Monday, September 19, 2005

“On Language” 9/14: ‘Lost’ in Translation

Lost in translation: Author’s linguistic explanation off mark
On Language
Chicago Tribune
September 14, 2005
By Nathan Bierma
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Most reviews of Rebecca Solnit’s “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” rave that Solnit has delivered an elegant work. But some of them also praise the way Solnit incorporates what she says is the etymology of the word “lost.”

“The word `lost,’” Solnit says, “comes from the Old Norse `los,’ meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world. I worry now that many people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know.”

But ask an etymologist and you’ll find that Solnit’s literature is better than her linguistics. Like many enticing etymological explanations, this alleged Old Norse origin may make for a good story, but it isn’t necessarily true.

“It is not even a theory: it is sheer nonsense,” e-mails Anatoly Liberman, professor of medieval literature and linguistics at the University of Minnesota and author of “Word Origins and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone,” (Oxford University Press, 320 pages, $25).

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 09/19 at 03:12 PM
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Saturday, September 17, 2005

Ought the Modal

Wouldn’t that be a good name for a character in a children’s book? Anyway, here’s Arnold Zwicky this summer at ASD-L:

“ought” is an interesting case; for most speakers these days it’s
just barely a modal.  like the central modals, it’s finite-only (*to
ought to VP).  for a lot (but not all) speakers, it can be negated,
either affixally or with “not” (you oughtn’t/ought not to talk like
that); this is marginal for me.  however, most modern american
speakers can’t invert positive “ought” (*ought you to talk so loud?),
though if you get “oughtn’t” you can probably invert it (oughtn’t you
to talk louder?).  i think that very few people can get VP ellipsis
with “ought” (*I ought to leave, and you ought, also); instead,
infinitival “to” allows ellipsis (I ought to leave, and you ought to,
also).

so “ought” is a bit like the modal “must”, and is also a bit like the
non-modal obligative verb “have” (I hate to have to tell you this, *I
haven’t to eat this, *Have I to eat this?  *You have to eat this, and
I have, also).  the crucial modal property of “ought”, however, is
the first one, the finite-only restriction, which would predict that
“ought” cannot be the complement of a modal (since modals take base-
form VP complements), so that “shouldn’t ought to” ought to be
ungrammatical. ...

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 09/17 at 04:15 PM
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Gemination: Consonantal ‘Twinning’

Earlier this year in English Today:

Gemination in English

Alan S. Kaye a1
a1 Professor of Linguistics, California State University, Fullerton

An account of consonantal ‘twinning’ in English and other languages.

THIS ESSAY concerns itself with gemination in English, but more specifically, it asks whether English has consonantal gemination (CG), as has been reported by some in the literature. Gemination is usually defined as a phonetic doubling (cf. Latin geminus ‘twin’); however, phonetic length (as opposed to a single or nongeminated segment) is a more accurate designation (see Matthews 1997:141, who cites Italian atto [at[Length mark]o] ‘act’, making reference only to ‘doubling’). It has long been known that English does not have contrastive CG as is recognized, say, from the phonemic difference between Classical and Modern Standard Arabic kasara (‘he broke’) and kassara (‘he smashed’) or darasa (‘he studied’) and darrasa (‘he taught’).

English Today (2005), 21: 43-55
Cambridge University Press
Copyright © 2005 Cambridge University Press

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 09/17 at 04:09 PM
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Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Essentials

Quoted at Language Log:

English is essentially Norse as spoken by a gang of French thugs.
English is essentially the works of Joyce with the hard bits taken out.
Swedish is essentially Norwegian spoken by Finns.
Danish is essentially Norwegian, only you drop out all the consonants, skip all the vowels and then mispronounce the rest.
Spanish is essentially Italian spoken by Arabs.
Francophones are essentially Germans speaking the bad Latin they were taught by Gauls.
French is essentially an attempt by the Dutch to speak a Romance language.
French is essentially a language that elides everything that doesn’t get out of the way fast enough, and nasalises everything else.
Russian is essentially Punjabi that fell off the wagon. Contrariwise, Punjabi is essentially Russian with better spices.
Modern Greek is essentially Classical Greek as spoken by Venetians.
Mandarin is essentially Chinese as spoken by Mongols.

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 09/01 at 01:54 PM
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