Last week's linguistic speculation: music/muse by mattsteinglass
June 25, 2010, 3:44 am
Filed under: Language

Meanwhile, last week while driving back from somewhere, I was struck by the fact that the word “music” is basically identical in every European language, as far as I can tell. Of those I know, French musique, Russian muzika, and Dutch muziek cover your basic Latinate-Slavic-German portfolio. That’s pretty amazing, considering what an elemental cultural activity music is. It’s impossible to imagine that tribes and clans from Karelia to Gaul weren’t making music 3,000 years ago, and also very hard to imagine that they all would have had the same word for what they were doing. The form of the word is so close, it’s not like rabot/arbeit/travailler, and it’s notable that “r-b-t” seems to have dropped out of English except for the Angl0-French “travail”, which has lost its meaning of “work”; whereas “music” seems to have undergone almost no transformation and not to have dropped out of any languages.

My best guess, after a few minutes, was that it’s from the Greek “muse”. And that turns out to be right, says Wikipedia (Greek mousike to Latin musicaa). A hint to what may have happened comes later in the Wikipedia entry: it seems a lot of Native American and African languages don’t have a separate word for what we would consider “music”, which in those cultures is bound together with dance and religious practice. So what we may be seeing here is the trace of two thousand years in which the conception of music as a distinct art composed entirely of sound spread from Greece and Rome out through classical antiquity and thence to the barbarian lands to the north, becoming the word for that art because those cultures had never conceived of such an art in those terms before. The word for music sounds like “music” everywhere in Europe for the same reason the word for internet sounds like “internet” everywhere around the world.


Today's linguistic speculation: robot/arbeid/travail by mattsteinglass
June 25, 2010, 3:17 am
Filed under: Language

My friend Sue Legro, who lives in Prague, started out an email with a quote about gardening from Karel Capek, which made me think of the origins of the word “robot” in the Slavic root “rabot” for “work”. (Russian rabotat’, “to work”.) For a moment I thought, well, there’s one of those Slavic roots that isn’t the same as any of the more Western Indo-European families. What does “rabot” have to do with “work” (from German or Dutch werk)?

And then I thought, wait—German and Dutch arbeit/arbeid, “labor”, has the r-b-t/d root that’s probably the same as the Slavic r-b-t. Take it over to the Latin tongues, French: travailler, or Spanish trabar. That r-b root is probably also related to the Slavic and Germanic r-b-t/d.

Right? Probably. I’m not even going to bother looking it up; anybody who knows I’m wrong, please let me know.

English is a bizarre language by mattsteinglass
June 14, 2010, 10:37 pm
Filed under: Language, US, Vietnam

There exist rules of grammar and usage in English of which native speakers are unaware, and which become apparent only when foreigners violate them. Some of these rules are so arbitrary that you have to pity anyone who has to learn English as a second language, and wonder how English ever became the international lingua franca.

Take this lead sentence from an article in the Vietnam News this morning:

It was time for the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta to build a flexible, multi-functional irrigation system to better respond to socio-economic development and the impact of climate change, said Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Dao Xuan Hoc.

“It was time”? What’s that about? The article is relating a statement by an official in an interview. The author means to say “It is time”. The reason for the use of the past tense is that the author knows the rule that in English, statements by speakers related in the indirect style move back one tense, e.g. “He said she was going to the store,” “Barack Obama said BP was responsible for paying the cleanup costs.” If the statement is already past simple, it moves back to pluperfect: “She said she had studied physics before switching to communications.” And so on.

Compare: “Deputy Minister Dao Xuan Hoc said it was time for the Mekong Delta to build a flexible, multi-functional…” This is correct. But the author doesn’t know that when the cited statement comes before the speaker is identified, the tense doesn’t move back.

On reflection, this rule isn’t entirely arbitrary. The reason for the shift is that the clause “He said” already places us in the past tense, which pushes the dependent clause into the past tense as well. When that “he said” clause doesn’t show up until the end, it sounds bizarre to start in the past tense. Still, this is the kind of rule that’s really hard for a non-native speaker to absorb; it’s a wonder anyone does learn to speak or write English correctly, much less that it’s been selected as the language every international professional has to master. It’s just a very strange kluge of a language.

Tout majuscule by mattsteinglass
May 18, 2010, 9:10 pm
Filed under: Language, Uncategorized

Apparently two kinds of people are fond of writing in all caps: ranting fringe commenters on political blogs, and French hotel managers.

Does the English language make sense? by mattsteinglass
October 14, 2009, 2:28 am
Filed under: Language

Lately I’ve noticed that I’ll be reading along and will come across some grammatical structure in English that seems to me to be flawed. It seems to contain open referents, or referents that are opened once but closed twice, or whatever. I look it over and conclude that it seems to be idiomatically correct, but somehow I can’t shake the sense that it’s grammatically wrong. Or perhaps the other way around. Try this, for instance:

The equations work just as well, Dr. Nielsen and others point out, if the boundary conditions specify a condition in the future (the apple on your head) instead of in the past, as long as the fundamental laws of physics are reversible, which most physicists believe they are.

“Which most physicists believe they are”? Why “which”? If you put in a period, you wouldn’t need the “which”. Or why not drop “they are”? Thinking about it, obviously, the “which” refers to “reversible”. But on first reading, this seems to me more like a David Foster Wallace “which”, one that refers loosely to the entirety of what’s gone before in an idiomatic but non-grammatical and somewhat Southern fashion.