Things that are relative

Melinda and I just had differing intuitions about whether +6 °F / -14.5 °C can be properly referred to as “still warm out”. To my excuse, the context was my car, which really is overdue a service, and therefore gets plugged in even though that’s indeed mild for early January  in interior Alaska.

The naming of deer (EN, DE, FR)

Because Melinda and I just had a conversation about this:

  • Alces alces — AmE: moose; BrE: elk (mostly); DE: Elch; FR: élan or orignal.  The word moose seems to be borrowed from an Algonquian language, while elk is a cognate of alces and many other names in Germanic, Slavic languages as well as Greek. The etymology of the French words is surprisingly complicated (I’m reading about Basque for orignal and Lithuanian for élan — to be confirmed!).
  • Cervus canadensis — AmE: elk or wapiti; BrE, FR: wapiti; DE: Wapiti or Wapitihirsch. _Wapiti_ is from a Shawnee or Cree word. German speakers who don’t know the correct name would sort this one under Rothirsch.
  • Cervus elaphus — EN: red deer; FR: cerf élaphe; DE: Rothirsch. This is the animal European German speakers think of when they say Hirsch, or the French when they say cerf — the prototypical deer of the continental European forests. The American elk (wapiti) was believed to be a sub-species of this (apparently incorrectly), and would be naively considered as a large red deer by Europeans.
  • Dama dama — EN: fallow deer; FR: daim; DE: Damhirsch. Apparently introduced to Europe from the Middle East/Western Asia as a huntable deer species by the Romans.
  • Capreolus capreolus — EN: roe deer; FR: chevreuil; DE: Reh. The Latin/scientific and French words make me think that for some time the animal was grouped with goats.

In German, the general term for a member of the deer family (Cervidae), of which all of the above are members, is _Hirsch_. Colloquially, a red or fallow deer, or a member of a non-native species such as a Sitka deer, wapiti or white-tailed deer would be referred to as a generic Hirsch, but a roe deer would be a Reh and a moose/elk an Elk. I’ve heard young Germans refer to an image of a Chinese water deer as _Säbelzahnreh_ (saber-toothed roe deer).

When I was a child, seeing roe deer on a drive through the countryside was a moderately rare treat. Very very occasionally you might spot a red deer. The question “War das ein Reh oder ein Hirsch?” was common, and it’s hard to translate because English has no word for deer that excludes the roe deer. So you might go for something indirect (“Was this a roe deer or some other kind of deer?”) or, better, for something more specific depending on what other kinds of deer would be around (“Was this a roe deer or a white-tail? a roe deer or an elk? a roe deer or a moose [um, these two are hard to confuse]?).

Jacques Chirac’s magical stickbread

Arnold Zwicky’s lovely post this morning about baguette and how it’s surprisingly not a diminutive of bague threw me into reminiscing about my time in Paris — 12 years of my life. Instead of continuing to hijack the comment space over there, this is something to pursue on this blog, even though we seem to be averaging a post every year and a half.

In particular, there’s the half-remembered anecdote about Jacques Chirac, the former French president, which I’ve now chased up acros the ‘nets.

Baguette (the bread), of course, is a part of life in France with a high level of cultural significance, but the word can refer to all sorts of things parting from the basic meaning “small stick”: chopsticks are baguettes, and so are drumsticks (the kind you use for operating drums with [1]); there’s conductor’s batons; and there are magic wands. And this is where the anecdote picks up: In 1995, Jacques Chirac was elected president in an election that tipped from the political left to the right. In his first public speech, he said that he didn’t have a magic wand to solve France’s economic problems (unemployment was very high and I remember research labs getting close to being broke). The phrase was seen as the new president’s central statement and widely reported including in the international press. Unfortunately, in some countries the meaning of the word baguette was so strongly linked to the bakery product — 250 g of delicious crust with a little bit of relatively heavy white dough inside — that reporters didn’t think when translating baguette magique (“magic wand”) into their own language. A Belgian paper reported on the election and speech as follows:

De Morgen
The Belgian paper De Morgen of September 1995 reporting that the newly elected president of France “has no ‘magical stickbread'” (heeft geen “magisch stokbrood”) in a mis-translation of baguette magique [2]

Those crazy French with their over-emphasis on food — ascribing magical qualities to something mundane as bread.

As far as I can tell from trying to find a correct account of this story online, the phrase magisch stokbrood has since become a little bit of a jocular cliché in Dutch and/or Flemish (I do not know if the spelling differs in the two languages), following the rise of the Harry Potter book series.

(As a final note, I chose between magic and magical in English on intuition. It’s clearly magic wand in the idiomatic expression, but I think magical stickbread sounds better than magic stickbread. Opinions?)

[1] As for the chicken parts, in France chicken legs aren’t usually separated into what in English are called “thighs” and “drumsticks”, and the entire thing — about a meat portion’s worth for a smallish chicken — is referred to as cuisse (“thigh”).
[2] I was very happy to find this image in a Belgian blog in Flemish, where I took the liberty to steal it.

Friday link dispatch 03

Today’s links still follow the endangered language theme with special emphasis on Alaska Native languages.

The first one is fun. Frozen Whitefish  is a rock band from Bethel (a town and Yup’ik village of 6500 off the road system in south-west Alaska close to the coast) that was features in the Discovery Channel series Flying Wild Alaska.  They sing in Central Yup’ik, so if you’re interested in learning the language, you may want to listen. And the link goes to their MySpace page, where you can listen to a number of quite well produced tracks. Here is a video, in somewhat lower sound quality, but still, charming (via the Alaska Daily News Rural Blog)

Frozen Whitefish performing Maani Alaskami live at the 2011 Alaska State Fair


The second one is serious and comes out of a gallery & workshop entitled “Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska” of the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Anchorage: Sharing the Dena’ina Language (via Talking Alaska):

Sharing the Dena'ina language - a language instruction video

The third one is a news report about how to preserve an endangered language: Living Languages reports on cumpulsory Ijaw in Bayelsa schools in Nigeria. Balyelsa is a state of Nigeria. Now not all of the 10 Ijoid languages may be endangered and I have no way of gauging the effectiveness and coverage of the Bayelsa school system. Still, the approach of making a declining local language compulsory is the winning formula if the basic conditions are united. I remember that when I was a teenager in the 80s, there was much sadness and nostalgia about the imminent death of Irish and Welsh, two Celtic languages and thereby preeminent vehicles of European culture. Well, no one does this any more. It makes me very happy to hear teenagers speak Irish among each other in the streetcars of Dublin, thereby escaping the danger of being overheard by old ladies like myself — the middle-aged being the generation with the lowest rate of competency in the language. As for Wales, I hear that the demand for Welsh instruction for adults is up significantly.

Friday link dispatch 02

Today we have two Inuit (Canadian) videos to complement the recent Alaska Native language/culture resources post.

Two school girls practicing Inuit throat singing (YouTube). There are many videos on the various video services that demonstrate this art form, which can be referred to by a variety of terms and is carried out typically by two women standing close to each other, face to face. I particularly liked this video because the young women are doing it casually between school classes:

Janet Aglukkaq and Kathy Keknek throat singing between their classes at Qiqirtaq Ilihakvik High School in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut.


Anirniq – (Breath), Winner Best Short Film at the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival 2010 (Vimeo). A magical tale in Inuktitut with English subtitles about death, hunting, nature, and the belief that when we die, our soul goes into the living beings around us:

Aniriniq - Breath (Brüdder Productions, Canada, 2010)


Friday link dispatch 01

On one of my blogs, there used to be automatically generated link posts via The method was never very reliable, and I abandoned it as it was never updated from its rather basic functionality. In particular, every single link I saved on was re-posted (instead of, say, just the links marked with a “post-me” tag). But I miss the link roundups. So let’s bring them back.

How to choose appropriate terminology when writing a historical novel. Which of the following words would you expect were not being used at all in the early 19th century, or had a markedly different sense than in today’s English: manipulate, blink, looped, conversationalist, knowledgeable, traipsing? The writer Marie Robinette Kowal, author of (among other works), Glamour in Glass, which is set in 1815, presents her anachronism-busting method. It involves extracting a word list from Jane Austen’s oeuvre and looking up each non-Austen word in the OED.  (Via Language Hat.)

Earliest know uses of some (many) of the words of mathematics and earliest known uses of some mathematical symbols:

FRACTAL. According to Franceschetti (p. 357):

In the winter of 1975, while he was preparing the manuscript of his first book, Mandelbrot thought about a name for his shapes. Looking into his son’s Latin dictionary, he came across the adjective fractus, from the verb frangere, meaning “to break.” He decided to name his shapes “fractals.”

Fractal appears in 1975 in Les Objets fractals: Forme, hasard, et dimension by Benoit Mandelbrot (1924- ). The title was translated as Fractals: Form, Chance, and Dimension (1977).

These pages, which must have been around for some time, are the work of Jeff Miller. Full of historical, lexical and typographical information and rich in references.

Tai, Chen-To: A historical study of vector analysis. I’m reviewing some of the maths I knew 15 years ago (gracious, am I rusty!) and came across this 1995 paper (available as a PDF file),which is even geekier (and certainly more specialized) than the pages in the previous link. It presumes familiarity with the subject of vector analysis as taught to math, physics or engineering students in their first years and covers historical texts mostly from mathematics and electromagnetism with respect to the notation of the derivatives (gradient, divergence, curl), with or without the Nabla operator ∇ (also called del). The author is opinionated and also has a second text, A Survey of the Improper Uses of ∇ in Vector Analysis.

Personal names around the world. A short but useful page from the World Wide Web Consortium.

People who create web forms, databases, or ontologies are often unaware how different people’s names can be in other countries. They build their forms or databases in a way that assumes too much on the part of foreign users. This article will first introduce you to some of the different styles used for personal names, and then some of the possible implications for handling those on the Web.

(Hat tip: Pat Hall on Facebook.)

Alaska Native languages

So I live in Alaska now: circumstances change, and life remains endlessly fascinating. 1

For a new European expat in North America, Alaska is one of the more unusual places to land on. Compared to Texas, the second largest US state, it’s 2.5 times the size, but less than 3% of the population (about 700,000, half of them living in the Anchorage area). It has a variety of climates, most of them extreme, and endless environmental, geophysical and atmospheric phenomena rarely found elsewhere, from volcanoes, via the swampy tundra to the aurora borealis. Even many Americans seem to be unaware, or astonishingly dismissive, of the ways day-to-day life in Alaska is unlike any other place in the US.

One of many language-related features is that Alaska is the US state with the largest percentage (15%), if not absolute number, of inhabitants of Native American heritage. As far as language families are concerned, most Alaskan Native languages belong either to the Eskimo-Aleut (such as Iñupiaq, Central Yup’ik, Alutiiq etc.) or the Na-Dené (also Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit) family. Many of them, especially in the second group, are endangered (or worse).

Even though identical or related groups are involved, terminology both for people and languages is not uniform across the Alaskan/Canadian border. “Eskimo”, for example, is regarded as derogatory in Canada (and Greenland), and you’d most likely find references to Inuit peoples and (though this is a less universal term) Inuktitut for their languages, which may well be written in Inuktitut syllabics. In Alaska, while it seems appropriate to use the term somewhat self-consciously as an outsider, “Eskimo” is often found in self-descriptions and seen as useful as it is a general term covering distinct but related groups of people: “Iñupiat Eskimo”, “Yup’ik Eskimo”, though the second part’s optional: “I’m Iñupiaq and I count” was proudly written on some T-shirts for last year’s census. Oh, and as for pronunciation, I haven’t figured it out entirely, but “Iñupiaq/Iñupat” has three syllables and is stressed on the first.

My employer, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, pays attention to how it serves the educational needs of Native students and rural communities (overlapping but not identical categories), and also has a number of research interests, in particular through its Alaska Native Language Center.

The ANLC web site is worth digging around in. My favourite is the Native Peoples and Languages of Alaska map, first published by Michael Krauss in 1974 and recently (2011) updated. It can be ordered, and there is an interactive (zoomable) online version on the Alaskaskool web site (Alaska Native culture resources for kindergarten through high school teaching).

Now for learning an Alaska Native language, UAF of course offers classes (I’m tempted), but barring that, there are a number of sites that have “word of the day/week” features. Some, though currently inactive, may still be worth discovering (Athabascan word of the week, Iñupiaq Word of the Day, the Inupiatun language circle on Facebook). My favourite is the Alutiiq word of the week from the Alutiiq Museum on Kodiak Island, which I really want to go visit in person. There’s also an online shop with artwork as well as more Alutiiq language resources.

Last, blogs. Talking Alaska is a group blog on “topics related to Alaska Native languages, including language documentation, language revitalization, language activism, and language endangerment”. A recent interesting post, for example, approached the issue of whether to replace the (non-indigenous) term “Athabascan” with “Dene” (also: Dené), and why.

Via Talking Alaska I found Writing Raven, a Tlingit/Dena’ina Athabascan, and her blog Alaska Real. She has a three (1) part (2) series (3) on why it matters to keep Native languages alive and addresses a series of misinformed arguments against language revitalization. An excerpt:

For the most part, what happened to the Native languages of the Americas wasn’t a natural evolution. What happened was traumatic, invasive and left no room for real adaptation. […]
I had a great Tlingit teacher who talked to us about a common Tlingit expression I heard growing up. When someone says “Gunalcheesh” (thank you) – the response is often “Ho ho!” (you’re welcome.) I really did hear this often.
What a surprise to learn it didn’t mean what I think it meant over 20 years later! “Gunalcheesh ho ho” actually is one phrase, and is used to emphasize the thank you – like “Thank you VERY much.” There is no phrase commonly said, traditionally, to respond to thank you, as there is in English. But the “young kids” as she said (she meant my parents generation!) were changing this, and this new kind of word was emerging.
To a language, she said, this is a great thing. It shows the language is alive, and adapting. The “young kids” were choosing to change this on their own, because it suited the younger culture more, and it brought two languages together.

I love the story, and think she’s entirely right.


  1. Two countries and a blog or three ago there were France and Diacritiques, the bilingual language blog: rough around the edges, but well-liked and well-linked by a small number of interesting people. Then, in 2006, came a big jump to the UK, an employment in commercial software replaced freelancing and occasional teaching. It was a good step in many ways, but not for my blogging, and this place never took off. Now, as of six months ago (February 2011), another big jump: after 15 years I left European capitals behind and joined my partner to live outside Fairbanks, latitude 64.8, to go back to working in a scientific environment. This footnote is for the benefit of any old reader from 5 years ago who might be interested. There are no promises or big announcements: I dislike blogging-about-one’s-blogging, so the note ends here.

Can you read 19th century txt spk?

@guardianstyle on Twitter points to an article by Mark Brown announcing what sounds like a wonderful exhibition the British Library is preparing: Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices (Nov 12, 2010 – Apr 3, 2011).  There’s even a second piece, by Alison Flood.

British Library exhibits are reputed to be large, well-made and almost over-abundant (I’ve only been to one, Taking Liberties, and it was of this style.) If the Guardian is to be believed, usage controversies get a large place in Evolving English, which makes it particularly relevant to this blog. The press has its favourite topics, and one is text-message style abbreviated writing — which is only the latest manifestation of a type of language play that is of course much older. Here is a 19th century example, from the first article:

There will be examples of the linguistic games people played, and a poem from Gleanings From the Harvest-Fields of Literature, published in 1867. In it, 130 years before the arrival of mobile phone texting, Charles C Bombaugh uses phrases such as “I wrote 2 U B 4”. Another verse reads: “He says he loves U 2 X S,/ U R virtuous and Y’s,/ In X L N C U X L/ All others in his i’s.”

I think that modern txt spk would spell XLNs. Also, note the apostrophes in “wise” and “eyes”.

S****ing with all these hookers

Over on Facebook, a friend posted a link to the article “Lotto lout Michael Carroll going back to being a binman after blowing £9.7m win”, in which the Daily Mail, a paper known for its even-handed quality reporting, is nearly falling over itself in breathless excitement over the story of a man who spent a £9.7 Mio lottery win in only 8 years. My friend commented: “One thing I’ll say is thank God the Daily Mail starred out the word “sleeping”. Unless it was something else…”. Here is the passage in question (including the surrounding paragraphs for context):

Daily Mail article asterisking out slumming (probably)
Daily Mail article asterisking out "slumming" (probably)

I rather do think it’s “something else”, given that “sleeping” (in the sense of “having sex”) appears without asterisks in just the previous paragraph.

Whenever I happen to open a copy of what is called the Red Tops here in the UK, the numerous words that are being camouflaged by asterisks surprise me anew. Once, it took me a minute or more staring at “b******s” to finally figure out the word was “bastards”.

As always when you make people work harder for understanding, it increases the salience of the object they have to put in all this effort for and thereby draws greater attention to it — as evidenced by my friend’s comment when posting the article. So this, rather then prudishness, may be the real reason the tabloid press is so fond of the asterisks of avoidance.

So modern snakes eat dinosaur eggs?

From the article “Prehistoric snake gobbled-up dinosaur babies” by Jeremy Hance, which was published on on March 2, 2010:

A fossilized snake has been discovered inside a titanosaur nest in India, leading researchers to conclude that the snake fed on newly-hatched dinosaur babies, rather than their eggs like modern snakes.

The thought process is quite clear, though probably even in its long form simplistic:

  1. This prehistoric snake ate freshly hatched baby dinosaurs.
  2. Modern snakes evolved from prehistoric snakes.
  3. Birds evolved from dinosaurs (though there’s some fuzziness around the edges of this statement).
  4. Birds (and most reptiles) lay eggs.
  5. Modern snakes eat eggs.

But here, it got telescoped into an over-shortened version in which the pronoun “their [eggs]” carries the entire weight of referring, simultaneously  to  dinosaurs in the prehistoric case and (unnamed) birds in the modern case.