Monthly Archives: April 2010

Tutorial Communication

I think this is hilarious. Maybe because I’m American.

“”In my university, it is will known that in mixed tutorial groups, Americans tend to talk most, followed closely by Southern English types from richer backgrounds, while most Scots and Japanese tend to keep politely quiet. Note: Alan grafen, a Scot, points out that these same Scots are probably very voluble in the pub, where mate attraction is higher up the agenda than in my linguistics tutorials.” – Hurford”


When Commodore Perry forced open American trade with Japan in the middle of the 1800’s, he brought along with him a translator by the name of Manjiro Nakahama. Manjiro had been shipwrecked off of Japan years earlier, picked up by whalers, and brought back to live in Massachusetts, where, he reported he learned, among other things, including English, how to read newspapers on the toilet (I’ve already looked, that quote isn’t on Wikipedia, but trust me on this one.) He became an crucial part of the trade negotiations, being the first Japanese person to visit America, and one of the few translators of the Edo tongue.

Now, following after John, as he was more frequently called, I was reading “The Voyages of Captain Cook”, which consists of extracts from his journals, when I came across a pretty interesting quotation:

‘Emerging from Endeavour Straight, Cook sailed north-west until he fell in with the coast of New Guinea. The decision to make for Java was welcomed by all on board, of whom the greater part, says Banks, “were now pretty far gone with the longing for home which the physicians have gone so far as to esteem a disease under the name of Nostalgia” – the earliest recorded use of the word.’

This was written in 1770, which means the word ‘nostalgia’ is a pretty recent neologism. It comes from the Greek ‘nostos’ meaning return, and ‘algos’ meaning suffering. I was hoping it might come from ‘naus’ meaning ship, having something to do with sailing, or perhaps to do with algae, of which the portion of the Atlantic called the Sargasso Sea was rife to the point of becalming ships for days, but alas, those would be false etymologies. But in fact there is a whole section of Greek literature called the Nostoi, about Odysseus (and others) coming home from Troy, in the Homeric tradition. This word, and it’s origins, have also been noted at length by Kundera, I’m told – but what I wonder is if there was enough time in the intervening years for Manjiro Nakahama to have learned it before he headed back to Japan in 1850. It probably would have been particularly relevant to him.

Bringing the Cool

So, it is now officially summer. It’s nice outside, the meadows are inviting, and it is inevitably examination time. A friend of mine even skateboards to uni. Which is where the interesting bit comes in: during a lunch break, we decided to split a pizza. As we walked out of the shop towards the meadows, he handed it to me, explaining that he had to carry his skateboard. I sarcastically labelled him as selfish, as he wasn’t bringing anything for me.

“Oh, no, I got that covered. I’m bringing the cool.”

Now, my first reaction, as is fitting of a want-to-be linguist, was to muse as to the exact nature of why I found that phrase interesting. I figured it lied in two areas: the first in referring to ‘the cool’ as a tangible object, as is normal for the verb bring (cf. ‘The Things They Carried’ by Tim O’Brien for some wonderful examples of this), but also in the sublexical polysemy of bring. Not only is he bringing something, as in carrying it, but he could be interrpreted as saying ‘bring’ as in “I’m bringing it on”, as in I’m mustering forces for an attack, or inviting conflict. This might be hard for some people to realise, as I’m not entirely sure this sublexical definition is in most people’s lexicons, but for me, the idea of having a pro-militant version of cool is pretty chill. But perhaps I’m stretching it. I’ll look around for more examples of sublexical punysemy. (Ha!)

On Easter

Well, it’s Easter again. My memory for etymology lasts exactly 364 days, such that I find that today, like every year, I forget whence the name “Easter” originated. [I should warn you in advance: this post rambles a bit.] Wikipedia informs me of the following:

Old English Eostre (also ?astre) and Old High German Ôstarâ are the names of a putative Germanic goddess whose Anglo-Saxon month, Eostur-monath, has given its name to the Christian festival of Easter. Eostre is attested only by Bede, in his 8th century work De temporum ratione, where he states that ?ostur-monath was the equivalent to the month of April, and that feasts held in her honor during ?ostur-monath had died out by the time of his writing, replaced by the “Paschal month.”‘

Well, that’s all well and good. Paschal is from the Greek word for easter, Pascha, which in turn is from the Hebrew. More interesting, however, is that: ‘Eostre derives from Proto-Germanic *austro, ultimately from a PIE root *aues-, “to shine” and closely related to the name of the dawn goddess, *h2ausos, whence Greek Eos, Roman Aurora and Indian Ushas.’

PIE roots have the honour, bestowed on little else, of being interesting for their own sake, in my opinion. So I think this is all fairly interesting. What I find more interesting is that our national Christian heritage is entirely borrowed – not only the celebration of human(/divine) sacrifice (I think I prefer the original idea of feasts to the spring, but alas), but also the name. And even, it seems, right down to Germanic traditions such as easter-egg hunting and the easter rabbit. And even rabbits themselves are an alien species in Britain.

Since I’m going to be spending the majority day trying to understand the origin of language for an essay, and since apparently even Easter-egg hunting can have disastrous results [not for faint of heart], I think I’ll spend the rest of the day trying to get back to my earlier roots by eating too much and enjoying what bits of light Eostre gives to me through my window. If only I had some crops to plant.

Na’vi Dictionary

A colleague of mine in the field ran across a very interesting original xenolinguistic document. As you know, linguistic data from aboriginal species in the various xenoterric planetoids has been near impossible to come by – the RDA and other manifestations of the military-industrial complex have made sure that nothing gets out to the fanatic alien rights special interests groups. However, Given the inscrutability of the document, and through various underhanded dealings with at least five triple agents, one quadruple agent, two dogs and a siamese goldfish, this one document has somehow managed to make it through. It appears to be a complete dictionary of the Na’vi words which we know, from the planet Pandora, translated by what can only be assumed to be the Na’vi who goes by “Taronyu” – probably a pseudonym for the human-raised Na’vi who has been named “Richard Littauer” by those fortunate enough to have been allowed to work with him during his brief stay on this earth. Having gone back to Pandora by smuggling aboard a star-liner, he seems to have started a tradition of original Na’vi documents, using our own Roman script, useful for teaching the children of the Na’vi in their own language.

For the most part, the document seems to speak for itself, but I would suggest using one of the various interplanetary translators on the market (the Translatorix is particularly good, and can be bought at discount prices from Amazon.) And so, without further ado, the document itself.