Gaelic as a bonsai word bag (with two missing)

« previous post | next post »

Back in October, Allan Brown wrote a piece in Times Online about the money being spent on promoting and broadcasting the basically moribund Scots Gaelic language. It seemed at first that he was making a reasonable critique: spending about $30,000,000 on a digital TV service for a language with no more than 50,000 speakers, all of them bilingual in English and most of them without digital TV, could be argued (though linguists aren't supposed to think this way) to be an enterprise of doubtful value. But just as I was getting interested, Brown blundered into linguistics and revealed his dumb side:

I say language but Gaelic isn't one, not really. Its vocabulary is tiny, with no form of saying yes or no and attuned to a distant, pre-technological world. It's essentially a kind of rural patois, a bonsai idiolect; a way of specifying concepts central to a particular, highly codified way of life.

Yecchhh. Everything about the layman's concept of a language that I rail against is there.

A language, for Allan Brown, is just a big bag of words, and Gaelic hasn't got enough of them to count as a language at all. (You don't have a real language unless you have one that's just like mine in having one-word interjection-like sentence substitute particles for affirmation and denial; mine is a language, yours is just a patois, so there.) He doesn't know what "idiolect" means, either. (An idiolect, by definition, is spoken by just one person, not 50,000.)

And then, bafflingly, he completely undercuts his thesis about the "tiny" vocabulary by making a point about it being super-rich rather than tiny:

You might think, for example, that the word sgriob is just a bad hand at Scrabble; it's actually the Gaelic word describing the tingle of anticipation felt in the upper lip before drinking whisky. The fact that Gaelic has a six-letter word for this while English has a twelve-word phrase reveals a lot about Gaelic ways and priorities.

No it doesn't. It reveals nothing. I happen to know a one-syllable word (turd) for a piece of excrement shaped by its expulsion from the anal sphincter, but that doesn't reveal a lot about my ways and priorities. It is a completely meaningless and useless random factoid about the lexicon of the language I happened to grow up speaking. That lexicon also contains scrum, buttercup, ogre, bong, and thorium. If you try to form an impression of my ways and priorities from such things you're a moron.

As I say, Brown does make some fair points about the irrationalities and impracticabilities inherent in sentimental save-the-language political movements on behalf of moribund languages spoken only by old people; but as soon as he starts trying to talk about the linguistic properties themselves he becomes another gibbering fool mumbling the usual nonsense about nouns (the X have no words for Y but N different words for Z, and all that hogwash). He doesn't really know what a linguistic system is.

I've said all this before. People just aren't listening. Nobody listens. I am like a man opening the door of a mountain cabin in a blizzard in order to howl into the wilderness that the snow should stop. It will never stop. Laypersons (forgive me, good lay readers of Language Log, I don't mean you) will never stop seeing a language as nothing more or less than a big bag of words. Or worse, I suppose, a tiny one. Sigh.



77 Comments

  1. Z. D. Smith said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 5:34 pm

    I suspect our respondent might be taking a trip into underinformed lexicography, as well. Can somebody with access better than mine to: a) a Scots Gaelic dictionary, b) some understanding of Scots Gaelic morphology, or c) both of the above possibly confirm that the above 'sgriob' really does have the unique and uniquely expressive (so uniquely SCOTTISH!) meaning that's being ascribed to it?

    I should note, Geoff, that it's not only a language's detractors (or even skeptics, or apathetics…) that commit this sin, repeatedly. I was reading a book by Michael Wex—a booster, a lover, a speaker, and (one is told) a scholar of Yiddish—and nearly the very first paragraph of the thing starts right in with it: (I'm paraphrasing here) In Yiddish, the canonical greeting is 'Sholem Aleykhem'. (peace be with you) The only acceptable response is 'Aleykhem Sholem' (and with you). Already we can see the Yiddish spirit, when a conversation can only be initiated by announcing your willingness to say the opposite of your interlocutor. In Yiddish, even when one is not disagreeing, one is always speaking against the other one!' (and on, and on, until I throw the book across the room)

    I don't blame the people who think like this. I think that it is the product of two layered errors. The first is that most people are absolutely convinced that language is by its nature endowed with a certain spirit, and that the spirit of a language is emblematic of, if not identical with, the spirit of the nation that speaks it. And the second is that, when one casts about for some example of this, some linguistic object to hang one's hat on, the thing that reveals itself to the non linguist is the things that they say in order to create language, ie, words.

  2. Jessica said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 5:35 pm

    I am listening! And appreciate your efforts. :)

  3. peter mcburney said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 5:43 pm

    That English has no word to describe the tingle of anticipation felt in the upper lip before drinking whisky says an enormous amount, none of it positive, about the culture and values of sassenachs.

  4. Stephen Jones said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 5:50 pm

    The greeting and response in Arabic is essentially the same as in Yiddish.

  5. Z. D. Smith said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 5:54 pm

    Wex acknowledges that, actually, but insists somehow that it's a telling fact about Yiddish, and just a matter of coincidence when it comes to Arabic. Which is why I get so blind with rage when people say things like that sgriob is uniquely emblematic of an alcoholic culture.

  6. Jen said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 6:36 pm

    The bit about the 'tingle of anticipation felt in the upper lip before drinking whisky' comes from Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue – although they could have both found it somewhere else, of course.

    I don't have easy access to Dwelly's at the moment, as it's the university holidays, and the dictionary I do have (MacLellan's?) is deep in a box somewhere.

    According to SMO's Stòr-dàta Briathrachais, sgrìob (with the accent) has various meaning mostly connected to scratching – a furrow, a line, a rut, a scrape, a track, a journey, a bereavement, a calamity (and various verbal meanings – trawling, scribbling, rubbing).
    One of the words for an itch is sgrìobach.

    (But it's more of a word list than a dictionary, so it doesn't give proper descriptions, or order the definitions (except alphabetically).)

    So it seems a fairly reasonable word to use for that feeling, if you wanted one – but I can't imagine that that specific meaning is intrinsic to the word.

  7. Bill Poser said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 6:39 pm

    The greeting and response in Arabic is essentially the same as in Yiddish.

    There is an important difference in usage. Many Muslim authorities consider it improper for a Muslim to use this greeting with non-Muslims. In Yiddish and Hebrew there is no such restriction (other than the fact that not many non-Jews speak these languages).

  8. Constance said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 6:43 pm

    Latin doesn't have single words for "no" or "yes" either.. to this person this is somehow a disqualifying factor for being a language? Interesting.

  9. Johanne D said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 6:46 pm

    If you listen to a conversation in Portuguese (in Portugal at least), you will rarely hear "yes". A Portuguese will answer a question by repeating the verb (ex. : Gostas disso? Gosto. Queres ir? Quero. (Do you like this? I like. Do you want to go? I want.) Would the journalist conclude that Portuguese, lacking a word for "yes", is akin to a patois?

    As a En-Fr translator, I often have to find ways to express in French an English word that has no direct equivalent. Ex.: Can you give me a lift? is rendered as "Can you take me home?", "Can you drop me off?", etc., according to circumstance. That doesn't mean French lacks the power to express the concept of "giving a lift".

  10. mollymooly said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 7:24 pm

    I am like a man opening the door of a mountain cabin in a blizzard in order to howl into the wilderness that the snow should stop.

    Maybe you are naming the wrong kind of snow. Ask an eskimo to help you with the vocabulary.

    Many Muslim authorities consider it improper for a Muslim to use this greeting with non-Muslims.

    What about non-Muslim Arabic-speakers? Do they say it to each other and/or to Muslims?

  11. Bill Poser said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 7:31 pm

    What about non-Muslim Arabic-speakers? Do they say it to each other and/or to Muslims?

    Some non-Muslim Arabic speakers do use "salaam aleykum" with each other and to Muslims. It depends on exactly which group. Those Muslims who disapprove of using this greeting toward non-Muslims say that if a non-Muslim greets a Muslim with "salaam aleykum", the appropriate response is the truncated "wa aleykum" ) ("and to you"), without the "salaam".

  12. Z. D. Smith said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 7:37 pm

    Jen, you have to keep that to yourself. The whole implication behind the 'tingle on the etc etc etc' line is not simply that 'sgriob' can be used in that situation, but that that is the ONLY thing that sgriob means, that it means—to invoke another 'untranslatable'—davke 'tingle etc.'. The implication is clear: look at what these people choose to waste their words on! They went right by 'yes' and 'no' and came up with an incredibly silly (at this point I must confess that I myself do find Gaelic spelling in general to be a bit much, but that is of course a personal prejudice) word for such a specific concept!

    If Mr. Brown had acknowledged that 'sgriob' means at least a half dozen things, one of which is that if you say, (perhaps), 'Ah, I've got the old sgriob on', that your co-drinkers will know just what you mean—well, I suppose what he would say is that it would have lacked some rhetorical punch.

  13. carissa said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 7:37 pm

    I love that even Geoffrey K. Pullum is still susceptible to the righteous indignation we first-year graduate students so often (and enthusiastically) succumb to when trying to explain to laypersons why exactly we're still in school. No, I don't speak a lot of languages and I don't want to work for the U.N. or the FBI! Ah the linguist's lot.

  14. Karen said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 7:44 pm

    I'm on vacation and don't have my Colin Mark (or Dwelly, or anything, in fact), but as far as I'm aware "sgriob" means a "trip" and usually a walking one. Which is not to say that there aren't other meanings for the word.

    Capercaile has a song called Tobermory, which contains these lines:

    Bheir mi sgriob do Thobar Mhoire
    Far a bheil mo ghaol an comann.

    Bheir mi sgriob dhan Lochaidh luachrach,
    Far a bheil mo ghaol an t-uasal.

    Which they translate as:

    I'll journey to Tobermory
    Where my love dwells.

    I will journey to Lochy of the rushes,
    Where my love the noble one is.

  15. Craig Russell said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 8:47 pm

    Why is this business about 'yes' and 'no' always such an important focal point for people? My Latin students are often deeply suspicious when I tell them that there's no real word that simply means 'yes' or 'no' in Latin, but why are we under the impression that English is any different?

    Perhaps my instinct about usage is inaccurate (as was the case with the recent series of LL pieces about the frequency of "will" to indicate the future) but I feel like it's fairly rare for English speakers to actually use the word "yes" to answer in the affirmative, rather than one of a number of expressions: yeah, yep, uh huh, right, sure, I am, I do, I will, you bet, true, no doubt, and so on.

  16. mollymooly said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 8:53 pm

    Where English has only two words yes-no, where French and German have oui-si-non and ja-doch-nein. Stupid English!

  17. dveej said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 9:23 pm

    Dude! It's cold – shut the door already; there's snow coming in.

  18. Bobbie said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 9:41 pm

    As the Beatles sang about their confusion:
    You say yes, I say no.
    You say stop and I say go go go, oh no.
    You say goodbye and I say hello
    Hello hello
    I don't know why you say goodbye, I say hello
    Hello hello
    I don't know why you say goodbye, I say hello.

  19. latinist said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 9:43 pm

    I'm a layman, and I'm listening, and I agree that this "sgriob" stuff is pretty silly. But if you're saying that the existence of a word for something in a language doesn't ever reveal anything about a culture, well, that's quite a stretch. The English word "bong" would probably not exist in a culture where smoking was unheard of, right? Until relatively recently, as far as I know, English (like other languages) had no word for "heterosexual"; is it really that much of a stretch to say that the creation of that word reflects a change in attitudes about the normality of different sexualities? Classical Greek had a word (I wish I could remember it) for "man who kidnaps free people and sells them as slaves"; English does not. Doesn't that correspond to a difference between the two cultures?

    Certainly this kind of theory is much abused, but that doesn't mean it never has any value.

    [No, no, no, no, no! Piffle and balderdash! English words come to exist for tiny, trivial reasons that have no importance at all in the culture. There are words denoting things no speaker has ever seen nor ever will (leprechaun), things that aren't even legally possible in English-speaking cultures (polygamy), things that may not exist at all in any culture (ghost), things that might but they wouldn't matter to any of us and they'd been too small to see (quark), things that presumably exist but that no ordinary speaker could define (syllable)… And and as for the idea that "the creation of that word [heterosexual] reflects a change in attitudes about the normality of different sexualities": what was this change of attitude? For both gay sex and straight sex, some English-speaking people think it's completely disgusting; some think it's delightful and should be freely enjoyed without restraint between consenting friends; some grudgingly allow it might be permissible within the bounds of a monogamous relationship; some think it should only occur in private; some think it's fine to do it in public on the beach; some scarcely even know what it is or how it's done; some couldn't care less… There has been no specific change of attitude! This whole indicative-of-our-culture line of thought is vacuous nonsense! And here you are peddling it in the expensively carpeted halls of the Language Log Plaza comments area! I've had it with you, latinist. I'm cancelling your subscription to Language Log. You are no longer allowed to view these pages. Don't even look at this. Language Log has no word for you. —GKP]

  20. Karen said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 9:58 pm

    ps – @carissa … Linguists adopted the word which already meant 'someone who speaks more than one language'. They should have stuck with philologist. (Of course, then they'd have to deny collecting stamps, I expect…)

  21. Bill Poser said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 10:00 pm

    Classical Greek had a word (I wish I could remember it) for "man who kidnaps free people and sells them as slaves"; English does not.

    "slaver"?

  22. Garrett Wollman said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 10:06 pm

    Of course lay people look at languages as "big bags of words". They aren't taught any of the other facets which matter to linguists, except on the barest and most instinctual level. (I believe Mark L. has commented before about his experiences teaching phonology to first-year students — and these are people who presumably have some prior interest in language studies or they wouldn't have enrolled in his class.) Vocabulary is universal (just look at a dictionary if you're not sure); most speakers' knowledge of grammar is instinctual (leavened with Thistlebotham-ish superstition).

  23. James C. said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 10:29 pm

    @latinist: Nobody denies that having a word for some concept might tell you something about a culture. It’s that people have words for things they talk about, and don’t have words for things they don’t talk about. This isn’t a startling revelation, it’s a stupidly obvious fact that is almost a tautology. Linguistically naïve people act like this is an astounding insight into a culture, but it’s not at all. Most importantly, a cultural concept bound up in lexical items doesn’t tell you *anything* important about individual psychology of members of a culture, which is an illogical leap into fallacy that many pundits seem to enjoy committing.

    In this case, assuming that Scots Gaelic really does have a distinct word for this particular feeling about whisky is rather unenlightening. It would be far more peculiar and notable if Scots Gaelic *lacked* terminology associated with whisky and its imbibing, since they are the people who invented it. The existence is no more notable than English speakers having words for various farm animals. That English has different words for male and female farm animals can’t really be extrapolated out into any deep insights other than the fact that English speakers in the past regularly differentiated the sexes of farm animals in their speech. Implying that all English speakers somehow have a deep and abiding relationship with farm animals because of the existence of such terminology is patently ridiculous.

    There is an area where such investigations are fruitful, one example being Bronislaw Malinowski’s ethnography of Trobriand Islander farming practices (“Coral Gardens and their Magic”). He spends a lot of time investigating how their language reflects their social life around agriculture. This is useful for an anthropologist trying to wrap their head around a totally foreign way of life. But making broad, unfounded generalizations based on simple lexical items and acting like these are some kind of mind blowing discovery is inane.

  24. Mark Liberman said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 10:44 pm

    James C.: …making broad, unfounded generalizations based on simple lexical items and acting like these are some kind of mind blowing discovery is inane.

    It's especially inane if the alleged facts about simple lexical items are false, as this one very probably is. Jen's research (cited in the comments above) suggests that sgrìob apparently means something connected with an itch, fancifully extended by some to the particular circumstance of anticipating the taste of whiskey. And if Allen Brown really got this example from Bill Bryson's book, that alone should be enough to make rational people suspicious — see the reviews on amazon.com, or this old LL post, for evidence of Bryson's gullibility and/or carelessness as a peddler of linguistic exoticism.

  25. Nathan Myers said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 11:16 pm

    I wonder how many words English has for "hogwash".

  26. Ray Girvan said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 11:32 pm

    "slaver"?

    Trafficker?

  27. D. Wilson said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 11:57 pm

    At Google Books: Macleod & Dewar: _A Dictionary of the Gaelic Language_ (1853): "Sgrìob … s.f. A scratch, track, mark, line or furrow; a trip, journey, excursion; a calamity or bereavement; an itching of the lip, superstitiously supposed to portend a kiss, or a dram. 'Sgrìob poige,' 'Sgrìob dibhe.'"

  28. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 12:07 am

    You make a good point, Latinist. But as James C. and others point out, people sometimes exaggerate things.

    Your example of the word "heterosexual" is a good one. We never used to use that word, and now we do. That tells us something.

    But what does it tell us, exactly?

    The very fact that a word that was previously uncommon in English later became common in English seems to imply that we weren't "stuck", by virtue of speaking English, with only one way of conceiving of sexuality and same-sex and opposite-sex romances. The language of Milton and Austen at one time didn't seem to need the word "heterosexual", but then later on, things changed. People started talking about sex and romance a bit differently, and so our everyday vocabulary changed.

    Whatever the existence of words like "heterosexual" or "bong" or "retro" or "24/7" might say about a culture, I don't think they indicate a mysterious unchanging ineffable "essence" of a culture.

  29. Victoria Martin said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 2:40 am

    "Laypersons (forgive me, good lay readers of Language Log, I don't mean you) will never stop seeing a language as nothing more or less than a big bag of words."

    This reminds me of the time I heard an Austrian politician on the radio arguing in all seriousness that what German needed in order to compete with English in the global market was more words. His argument ran "English is more successful than German – English has more words than German – therefore we need more words." He didn't say where he proposed to get the extra words from.

  30. Brian Hillcoat said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 5:52 am

    If English has more words than German, how is it that 'Mind the gap' in London becomes 'Beim Aussteigen bitte beachten Sie die Lücke zwischen dem Zug und der Bahnsteigkante' in Berlin?

  31. Spectre-7 said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 7:00 am

    If English has more words than German, how is it that 'Mind the gap' in London becomes 'Beim Aussteigen bitte beachten Sie die Lücke zwischen dem Zug und der Bahnsteigkante' in Berlin?

    Isn't that precisely what one would expect when encountering a language with comparatively few words? As a language's lexicon swells, one might expect its individual lexemes to become increasingly fine-grained, allowing for more information to be expressed in fewer words.

    Poor impoverished German simply doesn't have the same breadth of vocabulary as English, so in order to express the same concept, they're forced to improvise with a heaping pile of whichever words they have available.

    To shift this to a more familiar setting, we can look to the Inuit and their amazing and illustrious snow-based vocabulary. Where we English speakers require no less than 9 words to express the concept of snow mixed with the shit of a lead dog, the Inuit require only the one word quinyaya.

    [/tongue_in_cheek mode]

  32. John Cowan said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 7:36 am

    In fact, heterosexual and homosexual are twins in English: the oldest quotations shown by the OED are in fact from the same work, Chaddock's 1892 translation of Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis.

  33. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 9:51 am

    An because I'm an enthusiastic (French) Scrabble player, I feel compelled to note that "sgriob" is not even a valid Scrabble hand: it is one letter short of being one.

    Wow, I think we now have an amusing expression for stupid language commenters: "To be one letter short of a Scrabble hand".

  34. JanniR said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 10:54 am

    Dare I? Yes, I dare. I'm going to bring this subject back up even though it got latinist "banned".

    "English words come to exist for tiny, trivial reasons that have no importance at all in the culture."

    Sometimes, yes, but certainly that's not always the case, is it?

    "There are words denoting things no speaker has ever seen [...], that aren't even legally possible [...], things that may not exist at all [...]"
    Perhaps I'm merely dense, but I fail to see the point being made here. If a language or dialect has coined a word to express something that doesn't have a similarly facile means of being expressed in other languages or dialects, and we consider the language as being tied to one culture (as would be the case if we were to talk about American English, specifically, for instance), then why can't that word have at least the possibility of being tied to an aspect of cultural personality?

    It appears from some of the above comments that "sgriob" has been unfairly represented (in a way that makes the Scottish fraction of my blood get a little hotter) as evidence of an alcoholic culture, when it might mean any number of things beyond "itching for a drink", loosely. But let's take that as an example of laymen showing their lack of knowledge, or an example of irresponsible journalism, not as some basis for offense that leads us to what might be a PC-driven ideological rejection of the whole notion of words telling us about the culture that uses them. Yes, language is more than a bag of words. I would submit that the grammar and syntax of a language *also* reflect the personality of a society, although of course changes to these aspects of language happen slowly enough that they say more about the the personality the society once had in olden days.

    "And and as for the idea that "the creation of that word [heterosexual] reflects a change in attitudes about the normality of different sexualities": what was this change of attitude?"
    Why, good sir, this question startles me with its sincere myopia. (Was that sentence pretentious? I'm merely trying not to respond rudely.) I'm sure you've noticed that gays are more accepted in modern societies, and that, not the creation of the word (back in 1892, as it turns out), but the coinage of it as a *commonly* used term, indicates our desire to accommodate the homosexual lifestyle by implicitly acknowledging its existence while we talk about a straight relationship as heterosexual. To boldly say "There has been no specific change of attitude!" alarms me, as I think linguists ought to have at least a passing familiarity with shifts in social values to see their effects on language. It's absurd to act as if society as a whole still has the same proportion of people with a "prudish" view of sex and those with a "looser" view of sex that it did 50 years ago or more. Please tell me that I misunderstood your comment and you were not actually saying that.

    [Of course I'm not saying that society as a whole still has the same proportion of people with a prudish view of sex as 50 years ago or more. What do I know about such things? Fifty years ago I was a small boy in an all-boys school. The attitudes of the inmates were profoundly permissive about sex (the art teacher being especially fond of visiting the boys' locker rooms on swimming days, as I recall), though since access to the heterosexual kind was completely lacking, the attitudes of the boys toward heterosexuality were based almost entirely on rank, utter ignorance of the topic. But what does this have to do with anything? I never made any claim that attitudes had or had not changed. This is Language Log, not Sexual Attitude Log. What I claim is that the accidents of word coinage don't tell us anything about events in the evolution of our culture. Nothing can be read off the appearance and disappearance of odd lexemes that isn't utterly trivial. (That is, you can say that we now have a one-syllable potentially non-abusive term that can be used as an alternative to sodomite, but that's trivial in the sense that it's about the word itself. What you can't read off the late-20th-century meaning of gay is whether things have been getting better for gays or not in real non-linguistic terms. And the recent trend for gay to be used by young children to mean "contemptible, feeble, or unfashionable" doesn't tell you anything either.) JanniR, you have irked me by harping on this silly topic, and I hereby ban you too. No, don't weep. I hate a weeper. Your subscription to Language Log is cancelled. You are not to look at Language Log any more, or have friends tell you what it says. You are an unperson. You are dead to us. —GKP]

  35. Randy said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 11:30 am

    "An because I'm an enthusiastic (French) Scrabble player, I feel compelled to note that "sgriob" is not even a valid Scrabble hand: it is one letter short of being one."

    Unless you're near the end of a game, there are no tiles left in the bag, and you only used one tile in your last turn.

  36. Matt said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 12:00 pm

    I'd agree except that English isn't really a language but more of a series of colloquial expressions designed specifically to convey only a limited sense of meaning based on the nuances of a previously-generated but now defunct series of languages having their roots in other languages now long-ago forgotten. It's also well-typified as being a phenomenological multi-rooted dialectical amalgam more closely approximating a series of slang-phrased interpolated and cognate-based tranliterational phenomes specific to only generalized, limited contexts or cultural reference points. It may be true that while English resembles a real language, it isn't one in fact. So your whole point can't even be made since you're not using a real language.

    Go get a real language and then talk to me.

  37. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 12:07 pm

    To return to the original topic for a moment —
    "The utility of Scottish Gaelic will be variously appreciated. Some will be disposed to deride the vain endeavour to restore vigour to a decaying superannuated language. They who reckon the extiripation of the Gaelic a necessary step toward that general extention of the English, which they deem essential to the political interest of the Highlands, where the inhabitants can, at present, receive no useful knowledge whatever, except through the channel of their native tongue will probably be of opinion that the Gaelic ought at least to be tolerated …

    This is from the introduction to Elements of Galic Grammar by Alexander Stewart, C. Stewart & Co.,Edinburgh, 1801. "The channel of their native tongue" indeed! And ye say tha we Scots dinna look forward.

  38. Z. D. Smith said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 12:31 pm

    Forgive my impertinence, but wasn't that last little bit Lowland Scots, not Scots Gaelic? You Scots, such as you are, have not one but two minority languages to defend against attrition and public skepticism.

  39. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 12:40 pm

    Oh, one more thing —
    When it comes to non-bonsai, one might say "florid," vocabulary, I nominate Scots (Lallans) for the champ. Get Alexander Warrack's The Concise Scots Dictionary and start browsing. (Amazon has 16 used copies. DO NOT DELAY!)
    Here are a few words we Scots have found the need for — there are hundreds more:

    Spanghew — to jerk anything violently into the air by placing it on one end of a board, the middle of which rests on a wall and striking the other end smartly, to torture frogs thus.

    Keesich — a word used by one entering a room where a person is already seated and requesting a seat.

    Logan — a handful of money or marbles thrown to be scrambled for by a crowd of boys.

    Hench — to throw missiles under the leg or thigh by striking the hand against the thigh.

    Scrog — the tilt given to a cap or bonnet on the head.

  40. Guy who looks suspiciously like latinist with a false mustache said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 1:13 pm

    JanniR already made most of my points, but I want to add a little. Look, I certainly wouldn't claim that it's always easy or possible to draw conclusions about a culture from its vocabulary. Or that there won't sometimes be weird coincidences. (Or, obviously, that there aren't words for illegal and imaginary things.) But it seems to me that the claim "the existence of a word is never in any way related to any aspect of the culture it comes from" is an awfully strong one, and needs to be defended a little better.

    I mean, let's go for the really obvious. Classical Latin has no word for "bazooka." Also, there were no bazookas in Ancient Rome. Our culture, by contrast, has both bazookas and a word for them. I hope no one will claim that this is pure coincidence, on the grounds that, after all, there are words for things no one has ever seen.

    If you're going to say that vocabularies can reflect the state of technology, but not of culture, well, I'd want to hear why.

    Here's a more cultural example: yes, we have a word for "polygamy." We do not, however, have a word for a social system under which marriages are always contracted between exactly three men, two women, and a dog. Does this maybe have something to do with the fact that the latter system has never (to my knowledge) existed, or been prominent in the popular imagination? If you learned of a language that had a word for that system, wouldn't you suspect that the culture from which it came had (or had once had) some knowledge of that system as a historical, legendary, or otherwise commonly imagined practice? Or would you just say "no, it must undoubtedly have arisen for some trivial reason totally unimportant to the culture"?

    [Sigh. Of course I wouldn't say that every word "must undoubtedly have arisen for some trivial reason totally unimportant to the culture". I said words do (i.e., sometimes do) arise for trivial reasons unimportant to the culture. So it's always hit or miss whether you can make even the most feeble and unilluminating inference. For example, to say that the absence of a one-word Latin lexeme with the exact meaning of bazooka tells us something about the culture of ancient Rome is not definitively false, but merely trivial. If it tells us anything at all (the inference is of course fallible: sometimes we invent devices that we do not name), it is only something we knew anyway (they didn't have shoulder-held anti-tank explosive missile-firing devices), and it tells us that only by way of the mere fact of them not having coined a noun to specifically denote such devices. This is not false, exactly, but merely pathetic as in insight into Roman culture or more generally language-culture relations. By the way... haven't I seen you before somewhere? —GKP]

  41. Russell said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 2:00 pm

    I had a comment, but it was pretty long, so it's on my blog. But the main point follows:

    Perhaps this has been said and I missed it, but here goes: simply finding a word in a dictionary that doesn't explain modern (or even past) usage and variation of usage probably means nothing for sociocultural analysis. But, if speakers of Scotts Gaelic went around talking about whiskey-tingling all the time, or if every mention of a person involved mentioning their hetero/homosexuality, and using those words in particular, -that- would no doubt tell you something about (some parts of) the culture. But that's -that a word is used- and -how a word is used-, not -that a word exists-. They're not unrelated (duh), but quite different things.

    I'm no expert on the coinage of words or the entrance and exit of lexical items — or more importantly, the widespread use or shunning of lexical items — but I presume that at the crucial time period where change is happening (the existence of such a period probably only discernible after the fact) there could well be some culturally-interesting fact related to the lexical change. It's something worth investigating, but the lexical change is not primary evidence, nor is it something that can be read off a dictionary.

  42. John Baker said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 2:22 pm

    At the risk of being forced to read Language Log only surreptitiously, and of confirming others' suspicion about my intelligence, I write in support of the views expressed by latinist. I think that the words in a language do tell you something about the culture that uses that language, though of course it's easy to make too much of this. We had the word "robot" before there were robots, but it's a word that would be unlikely to come into use in a pre-mechanical culture. And I do think I can draw a conclusion from Geoff's knowledge of the words scrum, buttercup, ogre, bong, and thorium. Specifically, I conclude that he probably has a good vocabulary. More broadly, I think he likely lives in a culture in which field sports, fairy tales, marijuana smoking, and physical science all exist, though each of these may or may not be prevalent.

    I do not, of course, support Allan Brown's conclusion on "sgriob," even if it had the specialized meaning he asserts. I don't think a stronger conclusion could be drawn than that people who speak Gaelic know about whisky and are open to the possibility that there are people who take an interest in drinking it. It certainly provides no support for his view that Gaelic-speakers are worthless sots, which clearly is his point. I suspect that Gaelic does not have an exact equivalent for "sommelier," which Wikipedia defines as a trained and knowledgeable wine professional, commonly working in fine restaurants, who specializes in all aspects of wine service, a role more specialized and informed than that of a wine waiter. The existence in English of "sommelier" and "wino" does not mean that ours is a culture dominated by wine-drinking, and I'm sure there are a great many teetotallers who know what both words mean.

    [This commenter, whose Language Log subscription has now been cancelled with immediate effect, should read my anticomment above under the remarks of the guy who looks suspiciously like latinist with a false beard. The only things I regret about what I said there is that I did not boldface words like trivial and pathetic. So I live "in a culture in which field sports, fairy tales, marijuana smoking, and physical science all exist", do I? No shit, Sherlock! Let's hear it for the deep insights into my culture that my word stock has revealed! (Excuse me. I have to go vomit now.) —GKP]

  43. G.L. Dryfoos said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 5:44 pm

    The only thing of relevance I could add to this is that if you're looking for a nice image of "a man opening the door of a mountain cabin in a blizzard in order to howl into the wilderness" please let me recommend W.C. Fields in "The Fatal Glass of Beer". It won't have anything about Gaelic or definitions of "a language", but if you watch it, you'll feel better.

  44. peter said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 6:01 pm

    "English words come to exist for tiny, trivial reasons that have no importance at all in the culture."

    Since every other single human artefact, from eye gestures to forms of counting to modes of inferential reasoning to kinship systems to systems of economic orgaization to religious beliefs and practices to buildings and landscape modifications, shows evidence of cultural influences and cultural difference, it would be very remarkable indeed were language to be the sole exception.

  45. Stephen Jones said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 6:17 pm

    Many Muslim authorities consider it improper for a Muslim to use this greeting with non-Muslims.

    You've been spending too much time on Memri, Bill. I've been greeted by and have greeted thousands of Arab Muslims with the phrase, and have heard your suggestion precisely once.

    [(myl) My experience, though less extensive than yours, is similar. However, theological opinions seem to vary widely, and in some places and times there have been some rather extreme rulings: according to this page at the UNHCR site about Pakistan, "In 1974 a law declared the Ahmadis "non-Muslims" and made it a crime punishable by death were they to use the Islamic greetings, the traditional call to prayer, or to pray in mosques. Amnesty International reported that several Ahmadis had been jailed merely for using Muslim greetings." ]

  46. The other Mark P said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 6:27 pm

    Here's a more cultural example: yes, we have a word for "polygamy." We do not, however, have a word for a social system under which marriages are always contracted between exactly three men, two women, and a dog.

    Such a word would come after the concept arose. Thus the language would be led by the culture, not vice versa.

    You need to show that having a language structure leads the people in a cultural direction really, to prove your point. Not that the culture leads the trivial part of language which is the vocabulary. (Because as we know, vocabulary is only a tiny aspect of language.)

    Are there noticeable cultural differences between German speakers living in Germany, Switzerland, Austrian, Italy and France? Are there cultural differences between the English speaking natives of the USA, NZ, Ireland and Hong Kong? I say yes, there are very major ones. So where is the power of language then?

  47. Nick Lamb said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 7:54 pm

    John Baker, you're projecting your knowledge onto the vocabulary, from "bong" you choose to assume that it's a word for drug paraphernalia and for "ogre" that it's a word for a fictional being. But "bong" is a perfectly good onomatopoeic word for the sound a bell makes and thus a verb for hitting a bell or similar, and "ogre" is a word for an unpleasant person. When _I_ say zounds I know that it is an obsolete and fairly mild blasphemy, and I use it deliberately (particularly if someone has recently assrted that blasphemy by young people is proof that the world's going to hell in a hand basket) but most people who use it just think of it as an old-fashioned exclamation.

    Still, it's bogus that we're wasting public money (I don't care if you want to donate to a charity or volunteer, or learn the language yourself, but don't use tax money) on languages that no-one was really using. It's pure politics, and it'd be nice (in the same world where the BBC fact checks science stories) if we could pump this money into ESL programs, better support for learning a second or subsequent language in schools, etc. instead. But it's not only politics, it's party politics in an election year (depending on who you believe). Gaelic TV means votes from nationalist fruit loops whereas a language lab in the local secondary school is worth zilch on election day.

  48. Tim said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 7:59 pm

    Mustachioed Gentleman Who Resembles Latinist : I don't think the original argument was meant to entirely refute the idea that aspects of a culture can ever be gleaned from that culture's use of language. I think that what's being berated here is an observed tendency of people to assume a linguistic curiosity holds deep cultural meaning.

    If the common approach to X have a word for Y were "I wonder if that's significant? I should invesitgate.", then I doubt this post (and others like it) would exist. The problem is that the common reaction to X have a word for Y seems to be "Goodness! Why are the X so obsessed with Y?"

    So, you're right. A language can give clues as to what's important in a culture. But, just because it can doesn't mean it always does. The issue at hand is with the people who fail to recognize that.

  49. John Baker said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 9:33 pm

    Nick Lamb: Any effort to derive conclusions from the words in a language must start with the assumption, rightly or wrongly, that one can discern what those words actually are. In practice, failures of this type are legion and are exemplified by Brown's own misuse of "sgriob" (though, if it had meant what he supposed, it still would not have supported his point). So if Geoff really meant "bong" to signify the sound of a bell, and not a device used to smoke marijuana, then I went astray in one of my conclusions. "Ogre," on the other hand, is the same word, just one that can have multiple though related meanings.

  50. Nigel Greenwood said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 6:20 am

    In his novel Shame, Salman Rushdie makes the observation "To unlock a society, look at its untranslatable words". Of course the fact that a term may be untranslatable sheds light on the culture of the target language no less than on the source language. Another literary take on this problem is to be found in Borges' story Averroes' search, in which the Arab physician — who cannot imagine what a theatre might be — grapples with the term comedy when translating Aristotle's Poetics.

  51. Guy who looks suspiciously like latinist with a false mustache said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 8:51 am

    First of all, nope, never been here before, don't know what you're talking about, I deny everything.

    other Mark P: I didn't mean to claim that language in any way led culture (I don't know that it doesn't, but don't have any evidence that it does). I was just claiming that language, being produced by culture, could provide some evidence of characteristics of that culture. That's all. And I stuck with vocabulary because (a) that's what was mentioned in the post, and (b) it was easier to come up with examples. I'm not claiming any special status for vocabulary.

    GKP: I'm sorry if I misunderstood, but the claim really did seem to be, "vocabulary in no way reflects culture." But if it's just "vocabulary never reflects culture in interesting or important ways," well, why doesn't it? And what are the grounds for believing that it doesn't?

  52. Guy who looks suspiciously like latinist with a false mustache said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 9:10 am

    Also (and I think after this I'll stop, sorry for all the long comments), I'd like to make one more stab at a moderately significant connection between vocab and culture, by returning to "heterosexuality." What, ah, latinist was thinking of, if I correctly read his or her mind, was an idea that the lack of a word for heterosexuality (and as far as I know, there really was no word for it, even to the extent that there were words for male and female homosexuality) reflected a treatment of heterosexuality as an unexamined norm, from which homosexuality was a divergence: the change in language would then be connected with a change in attitudes.

    And hey, look, a point of comparison: English still lacks a word for "sexual attraction to adults," though we have "pedophilia." And, surprise, our culture very much treats the former as the norm, and the latter as a morally and legally unacceptable divergence from it. (It wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that NAMBLA, or other types who want to normalize pedophilia, had in fact come up with a word for "attraction to adults.")

    Similarly, we have a word for "bestiality," but none for "sex between humans"; "incest," but none for "sex between unrelated people"; "rape," but none for "consensual sex." [I realize these aren't as good parallels, referring to acts rather than attractions, but I think the distinction still holds]. A couple hundred years ago, "sodomy" would have fit nicely onto this list: the existence of "heterosexuality" removes it, and, more or less over the same time, hetero- and homosexuality have come to be much more widely (though not, of course, universally) treated as equally valid and normal states.

    [I hope it's not necessary, but I wouldn't feel comfortable if I didn't add an assurance that I agree with this change in attitude, and I'm not trying to say that homosexuality is actually morally similar to pedophilia, rape, etc. Just that our culture used to believe it was.]

    "miscegenation" and its lack of an opposite make an interesting addition to the list too. I don't know when the word originated, but I'll bet it was more in use when the practice was more widely thought of as abnormal and wrong: these days (to me at least) it sounds archaic and somewhat offensive.

  53. peter said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 9:32 am

    I am intrigued by Victoria Martin's anecdote:

    "This reminds me of the time I heard an Austrian politician on the radio arguing in all seriousness that what German needed in order to compete with English in the global market was more words. His argument ran "English is more successful than German – English has more words than German – therefore we need more words." He didn't say where he proposed to get the extra words from."

    The idea that the German language needs sprechensraum is fascinating! Could we see the wholesale adoption into German of words from a less-powerful language, say North Frisian, or, even further afield, say, chiShona? After all, if these other languages are simply allowing their words to sit idle, not being fully exploited on a daily basis by a large community of speakers, not even being exported, then surely no reasonable observer could object to a more successful language offering them the chance to move up a stage or two in the language-development cycle, perhaps even eventually becoming a world language.

    And, operationally, this process looks quite feasible. Both German and chiShona, for instance, have multiple noun classes, so the "merger" of the two (let us use this polite term, rather than "takeover" or "theft") under a common linguistic protectorate could be achieved with the addition of just a few more noun classes to German. As well as German's Masculine, Feminine and Neuter, chiShona's classes for "entities from the spirit realm", "things or persons inspiring fear", "long thin objects", "green things", etc, could provide enormous creative scope for a German language long stifled by having to operate within a small and constraining finite vocabulary. Not to mention the new lease of life the merger would provide to German grammaticians, long bored by having quickly mastered such a simple set of syntax rules. Who knows what mischief idle grammaticians could get up to if left unchallenged, so let us put them to work straight away on designing the rules for the new merged language!

    And afterwards, let's see English try to beat German then!

  54. Huntington said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 9:55 am

    "And the recent trend for gay to be used by young children to mean 'contemptible, feeble, or unfashionable' doesn't tell you anything either." That may or may not be true (except why did "gay" evolve to have this meaning? Why not any other word? Can it have been a coincidence?), but once again, I argue that this trend isn't recent, unless by "recent" you mean the 1970s, when I was quite aware of it as a little boy who didn't understand why people kept using a word that I already knew described me as "contemptible, feeble, or unfashionable."

  55. Hans said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 10:06 am

    peter, why use 'merger' or 'takeover' or 'theft'? German has a perfectly good word for it: 'anschluss'. (Oh, that must tell us something about German culture, right?)

  56. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 10:18 am

    Does it strike anyone else odd that linguistics lacks a specific term for "to cause Sapir and Whorf to rotate in their respective graves"?

  57. sh said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 10:33 am

    Some commenters mentioned Dwelly, voilà:

    sgrìob, pr. pt. a’ sgrìobadh, v.a. & n. Scrape, rub off the surface. 2 Scratch, tear, mark with slight incisions. 3** Carve, engrave. 4 Draw lines or strokes on any surface, draw scratches. 5 Make a furrow. 6 Scribble, scrape, write. 7 Sweep off, make bare by rubbing. 8 Carry off, take away. 9 Comb or curry as a horse. 10 Snatch. 11 Lay waste, make desolate by a calamity. 12* Drag or dredge for fish or oysters. S. leat e, snatch or sweep it away with you; a’ sgrìobadh ’sa phort, dredging in the harbour; a’ sgrìobadh buntàta, scraping potatoes.

    sgrìob, -a, an, s.f. Scratch, track, mark, line. scrape. 2 Furrow, as a plough. 3 Cart-rut. 4 Trip, journey, excursion. 5 Calamaity, bereavement. 6. Itching of the lip, superstitiously supposed to portend, a kiss (s.-pòige), or s.-dibhe (or s.-drama), a dram. 7 Curry-comb. 8 Stroke of a whip-saw. 9†† Hurt. S. do ’n Ghalltachd, a trip to the Lowlands; thoir s. mu ’n cuairt, take a turn round, make a circuit; s. an t-sàibh mhóir, a stroke of the whip-saw; s.-croinn, the furrow of a plough; s. bhuntàta, a drill of potatoes.

  58. peter said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 10:54 am

    "As well as German's Masculine, Feminine and Neuter, chiShona's classes for "entities from the spirit realm", "things or persons inspiring fear", "long thin objects", "green things", etc, . . .."

    And in further support of my case for a merger, I am unable to find a German translation for "ectoplasm" in my German-English dictionary.

  59. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 2:42 pm

    @peter
    You have to look under "Ektoplasma." Sprach-Brockhaus says, "äusserer Teil des Zellplasmas." This is the senior meaning of the word.

  60. Simon Cauchi said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 3:25 pm

    @Brian Hillcoat said (December 30, 2008 @ 5:52 am): "If English has more words than German, how is it that 'Mind the gap' in London becomes 'Beim Aussteigen bitte beachten Sie die Lücke zwischen dem Zug und der Bahnsteigkante' in Berlin?"
    Isn't this an example of the admirable explicitness of German as against the implicitness of English? So long as you know German, the notice tells you exactly what to look out for. A foreigner in the London Underground might well ask "What gap? Where? How and why should I mind it?"
    Compare the English nominal compound "speed limit" (which takes a bit of guesswork to interpret properly) with the explicit German "Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung" (limitation of speediness), where the prefixes and suffixes do their job of indicating the relation between "speed" and "limit".

  61. Nigel Greenwood said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 3:41 pm

    @ Brian Hillcoat: If English has more words than German, how is it that 'Mind the gap' in London becomes 'Beim Aussteigen bitte beachten Sie die Lücke zwischen dem Zug und der Bahnsteigkante' in Berlin?

    For years vendors of t-shirts in London have made a tidy living out of selling MIND THE GAP t-shirts. Presumably these words evoke a certain nostalgia in tourists, for whom they may well represent the first & last words of British English they hear during their stay in the capital.

    As a frequent traveller on the Tube to Heathrow (though sadly not the recipient of any free Tube miles), I was a bit disappointed to notice recently that the recorded message on the Underground trains has now been changed to the rather more Germanic "Please mind the gap between the train & the platform".

  62. speedwell said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 3:45 pm

    A co-worker from Ireland and I were sitting in Germany one time (we were training in a new plant), and we were talking about how to spell in the languages that most interested us at the time. First we talked about English, and we came up with a rule for spelling: Use all the letters you think should be in the word, then take away two of these and add three more at random from the rest of the alphabet. For German we wound up with a variation: Use all the letters you think should be in the word, and double the word's length with letters chosen from the rest of the alphabet. For Irish Gaelic we made it: Throw out from the alphabet all the letters you think should be in the word, and spell at random using the remainder.

  63. Alasdair101 said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 4:23 pm

    Back to the beginning, Allan Brown is a well known ana-Gàidheil (anti-Gael) who for years had written this nonsense. As for non-technological, there are native Gaelic words for things such as internet (eadar-lìn) and electricity (dealain) where English has borrowed from Latin and Greek. This says nothing about either language but makes nonsense of cross-language sniping. All languages are equally capable of both innovation and borrowing.
    A bit of background on Gaelic. It's ancestor language, Old Irish, was contemporaneous with spoken Latin, it's the oldest Indo-European language still spoken, and Gaelic probably possesses the the oldest continuous living literature in the world (at least 1600 years). There are now only 60,000 speakers (and 40,000 partial speakers) because of a concerted effort by the authorities in Britain to exterminate it over the last four hundred years (Google the "Statutes of Iona"). They have realised their past mistakes and are now trying to redress the actions of the past. All a government can do is to throw money at it and people only see, with their short memories, all this money being spent on so few speakers.
    Interestingly, like Portugese, you reply to a question with the assertive form of the verb in Gaelic.
    e.g. An do sgrìobh thu gu do mhathair ?
    answer- Sgrìobh
    Did you write to your mother ?
    answer-Wrote
    Note the similarity sgrìob-scratch and sgrìobh-write, presumably from Latin scribere
    Tioraidh. Tha Oidhche-Challain ann an-dràsda agus tha an sgrìob orm. Bye. It's New-Year's Eve and I have an itch.

  64. Kel said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 7:39 pm

    Bobbie, I sure hope no one tries to read into the culture of the English world through Beatles songs… I agree that language sometimes can tell us a little about the culture the language sprung up from, but that shouldn't be taken as a given!

    One, two, three, four
    Can I have a little more?
    Five, six, seven eight nine ten I love you.

    A, B, C, D
    Can I bring my friend to tea?
    E, F, G H I J I love you.

    Sail the ship, Chop the tree
    Skip the rope, Look at me

    All together now….

  65. Nick Z said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 6:29 am

    @Alasdair101: There are (major) theoretical problems in deciding what language is older than another in general (first attested? On the basis of the first sound change that we can attempt to date objectively that distinguishes it from some other language? What do we mean by language? Etc.), and what "still spoken" means – e.g. if Hindi etc. do not count for Sanskrit, why should Modern Irish/Scots Gaelic count for Old Irish?
    Even leaving these questions aside I think the Greeks, for example, might disagree with you about your decription of Gaelic as the oldest IE language still spoken: Greek first attested c. 15th century BC. Irish first attested c. 5th century AD

  66. Dan T. said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 10:45 am

    A clothing retailer once had a jingle "Fall into The Gap"… is that what happens if you fail to mind it?

  67. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

    Interesting column in a parallel universe this morning.

    http://proof.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/12/31/besotted-etymologically-that-is/

    Side-note: We had our customary first-footing at midnight. Three of the six pipers already knew about sgrìob. We tested it with a dram of Bunnahabhain. Works every time. It is an ease to my mind to start the New Year properly.

    Good Hogmanay to all!

  68. Alasdair101 said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 4:17 pm

    @Nick Z. You're quite right and I didn't think carefully enough before posting. ( My excuse… It was New Years Eve). Apologies to my Greek and Indian friends.
    Bliadhna Mhath Ùr dhuibh uile.
    A Good New Year to you all.

  69. Cath the Canberra Cook said,

    January 2, 2009 @ 3:49 am

    I'm late, but another word for "man who kidnaps free people and sells them as slaves" is "blackbirder".

    This one's quite obscure outside Australia, I expect. It refers to a period in our history in the latter part of the 1800s, where Pacific Islanders were used as slave labour, mostly on sugar plantations.

  70. AKMA said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

    For those who’ve been racking their brains for the GReek, it’s ἀνδραποδιστής, isn’t it?

  71. jill Lundquist said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 4:13 pm

    Very belatedly, one of the tools used for finding clues about the origins and cultre of speakers of Proto-Indo-European is what vocabulary the reconstructed language had and what it lacked. As I recall, it has words for trees but very limited or nonexistent vocabulary for sea, so the likelihood is that the speakers of PIE came from an inland area. So there are situations where evidence about whether vocabulary exists or not is useful.

    However, the conclusions that are typically drawn about the supposed deep cultural meaning of these vocabulary differences are either trivial or ridiculously overblown. And what a coincidence that the obvious conclusions square so perfectly with cultural stereotypes!

    As a learner of Mandarin, I had to remember that (at least one) word for "thick" has a positive connotation of generosity in that language, whereas it has negative connotations (of stupidity, "thickheadedness") in English. I have certainly not concluded that Mandarin speakers are culturally more generous than English speakers, nor that English speakers somehow put a premium on being stupid. I instead now have two metaphors for thickness in my head.

  72. Vid said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 8:13 pm

    I'm listening, too, Mr. Pullum :-)

    Every time I read a new post on Language Log, I do so without reading the byline first. Nine times out of ten (okay, fine, I will admit that I am a charlatan and a fraud, and have done no research to back up this spurious statistical claim, but bear with me), I can immediately tell if a post is written by you or Mr. Liberman. I don't know why, but evidently something in your respective writing styles leaps out at me.

    The fact that it is only the two of you is probably because you are the most frequent posters (or because you post about things that most frequently are of interest to me). I'm sure if I read more I'd be able to pick out others, too. But the fact that I can see who is writing without seeing who is writing, as it were, is a gratifying affirmation of the fact that language is more than a mere bag of words, as you so succinctly put it.

  73. ajay said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 11:55 am

    "I'm late, but another word for "man who kidnaps free people and sells them as slaves" is "blackbirder". "

    It's not obscure to Flashman fans… the "blackbird trade" for example – and the Navy's West Africa station in the 1830s and 1840s was known as the Blackbird Patrol.

    Incidentally, the Beatles song referenced above would presumably be utterly incomprehensible to Arabic speakers, for whom both "hello" and "goodbye" are "salaam aleikum"…

  74. John Cowan said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 8:49 pm

    Pseudo-Latinist:

    On miscegenation, the OED says: "Coined by David Goodman Croly and George Wakeman in an anonymously published hoax pamphlet circulated in 1863 which implied that the American Republican party favoured mixed-race relationships." Note that the prefix is misce-, not mis-; it's dog-Latin for "mixed birthing."

    My daughter is a miscegenatrix (a word I just coined), as you can see by looking at my grandson when I am holding him.

  75. Merri said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 10:24 am

    I'm not at ease with those claims that lexicon isn't indicative of a culture's contents.

    Here are two questions, with suggested answers. If they're wrong, please explain me why.

    1) Why didn't ancient Greeks and Babylonians have any word for "locomotive" ? Because they didn't think of such an object.
    2) Why is it that English has a vocabulary of several hundred words and locutions about cricket, and no other language seems to have more than half a dozen ? Because cricket is an important part of traditional culture in many English-speaking (1st or 2nd language) countries, and not elsewhere.

    If I'm not allowed to conclude that ancient Greeks went mainly by feet / horse / cart and that the French seldom play cricket, your criteria for valid conclusions are too tight.

    BTW, counting words in Inuktitut is really difficult, as 99.99 % of them are intrinsically compound.

  76. A. Allan said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 4:30 pm

    Geoffrey,

    I read your article with a great deal of interest. Your knowledge of linguistics made your critique of Brown's argument far more coherent than mine could ever be, but you echoed some of my thoughts.

    Before you agree with Brown that Gaelic is only spoken by "old people", however, take a look at the figures showing an upsurge in interest in Gaelic-medium education, Gaelic pre-5 units, etc. Alternatively, take a listen to Julie Fowlis, or one of our other young Gaelic singers.

    Thanks,

    Alasdair

  77. Thomas K. Anderson said,

    July 25, 2011 @ 12:07 am

    ""miscegenation" and its lack of an opposite"

    Inbreeding?

RSS feed for comments on this post