Archive for Historical linguistics

Hol don

This morning while shaving, as I was listening to the radio around 7:30 a.m., I heard a medley of songs by three artists, all with the same title:  "Hold on".  But a funny thing happened in all three of these renditions:  whenever the singer pronounced the title phrase, it always came out as "hol don", at least to my ear.  But I don't think it was just my ear, since several times they prolonged the "hol" syllable and emphasized the "d" at the beginning of the "don" syllable.

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The emergence of Germanic

From their origins to the present day, speakers of Germanic languages have been distinguished by the high degree of their mobility on land and on water:  the Völkerwanderung during the Migration Period, Goths, Vikings, the British Empire on which the sun never set, Pax Americana….  From antiquity, they ranged far and wide, so it is not surprising to see them popping up all over the place and, in their travels, to come in contact with an enormous number of different ethnic and linguistic groups.

Before setting out on their multitudinous journeys, they had to have begun somewhere, and — on the borders of their original homeland — they had to have been in contact with other ethnic and linguistic groups.  I asked a colleague where and when they might have arisen, and who their neighbors were.

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: “arms”

An introduction and guide to my series of posts "Corpora and the Second Amendment" is available here. The corpus data that is discussed can be downloaded here. That link will take you to a shared folder in Dropbox. Important: Use the "Download" button at the top right of the screen.

This post on what arms means will follow the pattern of my post on bear. I’ll start by reviewing what the Supreme Court said about the topic in District of Columbia v. Heller. I’ll then turn to the Oxford English Dictionary for a look at how arms was used over the history of English up through the end of the 18th century, when the Second Amendment was proposed and ratified.. And finally, I’ll discuss the corpus data.

Justice Scalia’s majority opinion had this to say about what arms meant:

The 18th-century meaning [of arms] is no different from the meaning today. The 1773 edition of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary defined ‘‘arms’’ as ‘‘[w]eapons of offence, or armour of defence.’’ Timothy Cunningham’s important 1771 legal dictionary defined ‘‘arms’’ as ‘‘any thing that a man wears for his defence, or takes into his hands, or useth in wrath to cast at or strike another.’’ [citations omitted]

As was true of what Scalia said about the meaning of bear, this summary was basically correct as far as it went, but was also a major oversimplification.

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Sinitic for "iron" in Balto-Slavic

[This is a guest post by Chris Button]

There are a couple of brief suggestions in Mallory & Adams' Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture (1997:314;379) that the Lithuanian word geležis and Old Church Slavonic word želežo for "iron", which following Derksen (2008:555) may be derived from Balto-Slavic *geleź-/*gelēź- (ź being the IPA palatal sibilant ʑ), could possibly have a Proto-Sino-Tibetan association.

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A corpus-linguistic take on "emolument(s)" (updated)

From the Washington Post:

The study is a corpus analysis performed by Jesse Egbert, a corpus linguist at Northern Arizona University and Clark Cunningham, a law professor who did work in law and linguistics from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s (link, link, link, link), including co-authoring an article with Chuck Fillmore that was what really opened my eyes to the power of linguistics in analyzing issues of word meaning.

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An early fourth century AD historical puzzle involving a Caucasian people in North China

[This is a guest post by Chau Wu]

There is a long-standing puzzle that has attracted historical linguists’ interest. This is a single sentence of 10 characters in two clauses: “秀支替戾岡, 僕谷劬禿當” (xiù zhī tì lì gāng, pú gŭ qú tū dāng). The sentence does not make sense in any of the Sinitic topolects. Obviously, this appears to be from a foreign language using Sinographs as phonetic transcriptions. Indeed, the source document which gives this mysterious sentence clearly indicates this is in Jié 羯, a non-Sinitic language that showed up in China during the chaotic period known as the Sixteen Kingdoms (304-439 CE) marked by uprisings of 五胡 wŭhú ‘Five Barbarians’ (Xiōngnú 匈奴, Jié 羯, Xiānbēi 鮮卑, Dī 氐, and Qiāng 羌) against the Jìn 晉 dynasty.

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: “bear”

An introduction and guide to my series of posts "Corpora and the Second Amendment" is available here. The corpus data that is discussed can be downloaded here. That link will take you to a shared folder in Dropbox. Important: Use the "Download" button at the top right of the screen.

Starting with this post, I’m (finally) getting to the meat of what I’ve called “the coming corpus-based reexamination of the Second Amendment.” The plan, as I’ve said before, is to more or less mirror the structure of the Supreme Court’s analysis of keep and bear arms. This post will focus on bear, and subsequent posts will focus separately on arms, bear arms, and keep and bear arms; I won’t be separately discussing keep arms because I have nothing to say about it. [Update: If you're confused about why I'm following this approach, as one of the commenters was, I've offered an explanation at the end of the post.]

In discussing the meaning of the verb bear, Justice Scalia’s majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller said, “At the time of the founding, as now, to ‘bear’ meant to ‘carry.’’’ That statement was backed up by citations to distinguished lexicographic authority—Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, Thomas Sheridan, and the OED—but evidence that was not readily available when Heller was decided shows that Scalia’s statement was very much an oversimplification. Although bear was sometimes used in the way that Scalia described, it was not synonymous with carry and its overall pattern of use was quite different.

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Of jackal and hide and Old Sinitic reconstructions

[The first page of this post is a guest contribution by Chris Button.]

I've been thinking a little about the word represented by chái 豺* which I would normally reconstruct as *dzrəɣ (Zhengzhang *zrɯ) ignoring any type a/b distinctions. However, it occurred to me that a reconstruction of *dzrəl (for which Zhengzhang would presumably have *zrɯl) would give the same Middle Chinese reflex (I'm not citing Baxter/Sagart since they don't support lateral codas presumably for reasons of symmetry). I'm not sure if outside of its phonetic speller cái 才 there is any reason to go with -ɣ rather than -l in coda position for 豺. However, if we go with a lateral coda as *dzrəl, it looks suspiciously similar to Old Iranian šagāl from Sanskrit śṛgāla (perhaps even more so if we fricativize the Old Iranian /g/ to /ɣ/ intervocalically as in modern Persian).

[*VHM:  This is always a challenging word for translators.  "jackal" and "dhole" are two possibilities.]

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The dawn of etymology

Yesterday's SMBC:

Mouseover title: "Chicken etymology is really easy because the word origins AND the words you use to describe them are all 'bock bock bock'."

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: 'keep' (part 1)

An introduction and guide to my series of posts "Corpora and the Second Amendment" is available here. The corpus data that is discussed can be downloaded here. That link will take you to a shared folder in Dropbox. Important: Use the "Download" button at the top right of the screen.

With this post, I begin my examination of the corpus data regarding the phrase keep and bear arms. My plan is to start at the level of the individual words, keep, bear, and arms, then proceed to the simple verb phrases keep arms and bear arms, and finally deal with the whole phrase keep and bear arms. I start in this post and the next one with keep.

As you may recall from my last post about the Second Amendment, Justice Scalia's majority opinion in D.C. v. Heller had this to say about the meaning of keep: "[Samuel] Johnson defined 'keep' as, most relevantly, '[t]o retain; not to lose,' and '[t]o have in custody.' Webster defined it as '[t]o hold; to retain in one's power or possession.'" While those definitions could be improved on, I think that for purposes of this discussion, they adequately explain what keep means when it's used in the phrase keep arms. So I'm not going to discuss that data with an eye to criticizing this portion of the Heller opinion.

Instead, I'm going to use the data for keep as the raw material for an introduction to the nuts and bolts of corpus analysis. I suspect that many people reading this won't have had any first-hand experience working with corpus data, or even any exposure to it. Hopefully this quick introduction will enable those people to better understand what I'm talking about when I start to deal with the data that does raise questions about the Supreme Court's analysis.

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: Weisberg responds to me; plus update re OED

[An introduction and guide to my series of posts "Corpora and the Second Amendment" is available here.]

Two quick updates.

First, David Weisberg has replied to my response to his post on the Originalism Blog, but he doesn't address the point that I made, which was that I disagreed with his framing of the issue.

Weisberg also notes that I didn't respond to the second point in his original post (which dealt with a purely legal issue), and he goes on to say this:

Many people (and I think Goldfarb is one) believe the correct sense of the 2nd Amend is this: “The right of the people to keep and bear Arms, for use in a State’s well regulated Militia, shall not be infringed.” But, if that is what the framers meant, why isn’t that what they wrote? I think that is a very fair question to ask, and it merits an answer. After all, 5 words would have been saved. Will corpus linguistics provide an answer?

I'm not going to offer any views in this series of posts about how I think the Second Amendment as a whole should be interpreted; I'm focusing only on Heller's interpretation of the phrase keep and bear arms. So I'm not going to say whether Weisberg is correct in his speculation about what I think on that score. Weisberg then asks why, if the framers had intended to convey the meaning he posits, they didn't write the amendment in those terms. Although Weisberg thinks that is "a very fair question to ask," I don't think it's a question that's relevant to the issue as the Court framed it in Heller, which had to do with how the Second Amendment's text was likely to have been understood by members of the public, not with what the framers intended. Nevertheless, I'll say that the question to which Weisberg wants an answer is not one that can be answered by corpus linguistics.

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Dennis Baron (in WaPo) on corpus linguistics and "bearing arms"

The Washington Post published an opinion piece earlier today by Dennis Baron, with the self-explanatory title "Antonin Scalia was wrong about the meaning of ‘bear arms.’" The crux of the article:

By Scalia’s logic, the natural meaning of “bear arms” is simply to carry a weapon and has nothing to do with armies. He explained in his opinion: “Although [bear arms] implies that the carrying of the weapon is for the purpose of ‘offensive or defensive action,’ it in no way connotes participation in a structured military organization. From our review of founding-era sources, we conclude that this natural meaning was also the meaning that ‘bear arms’ had in the 18th century. In numerous instances, ‘bear arms’ was unambiguously used to refer to the carrying of weapons outside of an organized militia.”

But Scalia was wrong. Two new databases of English writing from the founding era confirm that “bear arms” is a military term. Non-military uses of “bear arms” are not just rare — they’re almost nonexistent.

A search of Brigham Young University’s new online Corpus of Founding Era American English, with more than 95,000 texts and 138 million words, yields 281 instances of the phrase “bear arms.” BYU’s Corpus of Early Modern English, with 40,000 texts and close to 1.3 billion words, shows 1,572 instances of the phrase. Subtracting about 350 duplicate matches, that leaves about 1,500 separate occurrences of “bear arms” in the 17th and 18th centuries, and only a handful don’t refer to war, soldiering or organized, armed action. These databases confirm that the natural meaning of “bear arms” in the framers’ day was military.

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The BYU Law corpora (updated)

[Cross-posted on LAWnLinguistics.]

I’d imagine that most people who’ve been actively involved with corpus linguistics are familiar with the BYU corpora—a collection of web-accessible corpora created by Brigham Young University linguistics professor Mark Davies. These corpora (and BYU’s corpus-linguistics program more generally) have played an essential part in the development of what I’ll call the corpus-linguistic turn in legal interpretation. The BYU corpora served as my entry-point into corpus linguistics, and they have provided the corpus data that has been used in most of the law-and-corpus-linguistics work that has been done to date. And beyond that, the BYU Law School has played an enormous role, in a variety of ways, in Law and Corpus Linguistics becoming a thing.

One of the things that the law school has been doing has been happening largely behind the scenes. For the past two or three years, people there have been developing the Corpus of Founding Era American English (COFEA)—a historical corpus that is intended as resource for studying language usage in the time leading up to the drafting and ratification of the U.S. Constitution. At this year’s conference on law and corpus linguistics (the third such conference, all of them hosted by the BYU Law School), we were given a preview of COFEA. And via a tweet by the law school’s dean, Gordon Smith, I’ve now learned that a beta version of COFEA is up and available for public playing-around-with, as are beta versions of two other corpora: the Corpus of Early Modern English and the Corpus of Supreme Court of the United States.

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