Friday, 30 July 2010

noise and argonaut

Proto-Indo-European *neh₂u- "boat" became Greek ναῦς naus "ship" and Ionic Greek ναυσίη nausiē (Attic ναυτία nautia) "seasickness". This was borrowed into Latin as nausea.

Latin nausea probably developed into Anglo-Norman noise, which found its way into English. The OED says the semantic development is probably from "malaise" to "disturbance, uproar", then "noise, din, quarrel" (OED).

Greek ναύτης nautēs "sailor" is the source of words ending in -naut like cosmonaut, astronaut, argonaut. An argonaut is a sailor in the ship Argo - but it's also a kind of octopus that inhabits a shell.

Thursday, 29 July 2010


I'm sure anyone reading this blog is familiar with the Queen's English Society and their mission to protect English from the rampaging hordes of young people and Americans. I didn't write about it because Stan Carey at Sentence First said everything that needed to be said. But recently Gabe at Motivated Grammar addressed a specific complaint the QES makes, and I became interested in doing the same (or biting his style, as the kids say).

The QES objects to either pronounced with /i/ (the "ee" sound) instead of /aɪ/ (the "eye" sound). Their reasoning is twofold:

1. The /aɪ/ pronunciation is "upper-class" and "cultured", and changed to /i/ in the 50s "probably" under American influence.
2. "many words in English come from some form of Old German", and in German the letter combination ei is pronounced /aɪ/, so therefore in English words of Germanic origin, ei should be pronounced /aɪ/ as well.

Regarding point 1: I'm not sure how the QES knows how and when the pronunciation changed. For the record, both pronunciations of either are standard. The /i/ pronunciation is usual in American English, while /aɪ/ is more common in British English. However, /aɪ/ is found in the speech of "well-educated speakers in urban areas of the Northeast" US.[1] I find it weird that pronouncing a word with a high front unrounded vowel as opposed to a falling diphthong is seen as a "regrettable" infiltration.

Regarding point 2: there are several problems with this. From one point of view it is true that many English words are derived from a form of "Old German", but this in turn means that many German words are derived from a form of Old English. The ancester of both languages is a putative language called Proto-Germanic, so Proto-Germanic is a very old form of German, but it's also a very old form of English. So why don't the Germans look to English to find out how to pronounce their words?

Next, the claim that ei should be /aɪ/ in English because that's how it's pronounced in German looks like a form of the etymological fallacy: the belief that we need to look to another language to determine what makes correct English.

Finally, the argument that the /aɪ/ pronunciation is correct because of the word's Germanic history doesn't make sense because historically, the /aɪ/ pronunciation is wrong. Either developed from Old English ǣġhwæðer, a combination of ā "always" plus ġehwæðer "each of two" (modern whether). It was contracted to ǣgðer, then later spelled either[2] - so it's the development of the initial ǣ that concerns us here. Old English ǣ was usually pronounced /æː/, and this generally became Middle English /ɛː/ which became Modern English /i/. For instance, Old English tǣcan with /æː/ became Middle English teche which became Modern English teach with /i/.[3] So it seems that the etymologically correct pronuncation of either is with /i/.

The OED notes that the /aɪ/ pronunciation is "not in accordance with the analogies of standard Eng[lish]" (I'm not even sure what that means, actually) but that it is "in London somewhat more prevalent in educated speech" than the /i/ pronunciation.

Summary: The /aɪ/ pronunciation still seems common in British English, but even if it isn't nothing important has been lost, and German spelling is irrelevant to English pronunciation.

[1]The American Heritage Book of English Usage (1996).
[2] Oxford English Dictionary, either.
[3]Millward, A Biography of the English Language (1988), p. 131.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

narwhal and nudnik

Proto-Indo-European *neh₂u- "death; to be exhausted" became Proto-Germanic *nāw-i- "corpse" and Old Norse nár "corpse" (AHD). Narwhal is borrowed from Danish narhval, from Old Norse náhvalr. It's thought that the Old Norse word is from nár plus hvalr "whale" with reference to the deathly colour of its skin. Or it could be from nál "needle". The presence of the r in the modern Scandinavian forms is unexplained (since the Old Norse word didn't have it), but it could have been added by folk etymological association with nár "corpse" (OED).

The Old Norse nár is cognate with the second element of Old English orcnēas "evil spirits, walking corpses". It's also cognate with need, but that's another story.

Nudnik "a pestering, nagging, or irritating person; a bore" is borrowed from Yiddish נודניק nudnik, which is from nudyen "to bore", borrowed from Polish nudzić "to bore" or Russian нудить "to wear out (with complaints)". Both of these are from Proto-Slavic *naud-ā- from *neh₂u- (AHD).

Thursday, 22 July 2010

dacha and Pandora

Proto-Indo-European *deh₃- "to give" became Russian дать "to give" and дача dacha "grant (of land)". A dacha is a summer villa.

In Greek, *deh₃- became δῶρον "gift", which combined with πᾶς/πᾶν "all" to form Πανδώρα "all-gifted", borrowed into Latin as Pandōra, the first woman that all the gods gave gifts to.

Saturday, 17 July 2010


The Indian government has developed a new symbol for the rupee:

It's pretty cool, because it looks like both R and the Devanagari र ra. However, I think it would be better as a रु ru (for Hindi रुपया rupayā) or रू (for Sanskrit रूप्य rūpya).

This is because Devanagari is an abugida: the vowels are respresented as diacritics attached to the consonant letters. When you abbreviate a word that begins with a consonant in Devanagari, you don't abbreviate to the first consonant, you abbreviate to the first consonant and vowel. So the usual abbreviation for rupee in Hindi is रु॰. (The circle is an abbreviation sign.)

On the back of one of my Hindi children's books is the name of the publisher:

Pitambar Publishing Company Productions Private Limited. The last two words are प्रा॰ लि॰ prā li - an abbreviation for "productions private limited" (I think).

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

sloe, livid, lavender

Proto-Indo-European *sleiH- "bluish" became Serbo-Croatian šljìva "plum" and šljivovica "plum brandy", borrowed as slivovitz. *sleiH- also became Old English slāh and English sloe, blackthorn fruit.

According to the AHD, *sleiH- became Latin līuēre "to be bluish" and līuidus "bluish", borrowed thru French as livid.

Lavender is from Anglo-French lavendre from medieval Latin lauendula. It was thought to be connected to lauare "to wash", either because the plant was used in perfuming baths or laid among linen. But the OED notes that "on the ground of sense-development this does not seem plausible; a word literally meaning 'washing' would hardly without change of form come to denote a non-essential adjunct to washing". Another suggestion is that lauendula is from *līuendula, from līuidus. Lavender is bluish.

Friday, 9 July 2010


I just got back from a vacation in Hawaiʻi, and while I was there, surrounded by dolphins, sea turtles and squid, I of course got to thinking about the ʻokina, the symbol used to represent the Hawaiian glottal stop. At first I thought it was an apostrophe, but closer inspection revealed that it usually resembled a single left quote:
According to the prescriptive and citation-free wikipedia page, it should only look like a single left quote, and any other rendering is wrong. However, in some places, like on signs in the ʻIolani Palace museum, it's rendered as a backquote, and on some street signs it's an acute accent:

On other street signs, it's a straight apostrophe:

And once with a double left quote:

This article has a lot of detail on the different ways the ʻokina is rendered.

In other news, I spotted this awesome multilingual sign in a restaurant (click for bigger image).

Can you guess them all? Here's the answer.