English As She Is Not

December 19, 2014


I just love this. It is from the always creative Michael Ciancio.



December 15, 2014

That “English” has become the predominant language around the world might seem to us, lazing around on the west coast of North America, as a truism.  But Robert McCrum and other watchers of the cultural milieu have noticed something far more subtle.  The language they see as taking over is called “Globish”, a de-politicized non-Anglo Saxon version of English with a basic vocabulary of about 1,500 words.  McCrum quotes Times journalist Ben McIntyre who

waiting for a flight from Delhi, had overheard a conversation between a Spanish UN peacekeeper and an Indian soldier. “The Indian spoke no Spanish; the Spaniard spoke no Punjabi. Yet they understood one another easily. The language they spoke was a highly simplified form of English, without grammar or structure, but perfectly comprehensible, to them and to me.  Only now,” he concluded, “do I realise that they were speaking ‘Globish’, the newest and most widely spoken language in the world.”

McCrum traces the history:

British English had enjoyed global supremacy throughout the 19th century in the days of empire. Then, broadly speaking, its power and influence had passed to the Americans in the 20th century (through the agency of two world wars). After that, during the cold war, Anglo-American culture and values became as much part of global consciousness as the combustion engine. From 1945 to 1989, hardly a transaction in the modern world was innocent of English in some form – but its scope was always limited by its troubled association with British imperialism and the pax Americana. Now that seemed to be all in the past … Things had changed … English language and culture were becoming decoupled from their contentious heritage, disassociated from post-colonial trauma.

McCrum concludes that “the emergence of English as a global communications phenomenon which can celebrate a real independence from its Anglo-American roots is potentially decisive”, especially on the Internet.  Interesting stuff.

A Question For Etymologists

March 1, 2014

I am looking to find the ultimate origin of the English word SKULK which, in the southern England that I grew up in, means to hang around, in a semi-concealed fashion, for some underhanded purpose.  “That burglar is skulking around the neighbourhood.”

In all the etymological dictionaries that I have examined, the word origin is given as Scandinavian from the 12th or 13th century.  For example: Danish “skulke“, Swedish “skolka“, and Icelandic “skolla.”  Those derivations are from Walter Skeat’s Dictionary, and similar derivations can be found at various online dictionaries such here, here, and here.  Normally that would be that; all the sources agree.

However, today I have been reading a 1985 PhD dissertation on the settlement of 6th and 7th century northern Italy by the Langobards who came from Pannonia which is roughly Croatia, and northern parts of Serbia and Bosnia-Herzeogivana.  In a discussion of military organization, the author mentions: “the sculca, denoting a spying or reconnaissance group or look-out … it was of Germanic origin which passed into Byzantine usage.”

Sculca as spies or look outs and skulking seem awfully close in both meaning and sound.  Could the Scandinavians have picked up the earlier word via the Germanic tribes between Lombardy and the Baltic?  Or perhaps both words derive from a proto-Germanic or even PIE original. Is there any debate on this anywhere?

The History of English in Ten Minutes

November 13, 2013

My ever-loving found this brilliant animation for me.  Ten minutes that cannot fail to amuse and educate.

Deep History

August 15, 2013

While all this local politics business has been exercising me for weeks now, I have just about managed to keep up my reading. This month’s tome has been David W. Anthony’s extraordinarily fine 2007 volume:  “The Horse, the Wheel and Language“.

It has a sub-title that I am sure came from the publisher’s marketing department rather than from the author — “How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World.”  However, this is not a text that is aimed at the popular market. It is a thoroughly documented 500-page academic essay on the development of culture and the birth of various language families within the period from about 9,000 years ago to roughly 4,000 years ago in the area stretching from south-east Europe through the central Asian steppes.

That probably doesn’t sound particularly exciting to most people. But for the minority of us who try to keep up with research on the period between the last glaciation (say, 20,000 years ago) and the birth of “modern” society (5,000 to 8,000 years ago), who are fascinated by the origin and development of languages, and who are interested in the beginnings of certain cultural forms (hierarchy, for example) and technologies, this is a work of seminal importance.

Anthony brings together his own archaeological work and the previously unavailable texts of the most recent generation of Russian and East European scholars and creates a highly refined synthesis that argues, convincingly to me, at least, that horses were first domesticated in the grasslands of the central Eurasian steppes, and that horse-riding played a significant role in the expansion of what would become the Indo-European languages (including, much later, the dominant English language).  Along the way, he examines the beginnings of Indo-European myths, the establishment of the guest-host relationship, leadership functions, funeral practices, the purpose of feasting, the origin of wagons and chariots, and a wide range of other topics that, in their modern manifestation, dominate our lives today.

Anthony writes very well but it cannot be denied that, for the general reader without some background in these subjects, there are some difficult sections.  They are well worth the effort, though, for the understanding that this research brings with it.  I cannot recommend this too highly to anyone interested in this stuff.

Muons For Mayans

September 1, 2008

OK, I’m excited.  Particle physics and archaeology are coming together to investigate Mayan mounds, most of which have not been excavated.  No-one really knows what is inside these impressive structures.  But now, scientists working with muon detectors are coming to help.

The first major experiment of the Maya Muon Group will bridge the disciplines of physics and archeology. The particle detectors and related systems are designed specifically to explore ruins of a Maya pyramid in collaboration with colleagues at the UT Mesoamerican Archaeological Laboratory. The Maya Muon Group will travel to La Milpa in northwest Belize to make discoveries about “Structure 1” – a jungle-covered mound covering an unexplored Maya ruin.

Pointing out that dense materials block more muons, Patel explains that a muon detector can actually detect rooms, spaces, and caves inside what seems to be solid:  A detector next to a Maya pyramid, for example, will see fewer particles coming from the direction of the structure than from other angles: a muon “shadow.” And if a part of that pyramid is less dense than expected – containing an open space for, say, a royal burial – it will have less of a shadow. Count enough muons that have passed through the pyramid over the course of several months, and they will form an image of its internal structure, just like light makes an image on film. Then combine the images from three or four devices and a 3-D reconstruction of the pyramid’s guts will take shape.

Fascinating stuff.  The article at BLDGBLOG goes much further and is well worth the read.

Listening To Mayan And Protecting Quechua

June 18, 2008

The work of making the Mayan language, as found on their numerous buildings and monuments, available to researchers today has been one of the triumphs of linguistic and anthropological research.  Success has only come in the last couple of decades, but the output of completed and ongoing projects has been immense.

It was a thrill, therefore, to fall over the Nova site supporting their TV show’s look at the decipherment of Mayan.   If you follow the link to the Interactive Feature, you can actually hear the Mayan language of a stela dedication spoken while the English translation of each glyph is discussed in brief but fascinating detail.

It is quickly being forgotten that less than twenty years ago, we did not have the technology to make this research available to any but a limited few researchers.  We need to keep reminding ourselves about how lucky we are.

Further south, in the lands of the Inca, Demetrio Tupac Yupanqui’s new translation of “Don Quixote” into Quechua is helping to boost the once-imperial language that had fallen on hard times.

Once the lingua franca of the Inca empire, Quechua has long been in decline. But thanks to Tupac Yupanqui and others, Quechua, which remains the most widely spoken indigenous language in the Americas, is winning some new respect. Tupac Yupanqui’s elegant translation of a major portion of “Don Quixote” has been celebrated as a pioneering development for Quechua, which in many far-flung areas remains an oral language. While the Incas spoke Quechua, they had no written alphabet, leaving perplexed archaeologists to wonder how they managed to assemble and run an empire without writing.

Both Google and Microsft have versions in Quechua, and the current government in Bolivia is trying to make fluency in Quechua a condition of civil service advancement.  It might well survive.