Friday, April 25, 2008


Zmjezhd over at epea pteroenta has identified and brought to our attention the true cause of the decline and eventual destruction of the Roman Empire: txting. We all knew that this vile disregard for ortographic rules and conventions would eventually bring down our civilization and now thanks to zmjezhd we have a proof that it has already done so once, infecting the very heart of the Roman Empire at its finest time and spreading like cancer all over the civilized world. And to fully appreciate the threat of txting, let us consider the rate at which it spread from the center of the Empire to its periphery. Zmjezhd's example dates to the early 2nd century AD, which indicates that by then, the disease had already infected Rome and Italy. Yet at that very time, the outer provinces still held on to their heritage. This is evidenced by this late 2nd century AD inscription in stone (a simple, honest and down-to-earth material which is - very unlike the liberal elitist marble - resistant to moral and cultural corruption) in Lavgaricio, today's Trenčín:


exercitvs qvi Lav-
garicione sedit milites
legionis II DCCCLV
[Marcus Valerius Maximi]anvs legatvs legionis II adivtricis cvravit

To the victory of the venerable,
the troops stationed in Laugaricio,
855 soldiers of the 2nd legion
Dedicated by M. V. Maximianus, the legate of the auxiliary to the 2nd legion.

Note how everything but the signature is spelled out in full (save for that one -m of the Genitive plural suffix). The abbreviations in the legate's name and title are to be seen as symbols of modesty so typical of Roman warrior class and not signs of moral decay which had by then overrun Rome. As many times before and many times since, here the periphery still holds to the traditional values like proper grammar, even though the center has long abandoned them.

But only a few decades later, all is lost. In Rome, the position of the emperor weakens, the Imperial Crisis looms and troops of Alexander Severus (or possibly the Emperor himself) leave this message in a stone somewhere in the vicinity of today's village of Semerovo:


Imperator Marcvs Avrelius Seve
rvs Alexander Pivs Fe
lix Avgvstus Pontifex Maximvs tribvnicia
potestate VIII consvl III pater patriae....

Emperor Marcus Aurelius Severus
Alexander Pius (The Pious) Felix (The Lucky)
Augustus (The Venerable), chief priest, holder of the office
of tribune 8 times, consul 3 times, father of the country....

The cancer of the language has spread from Rome to the land of the Quadi and from marble to stone. And thus the Roman world ends, not with a bang, but 4 w1MP3r and a warning to the future generations who would not take the proper steps to guard against this horrible disease: ur nxt, d00dz.

ŠKOVIERA, Daniel: Antiqua Slovaciae Memoria. - Bratislava : Tatran, 1977, 36 p.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


Remember my multi-part review of the new dictionary of Slovak? Yeah, well, it's been a year and I'm still stuck at installment no. 4 and the part of the entry with information on stylistic and pragmatic properties of the headword. The only thing I can say in my defence is that I've been sidetracked when I started looking into the history of Czecho-Slovak lexicography to understand the whys and hows of lexeme classification based on these rather loosely defined "functional criteria". In the course of that research I came across a lot if interesting stuff (with three full bookshelves to prove it). The most fascinating result of that small detour was a paper on the brewer slang of Southern Bohemia [2] published by Alena Jaklová of the University of South Bohemia. In that paper, professor Jaklová compiled from various sources a dictionary of terms related to beer brewing. It is interesting to note that those sources included not only native informants, but also various professional publications, including a (ministry of education approved) textbook for trade schools. Why so? Because of the standard/non-standard ("spisovný/nespisovný") dichotomy so firmly entrenched in Czecho-Slovak linguistic thinking. There slang terms traditionally fall on the non-standard side of the divide and thus become linguistic outcasts, shunned in polite society and even barely worthy of recording. The inclusion of slang terms in an officially sanctioned publication is therefore a major concession on the part of the prescriptivists and purists and, to some extent, an admission of defeat: what do you do when you need a word for a concept only a handful of people are familiar with? Do you stick to your guns and try invent a new word that will follow your rules (and, invariably, fail) or do you grudgingly accept the words of those few well versed in the subject even though it turns your refined stomach? The authors of those textbooks took the latter approach and prof. Jaklová agrees. She argues that in considering the status of professional slang/professional jargon, the standard/non-standard dichotomy should be disregarded altogether and the terms used by the professionals should be accepted into the standard fold. After all, who knows best what word to use for that thingamajig over there than the person who knows every single thing there is to know about it?

Aside from being a voice of reason, the paper is a veritable lexical banquet where through the professional jargon of brewers you can find out just about anything you ever could want to know about various types barley and yeast, the different stages of preparation of malt, all the apparatus involved in beer brewing and even a thing or two about the social structure of the Czech brewery and different customs associated with the production and consumption of beer. And so you can learn that in breweries of Southern Bohemia, a drak ("dragon" = boilerman) keeps a fire burning in the kiln using a osel ("donkey" = a special shovel) while checking the temperature on a pánbíček (a diminutive form of pámbú = "Pán Bůh" = "Lord", a thermometer), that the head cooper goes by the rather unflattering title vrchní Jidáš ("the head Judas") and that they don't steal beer in Budějovice, they střílí pivo ("shoot beer") - though the end effect for the brewer remains the same. Were you inclined to engage in some linguisticking, you could even argue that the Czech have at least 18 different words for beer and offer the following list as a proof:


But there is one word in this list that not only takes the cake malt, but also grabs the keg, the table and all the beer in the storage rooms:

gramatika - pivní polévka s rozvařeným řežným chlebem, údajne lehká a lehce stravitelná

gramatika - beer soup with overcooked rye bread, reportedly light and easily digestible

Let me see if I can find a recipe somewhere...

Oh and one more bit: the section on etymology claims that the term šalanda ("a large room where brewery staff changed and/or slept") is a borrowing from Arabic - "šalandí" (شلندي). Hm, perhaps. But wouldn't a French source (chaland) be much more likely? And assuming that I'm correct and the word ultimately derives from χελάνδιον (a Byzantine warship), how does a ship become a room?

[1] HUBÁČEK, Jaroslav: Malý slovník českých slangů. - Ostrava : Profil, 1988, 190 p.
[2] JAKLOVÁ, Alena: Pivovarský slang v Jižních Čechách. In: Jazyk a řeč jihočeského regiónu II. - České Budějovice : Katedra českého jazyka Pedagogické fakulty JU, 1993, p. 50-68

Tuesday, April 08, 2008



One of the many reasons why I love all of Law and Order is how the writers and producers get stuff right, especially when it comes to the many facets of the multicultural, multireligious and multilingual New York City. This is a special forte of Criminal Intent where such excurses into the everyday lives of various - often self-contained - communities serve to demonstrate the astounding abilities of detective Goren, such as his familiarity with Aramaic or his knowledge of modern-day nomadic peoples. But this dedication to accuracy - hardly a distinguishing feature of network television - can be observed in other parts of the franchise, too, especially in linguistic matters. And so on Law and Order, Arabic is real Arabic, Syriac is written in real honest-to-God serṭō and even though one of the five boroughs stands in for Prague and the accent is so thick you couldn't cut through it with a damn blowtorch, the Prague police officers speak real Czech.
The latest example I've seen is episode 9x13 of Law and Order: SVU. The investigation of another grisly sex crime brings Stabler and Munch to Kehilat Moshe, a Hasidic community in upstate New York. In a brief voiceover narrated by the victim's mother, we are told that people in Kehilat Moshe (a fictionalized version of the real-life Satmar Hasidic town Kiryas Joel) are "extremely orthodox" and that "Many barely speak English." This is where I crossed my finders and muttered "Yiddish, Yiddish, Yiddish, please let me hear some Yiddish!"
And sure enough, just a minute or two later, the detectives make contact with the local law enforcement and the following conversation takes place:

Yep, that's Yiddish all right. But if you listen closely, you may notice there's something off here. What follows is my clumsy attempt at transcription:

A: Der politsi ...
A: The police ...
B: Farshtey. ... ze mus gayn bayn der rebbe, [bʌt] nemt den lange veg un nisht baym shil.
B: Understood. [Tell them] they must see the Rabi, but take the long way, not the way around the temple.

Now I'm by no means an expert, as is evident by the blank I drew on the first part of the conversation. But to my knowledge, "the police" and "the temple" should both be feminine, i.e. "di politsye" and "di shil/shul". "By the temple" should therefore be "bay der shil" (בײַ דער שיל), not "baym (bay dem) shil". I'm also not quite certain about the "bayn der rebbe" part. Hearing "bayn" (בײַן) instead of the expected "baym" (בײַם) wouldn't be that strange, I do sometimes confuse my nasals. But "bayn/baym der rebe" definitely doesn't sound right - "baym rebe" (בײַם רבי) or "bay dem rebe" (בײַ דעם רבי) is what I would expect here. Same goes for "nemt den lange veg" and the absence of case suffix. If I'm not mistaken, "der langer veg" (which is what the Nominative is) should be here in the Accusative, i.e. "den langn veg" (דען לאַנגן וועג). And one more thing: notice how the name of the real Hasidic community reflects the Ashkenazi pronunciation of Hebrew - "Kiryas Joel", as opposed to "Kiryat Joel" in the Modern Hebrew/Sephardic pronunciation. Shouldn't the name of the fictional town (presumably קהלת משה in Hebrew) also be pronounced the Yiddish way and thus written "Kehilas Moshe" or even "Kehilas Moyshe" in English?
Of course I wouldn't expect a living language - which, thank God, Yiddish still is - to be exactly the same now as it was when it was recorded and described by Uriel Weinreich, Shlomo Birnbaum, Joshua Fishman and other great scholars of Yiddish. Doubly so in the light of the fact that standard Yiddish based on Lithuanian Yiddish is far from the only dialect there is and definitely not the one with most native speakers - Satmar Hasidim speak a Galician (Polish-Hungarian) dialect of Yiddish. Some change, especially due to language contact, would be expected even in case of close-knit communities such as the Hasidim - which is what I believe happened when instead of אָבער "but" we get [bʌt]. But as for the rest of the deviations from the Yiddish I know, if there indeed are any, I am at the end of my ken. So here is where I turn to you, my esteemed readership, to help me fill out the blanks in my transcription, especially that first line. And of course, I'd be immensely grateful if anybody could explain to me what is going on in that conversation. Who knows, we may even find out that my praise for the writers of Law and Order was a bit premature...

Thursday, April 03, 2008


You know what, I've had it with this shit. My inner critic is an asshole and I just have to stop listening to him. It's because of him that I missed a lot of the great linguistic stuff that happened in the last couple of months and that just sucks.

So without further ado, let me:
1. Make a brief announcement: I'm back.
2. Thank every one who kept checking this space, especially Mr. Languagehat and my other fellow linguabloggers who are and always will be an inspiration.

And since I should probably start by picking up my own slack, here is - with many apologies to RAF, Abraham Lincoln and Bob Newhart - my modest and belated contribution to the celebration of National Grammar Day. Now if I could only remember how I found this one...

OK, so here's how it probably went down: I was catching up on Paleojudaica from whence a link lead me to On the Main Line, a very cool blog on the Cairo Genizah, Hebrew and other things fascinating, and somehow from there I got to Baltic Polyglottic, a new blog from Latvia (now sadly no longer updated). Hey, if the blogosphere needs anything, it's the general adoption of Lameen's "references with every blog post" policy and more people from the new EU Countries, so yay! It was there, in a charming post entitled "The most useful phrase I learned last year", that I learned about the career advice blog Brazen Careerist by one Penelope Trunk.

Now I'm not someone who needs career advice, nor would I listen to it should it be offered, but my recent job-hunting experiences made me curious. And so I clicked the link to find out how to turn an interview into a job. I learned that I should lose weight because fat (and therefore) unattractive people have a much lower chance to get hired, that I should prepare stock answers to standard interview questions and that I should practice being interviewed a lot. Now I admit that as a fat dude, I found the equation overweight = unattractive a bit insulting. But hey, that's no reason to stop being fair and balanced, so I decided to dig around a bit more to form a qualified opinion of Ms. Trunk and her writing. After two hours of reading brilliant advice like "being promoted has nothing to do with your skills and competence, it's all about being liked", "if you want to have a successful career start in college by geting out of the library" and having learned that Ms. Trunk is a former professional voleyball player (insert-jock-joke-here) and that she went through several stages of personal rebranding (... I got nothing), my mind was made up. The only question left to be answered was where does Ms. Trunk place on the George Carlin scale of stupid?

Fortunately, right about that time I got to a post, an excerpt from her book, which contains several tips on how to write "so people pay attention". The book costs $25, but Ms. Trunk was kind enough to provide us with one tip for free. It's #25 and it goes "Don't use adverbs". I'm guessing some of you can sense where this is going, so just grab your favorite snack and let's enjoy the ride.

By way of introduction, Ms. Trunk gives us her opinion on what constitutes good writing. First and foremost, you have to be brief. In Ms. Trunk's view and according to her understanding of the people she quotes, short equals elegant. Take Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address - 270 words, yet undoubtedly one of the most powerful speeches ever written. So how do we write short and elegant texts that make people pay attention? Here are her seven tips:

1. Write lists.
... They are faster and easier to read than unformatted writing, and they are more fun. If you can’t list your ideas then you aren’t organized enough to send them to someone else.

OK, I can get behind that one, at least partially. I'm glad that an expert like Ms. Trunk approves of this strategy that was also employed by many great writers. Consider Winston Churchill, a Nobel Prize in Literature winner, and his famous "We shall fight on the beaches" speach which featured this list:

We shall fight:
  1. on the beaches;
  2. on the landing grounds;
  3. in the fields;
  4. in the streets, and
  5. in the hills.

Truly, this is the most powerful example of list as a literary device (with the possible exception of the Metterling list no. 5). It not only gave strength to the British people, but also outlined the Allied strategy for victory in WWII and even won the Battle of England. And I'm sure it provided people in London with endless mirth.

2. Think on your own time
....people don’t want to read your thinking process; they want to see the final result.

Indeed. Who cares about arguments and evidence, let alone what you read and where you read it? Results, that's what counts!

3. Keep paragraphs short.
Two lines is the best length if you really need your reader to digest each word.

Unless, of course, you are Penelope Trunk.

4. Write like you talk.

What a splendid advice! For example, if like me you use the words "fuck" and "goddamn bullshit" a lot when you talk, you might want to start inserting these words into your work correspondence. I'm sure your boss will be impressed and people you deal with will appreciate the colorful character that you are. Especially if you work in customer care.

For example, you would never say “in conclusion” when you are speaking to someone so don’t use it when you write.

Very true. I mean think of all the pretentious nonsense people write to sound smart and educated and whatnot, shit they would never actually let pass through their lips. Like doctors, for instance, with their pseudolatin mumbo-jumbo. It's 'skull', not 'cranium', you asshole. Speak English! Or consider lawyers. Wouldn't all our contracts be much more clear and readable without all that "hereafter" and "aforementioned" and "compensation" and "shall" crap? Maybe when the revolution comes, we don't have to kill them. Let's just teach them to write properly.

5. Delete
When you’re finished, you’re not finished: cut 10% of the words.

Say, Abe, what's with that "The world will little note, nor long remember" shit? Cut it down. "The world won't remember" is good enough. And same goes for "we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow". Geez, keep it simple, will ya? Most of these folks don't even know what "hallow" means. Honestly, would you say that speaking to someone?

6. Passive voice. Almost no one ever speaks this way.

Ah, this is a familiar one. But the new twist Ms. Trunk puts on it is worth your last penny:

If you have a noun directly following “by” then it’s probably passive voice.

So when earlier today I wrote an email asking someone to "deliver the files by end of business", I was probably using the passive voice without even knowing it. Moreover, as Ms. Trunk points out,

... when you write it [passive voice] you give away that you are unclear about who is doing what because the nature of the passive voice is to obscure the person taking the action.

To pick an example: "When we write, authenticity gets buried under poor word choice". So who was it that buried authenticity? We really need to know!

And last, but by Jove, definitely not least:

7. Avoid adjectives and adverbs.

'Scuse me, ma'am, but why?

Adjectives and adverbs are your interpretation of the facts. If you present the right facts, you won’t need to throw in your interpretation.

Ah, I see. So when I say that the traffic light in an intersection is red, that's just my interpretation of the light spectrum and safe in that knowledge, I can just drive through. And when I tell someone that they are late because we agreed to meet at 1100 and they arrive at 1130, that's just my interpretation of the situation. For all I know, they are actually on time!

To recap, let's see these principles in action. For that, we can use the Gettysburg Address, which according to Ms. Trunk is a paragon of short and therefore elegant writing. Unfortunately, Abraham Lincoln didn't have the opportunity to profit from Ms. Trunk's expertise, what with the tragic visit to the theater. But fear not, for I, a faithful acolyte of hers, am here to correct that. Behold, the new and improved version of The Gettysburg Address:

Four score and seven 87 years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.
It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract modify.
The world will little note, nor long won't remember what we say here, but it cannot never forget what they did here.
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.
Our It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task is remaining before us — that from these honored dead we to take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.
That we here highly resolve that these dead shall will not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.
And that people's government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

That's of course the version we get if we only follow rules 1- 3 and 6-7.
If we just follow rules No. 4 and 5, then we get this:

A lot of people died fighting in this war. Let's make sure they did not die in vain and that democracy will survive.

And honestly, folks, isn't that just better than the original?

Yeah, right.

As history has shown, the world has noted and to this day remembers what was said on that day in Gettysburg. That is because Abraham Lincoln was one of the greatest orators of all time. He might not have been familiar with linguistics, but he sure knew about chosing the right words, about rhythm, about aliteration, about gradation and repetition. In short, he knew about all those things that make a speech great and of which Ms. Trunk hasn't got a fucking clue.

And finally, how does Ms. Trunk fare with regard to the George Carlin scale of stupid?

… I just checked to see if I have modifiers in this section. I do. But I think I use them well. You will think this, too, about your own modifiers, when you go back over your writing. But I have an editor, and you don’t, and I usually use a modifier to be funny, and you do not need to be funny in professional emails. So get rid of your adverbs and adjectives, really.

I report. You decide.