Archive for May, 2022

Sweet, sweet sherbet drink (> frozen dessert)

What with the high heat (in the 90s) these days, at least here in Philadelphia, and all the talk of Semitic roots, especially those beginning with one or the other of the five Proto-Semitic sibilants, I feel an impulse to write about "sherbet".

Already from the time I was a little boy, I sensed that "sherbet" had an Oriental flavor, and I undoubtedly looked up the etymology of the word by the time I was in high school.  But the resources for studying the etymology of such words were not so advanced and readily available as they are now, so I probably didn't get much beyond realizing that the word was borrowed from Turkish into Western languages.

Now, we have easy access to a much fuller and deeper story of the origins and development of "sherbet".  Here I quote the complete entry for it from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed.

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Haunted funeral?

It took me three readings the other day to decipher the intended meaning of this headline in an advice column question: SHOULD I REVEAL HOW MY SISTER-IN-LAW HURT ME AT HER FUNERAL? Amy, in her Washington Post column Ask Amy (5/25/22), advised the question-poser to resist the urge to denounce the deceased when mourners were invited during the funeral to share reminiscences about the dear departed.

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Moloch and its countless congeners: the efflorescence of triliteralism

Quoting Wikipedia, Barbara Phillips Long writes:

…[S]ince 1935, scholars have debated whether or not the term refers to a type of sacrifice on the basis of a similar term, also spelled mlk, which means "sacrifice" in the Punic language. This second position has grown increasingly popular, but it remains contested.
Barbara was inspired to look this up by Gary Wills' article on the subject in The New York Review (12/15/12), which surfaced in some commentary she had read about the most recent school massacre. In the essay, Wills wrote "The gun is our Moloch." Leaving aside her opinions on guns and public safety in the U.S., here is the link if you are curious.
Barbara's question is whether there has there been any resolution of the debate about the origins, evolution, or meaning of the word Moloch. The Wiktionary entry did not clarify things for Barbara, since there's no reference to Punic, but a reference to Ammonite:

New Latin, from Μολόχ (Molókh), Greek rendition of Hebrew מולך (mólekh, Moloch), borrowed from Ammonite  (mlk), an Ammonite god mentioned in the Pentateuch, worshipped by Canaanites and Phoenicians, said to have demanded child-sacrifice.

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"United Kingdom (the)"

Table 1 in "Acute hepatitis of unknown aetiology in children – Multi-country", World Health Organization 5/27/2022, includes this:

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Political flapping and voicing of coronal stops

In most varieties of American English, coronal stops (/t/, /d/, /n/) that are not in the onset of stressed syllables are generally realized as ballistic "taps". And in these contexts, lexical (or historical) /t/ also loses its voicelessness.

So for most of us, traitor and trader are homophones.

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Double positives, part 2

The following tweet is from four years ago, but it's still relevant today.  Moreover, in reading through the replies to this tweet, I see interesting references to African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and remarkable resonances to Russian, including Vladimir Putin's "meddling".

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Comparing phrase lengths in French and English

In a comment on "Trends in French sentence length" (5/26/2022), AntC raised the issue of cross-language differences in word counts: "I was under the impression French needed ~20% more words to express the same idea as an English text." And in response, I promised to "check letter-count and word-count relationships in some English/French parallel text corpora, when I have a few minutes".

I found a few minutes yesterday, and ran (a crude version of) this check on the data in Alex Franz, Shankar Kumar & Thorsten Brants, "1993-2007 United Nations Parallel Text", LDC2013T06.

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Archeology and the recovery of ancient writing: bamboo strip manuscripts of seminal classics

My entire career as a Sinologist has been based on the study of archeologically recovered materials.  I'm talking particularly about the medieval Dunhuang manuscripts, but also the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Tarim mummies and their associated artifacts.  It's no wonder, therefore, that I have featured the importance of archeology for the study of language and linguistics so often in my posts (see "Selected readings" below for a small sample).

Now comes news of the recovery of a spectacular cache of bamboo strip manuscripts from a Chu culture site kindly provided by Keith Knapp (with some Romanizations, links, and annotations by me):

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Nasty toponyms

Below is a guest post by Corey Miller:

In the third volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, la duchesse de Guermantes mentions she fortunately doesn’t know any Jews. It’s the middle of the Dreyfus Affair at the end of the nineteenth century. She goes on to mention some tedious ladies who put the words “Mort aux Juifs” (death to the Jews) on their parasols. Mortified by this concept, I searched the internet, curious to see a picture of such an ombrelle.

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Trends in French sentence length?

"Memoirs of a Woman of Long Sentences" (5/21/2022) reproduced a plot from my 5/20/2022 talk at SHEL 12:

In the talk's slides, I used that plot (without the outlier-marking arrow) as a way of  illustrating the obvious point that "Older texts in English tend to have longer sentences".

And in my final slide, I suggested that "French seems different". That (imprudent) suggestion was based on my subjective impression of a few 18th-century works, where it seemed to me that sentence (and especially paragraph) lengths were much shorter in French-language works than in English-language ones from the same period.

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"Let it rot"

Another new term for expressing lack of interest in the present and future in China:

The rise of ‘bai lan’: why China’s frustrated youth are ready to ‘let it rot

Phrase bai lan gains popularity as severe competition and social expectations leave many young people despondent

Vincent Ni, The Guardian (5/25/22)

This one is borrowed from NBA usage:  "let it rot", referring to players who are on astronomical contracts but are not performing well.  As the son of an organic gardener who also raised earthworms, I can attest that the NBA metaphor was borrowed from the language of composting.

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Isaac Newton on spectrums

In "Spectrums", 2/24/2022, I described a struggle with magazine editors, long ago, over whether the plural of spectrum should be "spectrums" (which they wanted) or "spectra" (which was then the norm in technical discussions of acoustics, and remains so). In a comment, rpsms noted that

Newton arguably "revived" the word spectrum (at least in scientific work) in "Optiks" and I note that he uses "spectrums." "Spectra" does not seem to appear at all in the printed work.

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Japanese periodic table versus Chinese periodic table

[This is a guest post by Conal Boyce.]

As they say, "a picture is worth a thousand words." Here are two pictures, copy/pasted from Google Images: First, the Japanese periodic table, then the Chinese periodic table. I apologize for the tiny font, but notice how, in the Japanese periodic table, the symbol 'S' has the word for sulfur (硫黄) under it. That pair of kanji, Romanized as iō, is simply an annotation of the international symbol, S, not meant to 'compete with' S. (Glance also at the very long katakana items that appear elsewhere, e.g., for the element Sc or Mt. The nuance that I'm driving at will become clear after you compare the Chinese periodic table further down, and see how S, Sc, and Mt are handled there. No need to know any Chinese or Japanese at all to see what's afoot here.)


[click to embiggen]

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