Wednesday, September 5, 2007

A New One

Here's one I haven't heard of before: documentation of a Basque-Icelandic pidgin that developed about 400 years ago. Sailors and traders have to communicate somehow, so they ended up with this interesting combination of languages. Also mentioned in the link: evidence of a 16th-century basque-algonquinian language.

H/t languagehat.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Linguistic forced adoption

I wish more linguists were language teachers.

In the last couple of years I've done some tutoring in Latin. Part of the program in teaching Latin usually includes a specific focus on what English words have descended from the vocabulary taught in each lesson. I discovered a small pet peeve on my part when I noticed that the kids' teacher often gave them words that, while related to the Latin word, did not come from them. E.g.: English night from Latin nox, noctis. Yes, we have very many words that come from Latin (let's see, so far I've already used: tutoring, usually, includes, specific, focus, descended, vocabulary, discovered, part, noticed, related). But we do speak a Germanic language, after all, and lots of our words go back from modern English to Old English to Proto-Germanic to Indo-European. (I'm skipping steps here, of course, but the route is clear nonetheless, and doesn't pass through Latin.)

So if Indo-European is the parent language, then the languages that descended from her dialects into their own separate languages are the daughter languages: Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, Persian, Slavic, Germanic, etc. That makes Latin a sister of (proto-)Germanic. She may be an elder sister, but a sister nonetheless. So if an Indo-European root yields words in both Latin and Germanic, then we say they both come from IE, not that the Germanic word comes from Latin, or vice-versa. Let's trace a few random words to get this distinction down.

Night. Not from Latin. There is a direct line from Modern to Middle to Old English (niht, neaht) to proto-Germanic naht, which also yields nahts in old Gothic, Nacht in German, natt in Norwegian, etc. Parallel to the Germanic naht (sisters, again) would be Latin nox, noct- and Greek nyx, nyxt-, as both descend from the Indo-European root nekw-t-.

Cry. From Latin. This word has an interesting etymology, recently posted at Language Hat. It is one of many words that came into Middle English through Old French and Latin. It doesn't appear in any form in Old English, and therefore doesn't come from Proto-Germanic.

Picture. From Latin. Pictus, past participle of pingere, plus the -ura suffix, came directly into Middle English. (The pingere form, having morphed to peindre in old French, finds itself with a new past participle form--peint--that also comes into English as paint.)

At. Not from Latin. The Latin preposition ad is related, but as a sister (not a mother) to the Germanic at. (Ado also comes from Germanic at, but through Norse.)

I'm not sure why it bothers me that people attribute to Latin words that came from Germanic; it's not like the English language has its feelings hurt, and either way kids are learning that languages are connected. And yet, Latin is so obviously important, it doesn't need help from false attribution; whereas I always enjoy pointing out the Germanic character still strong in our language (since it is the most Romancified of the Germanic family). Mostly I guess I just like it when people are precise, and while I know too much about how languages change to expect precision from the average speaker, I would like teachers to be able to make the distinction, or know enough to look it up.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Cool Quotes #11: The Decline of English

There seems to have been in every period in the past, as there is now, a distinct apprehension in the minds of very many worthy persons that the English tongue is always in the condition approaching collapse and that arduous efforts must be put forth persistently to save it from destruction.
--Thomas R. Lounsbury, grammarian (1908).

Sunday, September 2, 2007

China Fixes Signs, For Great Justice

This article is from back in February, but I just came across it while browsing funny signs and bad translations. Apparently the coming of the Olympics has Beijing all embarassed with the prospect of the rest of the world seeing the horrendously funny translating job displayed on many of their signs, and there's a campaign underway to fix the signage around Beijing:
For the next eight months, 10 teams of linguistic monitors will patrol the city's parks, museums, subway stations and other public places searching for gaffes to fix.
(Eight months starting last February, and lasting the rest of this year.) You absolutely must click on the picture and enjoy the horror slide show.

The funniest part to me is the actual resistance to removing such signs on the part of nostalgic Westerners. It's ok, guys, we'll always have Zero Wing.