe events in the future, but the verb in the when clause cannot take will. Why?

I think this is why Wardhaugh says that grammar is largely impervious to intervention. We don't even think about changing rules like these. We can try to change the "minor outcomes", but they are a very small part of the overall grammar of English.

I think this also helps explain why using "bad grammar" won't lead to the collapse of society or the collapse of English, or to a lack of clear communication. We might disagree on the minor outcomes - some use less with count nouns, some don't. Some say I drunk and some say I drank. Some say Bathsheba gave Jocko and me the ball and some say Bathsheba gave Jocko and I the ball. Some say it's me and some say it's I. There is a lot of variation, but most of the basic rules and principles are the same for every English speaker.