Saturday, 24 September 2016

Islands again

Some years ago I posted here about islands; it must have been quite a while ago, as it was occasioned by a visit to an Open Day at Silchester, and they have been a thing of the past for a year or two (maybe three – time gets quicker at a certain age, in an ironic reversal of an arrow [which gets slower and slower, having no doubt heard about Xeno). But I've been thinking about islands again  – in the context of elephants and Cyclops.

Somewhere on Radio 4 last week a woman spoke about dwarf elephants (and iPlayer's indexing algorithm isn't good enough to remind me of who she was).
Dwarf elephants are prehistoric members of the order Proboscidea which, through the process of allopatric speciation on islands, evolved much smaller body sizes (around 1.5-2.3 metres) in comparison with their immediate ancestors. Dwarf elephants are an example of insular dwarfism,...
Also sprach Wikipedia.

But the woman on the radio didn't mention Cyclops – a strange omission, given that the "fact" (some doubt there, I suspect?) is so succulent. Perhaps she didn't mention it because she has an academic haughtiness about the story. But Wikipedia had no such fastidiousness: has been suggested by the palaeontologist Othenio Abel in 1914,[3] that the finding of skeletons of such elephants sparked the idea that they belonged to giant cyclopses, because the center nasal opening was thought to be a cyclopic eye socket.
A studio guest asked why dwarfism happened on islands. I'm sorry to have to be so reliant on Wikipedia, but iPlayer has let me down::
...large terrestrial vertebrates (usually mammals) that colonize islands evolve dwarf forms, a phenomenon attributed to adaptation to resource-poor environments and selection for early maturation and reproduction.
... Not that "large". In 2003 a fossil was found on the island Flores. Homo Floresiensis, was known by some more fevered journalists as 'the hobbit'.
In the late '80s or early '90s, with Reading Haydn Choir, I sang Stanford's The Revenge, a Ballad of the Fleet. The libretto,  was written by Alfred Lord Tennyson  (the hosts of that wiki – IMSLP  – are presumably politically hostile to all that lickspittle bowing and scraping, as they call him plain "Alfred Tennyson"; I've referred to this strenuous egalitarianism before, in connection with the word titled [see the rant in red here].)

But the opening words of that piece are "In Flores, in the Açores" (which leads me to suspect that Tennyson didn't know much about pronouncing Portuguese, FWIW), and I remember, when Homo Floresiensis was discovered in 2003, wondering if it was the same Flores. (It's not. BTW  – unless HMS Revenge was fighting off the coast of Indonesia. :-) )
In a later Reading Haydn Choir concert I sang Handel's Acis and Galatea, with the Cyclops Polyphemus represented by a very agile bass. [Keep up. keep up; I mentioned Cyclops a while back.]
Homo Floresiensis is thought by some experts (I haven't kept abreast of all the arguments, though I think there are several theories [with one having Homo Floresiensis descended from an as yet undiscovered small ape]) to have been a descendant of Homo Erectus subjected to insular dwarfism.

Ho hum time for bed.

 PS And here's a clue:

Thus might Spooner keep the con-artist apart from the aviatrix, we hear. (8,3,5,4,3,5)
Update 2016.09.25.15:05 – Added PPS

PPS And another:

Bad-mouth trendy food shop first, with malice aforethought. (10)

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Quips and quiddities

I've been thinking about seasons – specifically about adding an s. Taking as an example the frame

"a <season> day

I thought it was simple (if arbitrary): you can have a winters day or a summers day, but you can't have a springs day or an autumns day.

But I was forgetting the importance of collocation – what comes next  (in this case).

I was led to uncover this when I wanted to put numbers on this pattern. BNC doesn't happen to include an instance of a winters day.  And this made me use the "any noun" search syntax; which led me to conclude that the pattern is even more uneven. All season names are much preferred without the s (I've no  idea what its syntactical status is – some kind of possessive, I suppose; stay tuned for an update.)

By the wonders of BNC, the following seven links all run a BNC query; depending on line speeds, processor speeds, and all sorts of other techy imponderables, you may have to wait a second or two after clicking for the full story to unfold

winter [*n]  1590  winters [*n] 19 
spring [*n]  1086  springs [*n] 90 
summer [*n] 23163  summers [*n] 21 
autumn [*n]   774...
Why so many more cases of summer? About 30 times as many as of autumn, 20 times as many as of spring , 15 times as many as of winter. (Those numbers are wobbly; I didn't use a cuaculator. I could've just said an order of magnitude greater, but that expression has been sadly debased.) Hmm...  Meanwhile, back at the a <season>s <noun> pattern...
 ...But autumns doesn't follow the pattern of feast and famine. In that case it's feast and starvation; absolute starvation. The string autumns [*n]  just doesn't occur in BNC. And precious few occur in the much bigger (520 million words – more than five times bigger) COCA; just three (of which one is a mistake, resulting from a mistaken parsing of the word back):
autumns [*n] 3

I'm  not sure what this shows, except that when you put numbers on something you end up finding that things aren't quite as clear-cut as they seemed at first.

And here are two numbers that have only the very faintest soupspoon of a connection (and even that is arguable – it's just that the number of refugees world-wide can only increase when nation-states take more than their fair share of the planet's resources).

The first comes from a UNHCR report. CNN reported it like this

 The second comes from the ONS:

But the numbers reached out and grabbed my attention by dint of their similarity. I suppose another way of looking at it is that we have reached a tipping point: the number of refugees world-wide now exceeds the population of the UK (and that's before any readjustment that Nicola Sturgeon might have in mind ).

But time's wingéd chariot could do with some 3-in-ONE.

PS A couple of clues:

Affect brilliant fedora without an emergency jump-starter (13)
Such a way of arguing makes him a demon (2, 7)

Update 2016.09.16.11:45 – Added PPS and PPPS

PPS And I meant to add, justifying my subject-line (this is more of a quiddity than a quip), earlier this week I heard something of interest to a one-time translator of songs (a bit of background covered in this old post) . In Monday's Woman's Hour (the song starts at about 18'30")  Kizzy Crawford sang about a pond skater (no, really). She sang in English, but she sang the last chorus in Welsh. One word leapt out at me from the Welsh. Earlier (English) choruses had involved the word lily pad (see? – it really was about a pond skater); and the word that jumped out at me from the Welsh was lily pad.

I looked this up in an online Welsh dictionary: pad lili. What was up? Was Kizzy fibbing?

Of course not. She does say, in the interview that precedes the song, that Welsh is more appropriate to singing about nature. And one of the ways it has of being more flexible may be the choice of translation sources.  By chance I found this alternative translation (in Google Translate): lilypad  – note the lack of word-break.

Marvellous things, dictionaries. But they have their limits.

PPPS The promised update on syntax: the jury's still out. In some cases, it's obviously a possessive; summer's lease is the metaphorical lease held by belonging to a metaphorical summer. There's an apostrophe, and its aptness is not in question. But in summers day there's no apostrophe* and no sense of possession. I'll ask some teachers.

Update 2016.09.18.10:45 – Added P⁴S

Yes – it's an attributive genitive (also called descriptive). Some people omit the apostrophe, and in cases where the idea of possession is weak (or absent) this tendency is stronger.

Update 2016.09.26.11:15 – Added P5S

*Nonsense – I just misunderstood the BNC's search algorithm's treatment of the apostrophe.  I think  it's true, however, that the apostrophe , which usually marks possession, is less widely insisted on (and, from the point of view of a language historian, more likely to  be dropped   – rather like the apostrophe marking omission before  words such as bus, cello or phone – when the sense of possession is weaker.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Rood boy

© Copyright JThomas and licensed
 for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Cooped up in Ruthwell Church, the Ruthwell Cross was the 8th century's Angel of the North (made for the open air)

The Cross is the bearer of an extract from a poem that may be the earliest written poem in an English dialect  (Northumbrian, thought to be a fore-runner of Scots*). [That may is due to doubt about its having been written before the cross was made. It may have been added some time later.]

The poem may, for all I  know (next to nothing in this case) even have been written specifically for this cross. It is, after all, The Dream of the ROOD  (rood meaning "cross"); I imagine the word can still be seen today,  fossilized in the vocabulary of church architecture: rood-screen.

The poem is an amazing piece of anthropomorphism, with the cross itself reflecting on the crucifixion; it feels guilt about being the instrument of the Saviour's torture and death but finds a kind of solace in the thought that the sacrifice is necessary for the redemption of mankind. [I suspect the anthropomorphism breaks down a bit here; is the poet a man – caring about the fate of Mankind – or a cross {an unusually altruistic one}?]

In the late  '80s (or maybe early '90s– there are sadly no written records) I sang with the University of Reading's  University Chorus. We sang Howard Ferguson's 1958 setting of The Dream of the Rood. He was at the time an old man; he died in 1999, but he came to the concert; and at the dress rehearsal he pooh-poohed the notion that his music was "modern": "It's about as modern as the design of the Morris Minor". This was fairly accurate if he meant the Minor 1000 , designed in a 1956 update; but the Morris Minor was, says Wikipedia, "conceived in 1941" and first saw the light of ...erm ... Motor  Show in 1948 (fully ten years before Ferguson's piece). 

The Ruthwell  Cross was covered in Melvyn Bragg's the Matter of the North  (in the second episode, broadcast last week   though the whole series will be available on iPlayer for about a year). It is an extraordinary example of the strength  of multiculturalism even so early. He speaks to Dr Chris Jones, of the University of St Andrews, who lists some of the many influences that come together in the Cross: an Anglian poem, runic script, elements of Greek and Roman and Celtic design...

The whole series mérite un détour.


PS Here are a few clues:
  • Interminably hunts for something to eat (7)
  • Principal reason for buying after conjunction's onset of astrological borderland (4)
  • Unrestrained colt or filly for Dr Spooner's cornucopia? (5,4)
And a special 50th anniversary clue:

Spock's not atypical response to hearing "the one about `American soldier goes into a pub... '" (7)

Update 2016.09.07.16:25 – Added footnote

* This is a bit of a throwaway. In particular, "thought to be a forerunner" is a gross over-simplification. The history of Scots is not something I've studied, but I put in a link to Scots so that you can follow this up if you want to know more. Wir Ain Lied ("Our own language") is the most authoritative source of information on Scots that I've found.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Good morning Tokyo and the politics of medal-gathering

Something must have happened in 1964 ...
<autobiographical_note theme="docLewis"  date_range="1964">
...apart from my getting  116% in a Maths exam set by a lazy examiner. He set 16 questions, with a mark of 10"%" for each. He assumed nobody would score over 100. His plan was to take the marks and just call them "%". But as a mathematician he couldn't live with such a "percentage", so he scaled everyone's mark down. You can imagine how popular I was with my peers – especially the ones who had scraped a pass at the first pass and were now downgraded..
... because, of all the Olympic theme tunes (even the one for Rio), Tokyo Melody is the only one that sticks in my mind, Well, that's its official name, but I've always thought of it as Good morning Tokyo, because those words fit the tune (a correspondence exploited, I think, by the BBC at the time). Maybe there was even a song with that name..

This is strange (the persistence of the ear-worm), as (because of heat before September and typhoons in that month),  the Tokyo games were scheduled for October, a time when – as I had just started my 2nd year  at big school , taking  3 or (on a bad day) over 4 hours on public transport each day – I can't have spent much time in front of the television.

Which brings me to the recent success of British athletes. I must say it makes me feel uneasy. At those Olympics (Tokyo 1964) a united team from East and West Germany performed together for the last time (before the reunification); they came 4th in the medals table . In the 1968 Olympics, East Germany came 5th in the medals table , with West Germany placed 8th (they won 1 more medal overall, but  East Germany won nearly twice as  many golds. It is hard to avoid thinking that the practice of entering a united German team was discontinued because East Germany wanted to strut their (Communistic) stuff.

It was a commonly  held belief at the time that East Germany's success was questionable. TV commentators routinely looked askance at records set by East Germans. They must have been taking drugs, surely?

Since the reunification of Germany and the collapse of the USSR, it has been left to China to fly the Communist flag at the Olympics, and they have done it very well.  In Beijing in 2008 they came top of the medals table. I seem to remember cynics at the time saying it was a fix; they were joint first with the USA.  And admittedly they did have exactly the same number of medals as the USA; just many more golds – nearly 42% more. (But USA led the world in silvers and bronzes.). For 8 years I have swallowed the capitalist line that China didn't deserve top ranking.

But they did win, outright. What was the reason? "Drugs, of course", said some commentators. Some openly disregard certain World and Olympic Records because "they must have been drug-assisted". OK, some athletes take drugs; but not just Chinese ones. Why can't China's success just be the result of state support?

Now, at Rio, British athletes have collected precisely  THREE TIM5ES  as many gold medals as East Germany won in 1968, and nearly three times as many medals overall (67 as against 25). They have come ahead of China. But has anyone mentioned drugs (in the context of the Team GB's success?) Of course not – at least, not in the UK's press.  And quite rightly so. The improvement, as many a commentator and athlete and coach agrees, is due to  nothing more than money (or to use the euphemism du jourFUNDING.

Of course, that "nothing more" is arguable. More money means more facilities, more routes for enthusiasms to be funnelled down. It's easier (indeed, possible) to wake at 7.00 to go to train at the local track (or whatever)  than to get up at 5.30 to get your parents to drive you to the next county. Athletes win medals because of effort, tenacity, courage .... etc, etc. But all those things can only yield medals (in the quantities we have come to expect) if there is money (from either capitalism red in tooth and claw or communism [red... just RED]).

Personally I find "our" athletes' untoward success faintly obscene. At Tokyo, supposing we win "only" – say – 30  medals, commentators will be up in arms. Heads will roll. There will be phone-ins to talk interminably about "the crisis". Even more of the time devoted to TV sports will be talking heads rather than actual stuff.

But that sort of medal-count (still a few more than East Germany's 25 in 1968) would strike me as perfectly satisfactory – especially if it meant that more UK children had a chance to have a go at sports with exorbitant start-up costs, that schools could stop selling sports fields, and that children didn't have to go to fee-paying schools to get any experience of certain sports,


Sunday, 21 August 2016

Shedding light on sounds

<autobiographical_note theme="sound and light" time_span="1971"> 
When my family was in Rome in the Summer of 1961, we went to a presentation that my parents, for some reason unknown to me at the time, referred to as Son et Lumière; why French?, I wondered  (or rather, as I was in only my tenth year, why not Suoni e Luci as the posters said? Why not, indeed, the rather pedestrian Sound and Light? (though what was the point of that  for pity's sake [as Auntie Katy might have said in a moment of extreme confusion])? 
For a 9⅞-year-old it was pretty tedious stuff anyway. The only lasting impression it made on me was the recurrent Senatus Populus[Q]ue Romanus booming out every few minutes. Otherwise it was just some words, accompanied more-or-less randomly by floodlights picking out bits of ruined Forum; I wasn't paying enough attention to make the link between the commentary and the lit ruins. How did they dare to charge for what anyone could see just as well in daylight? (And an additional point of interest was the actual lights, which you couldn't see in the dark. Even then I was more interested in causes than in effects) 
But this tangent from an accidental pun in the subject line is pushing it – even for me
But coming to the point (if that's the word for my latest TEZZY nomination [Time-Wasting Site of the Year]): researchers at "Cambridge and Oxford" ...
<parenthesis speculation="north_south_divide_query"> 
(as the article says, though I suspect most native speakers of English would reverse that order [perhaps the provenance of the article,, had something to do with it...?]
...have done (or have convinced themselves they have done) something that generations of philologists have dreamed about).

Clicking back from link to link I find  that the announcement is old news:

But in my defence  I was getting ready for my choir's tour, mentioned here; so it was only last week that a Cambridge Research paper first caught my eye:

The Daily Mail article, of course, gets the wrong end of the stick. If there's a stick to get the wrong end of, you can rely on the Daily Mail to grasp it firmly with both hands.
... [R]esearchers have recreated what they claim is the mother tongue of one of the largest group of languages spoken around the world - the Indo-European languages. 
...However, as no texts exist from the time, linguists have struggled to reconstruct this original language and the way it sounds remained a mystery. 
The researchers have now recreated it
[I suppose I have to keep this in, though  I don't like to encourage them: ]
Read more: Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook
Recreated PIE? Of  course they haven't, and only a fool would believe they either had done or had claimed to have done.

But in fact I find it hard to work  out what they have done. The examples they have collected on another site show "progressions" from one language to another, as if French had, in some sense. "MORPHED INTO" Italian (an extravagantly silly idea). And there is my old bugbear, the widespread assumption that Portuguese tout sec (rather than Brazilian Portuguese) is what they speak everywhere that Portuguese is spoken.

Here are some of the paths (???) they track:
  • the acoustic-historical path from Latin [u:n-] via Portuguese [ũ]
  • to French [œ̃]...
  • Spanish [seis] → Portuguese [seiʃ]... [OK, but...]
  • Postalveolarization plus affrication is also seen in e.g. French [set] → Portuguese [setʃ]
That's the way it's pronounced in Brasil.

And can they really believe that vernacular speakers in Gaul waited for Iberians to demonstrate how to mispronounce Latin, remaining tongue-tied until about the seventh century AD? Indeed, there are even greater anachronisticals at work in that last bullet: French grew into Brazilian Portuguese, by-passing the Iberian version (which derived from Spanish according to the previous bullet), even though a Latin-based vernacular in Portugal had at least two centuries' start on Spanish because of the pattern of the Reconquest).

I suspect the researchers have been seduced into playing with some clever tech and just churning out "examples"  – which they would know better than to produce if they had studied a bit of philology. But before I risk venturing any further into the I'llEatMyHat zone I'd better read the accompanying papers (which I've only just found). Stay tuned for an update.


PS Meanwhile, here are a few clues:
  • Reportedly small jail break best planned here? (4,4)
  • Flag shows impolite degree of interest and removes clothes after Eastward migration (5,3,6)
  • Felon is in the clear after retrial, considering their endless omissions. (9)
Update: 2016.08.25.15:50 – Add PPS

I've looked at one of the papers (sorry, PDF). The Abstract reads:
The process of change, particularly understanding the historical and geographical spread, from older to modern languages has long been studied from the point of view of textual changes and phonetic transcriptions. However, it is somewhat more difficult to analyze these from an acoustic point of view, ...
You don't say
...although this is likely to be the dominant method of transmission rather than through written records.  
Of course it was. Has any philologist ever suggested it wasn't. Texts are no more than clues to what sounds were happening at the time. 
Here, we propose a novel approach to the analysis of acoustic phonetic data, where the aim will be to model statistically speech sounds. In particular, we explore phonetic variation and change using a time-frequency representation, namely the log-spectrograms of speech recordings....
At this point they lose me – going off into statistical analysis, and talking about log-spectrograms. When I first saw the (very impressive) picture that is, of course, front-and-centre in that Daily Mail article I was confused*. The spectrograms I had met in Cambridge in the early '70s were all two-dimensional. I wondered where the third dimension came from. That prefixed log- must be a clue. The third dimension is supplied by something statistical.

Having no grounding in statistics, I'm not qualified to criticize, however much I'm inclined to. The authors of the paper are widespread:

Statistical Laboratory, DPMMS, University of Cambridge 
2 Department of Statistics, UC Davis 
Phonetics Laboratory, University of Oxford 
4 Statistical Laboratory, DPMMS, University of Cambridge 

I imagine this made for communications problems. And three of the four are statisticians. I suspect that this may have hampered the philological input. I suppose the philologist did originate some of the text. But I doubt very much that he wrote the abstract, which even I can see is philologically naïve.

These sound files are fun to play with, but I'm not convinced they're of any use to philology.

Update: 2016.08.25.23:00 – Added footnote, having repaired brain-fart.

* Just checking to see if you were awake.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Notes and queries

For the last few months – years, actually, but months with respect to this blog – I've been prey to self-doubt; I thought I was losing it. So it was with some relief the other day that I noticed the presence of two recent pieces in the "All-time" top-ten (that's what they call it at Blogger [omitting   the hyphen, of course, in the best tradition of Strunk & White], though I have an automatic lip-curl response to the word all-time, which seems to me to debase the currency [rather like a phrase I noticed in a recent ad for beds: "Have a great night's sleep". I wouldn't call that use of the word , erm, GENIUS.]):

Top-of-the-shop is an old piece about Latin; I've never been able to work out why this one is so popular – more than 3 times as frequently visited as any other. It must be linked to from some (or several?) influential sites; or perhaps some MOOC links to it. The next 3 or 4 are all at least 3 years old. But at 5 and 7 are two recent offerings  – the most recent being a reflection on the irony of Argentina's response to the colonial name "FALKLAND ISLANDS" by insisting on a name based on a much earlier instance of colonialism.

The Colour Carmine

I was leafing through this week's The Times on Saturday when my eye was caught by an advertisement for the new ballet based on Carmen:

And rather than make the obvious assumption that the designer had chosen red as the main colour for its association with blood and lust and bull-fighting I wondered if the pun on carmine was relevant. And from that idle (some would say pathological – or at least wild) surmise (see what he did there?) I progressed to the further speculation about a possible (PRO TEM – but read on) connection between red and carmina (Latin, = songs).

By chance this further speculation was reinforced by another ad:
red again – was I on the track of something thingish? Well ...NO. Sorry to disappoint, but some madcap seeds fall on stony ground, and no amount of John Innes No. 2 is going to save this one.

Spanish is graced by many seemingly oddball girls'  names such as Sorrows (dolores) or Pillar (pilar). They are all epithets attached to Mary: Nuestra Señora del Pilar for example (a sort of early Christian stylite). The name Carmen is an abbreviation of María del Carmen.

So the colour of those two ads has nothing to do with carmine, which is derived (ultimately) from the Arabic qirmiz:
          carmine (n.) Look up carmine at
1712, originally of the dyestuff, from French carmin (12c.), from Medieval Latin carminium, from Arabic qirmiz "crimson" (see kermes). Form influenced in Latin by minium "red lead, cinnabar," a word said to be of Iberian origin. As an adjective from 1737; as a color name from 1799.
[From Etymonline. That link to kermes is well worth pursuing, if you have a spare minute.]
Which I haven't.
But before I go I must just record a (vanishingly small) victory. A recent edition of Great Lives started with Matthew Parris asking 'Why hadn't I heard of him before?' Well I had, by chance. During my brief stay at OUP in and around 1980, my friend and mentor Richard Brain (sadly no longer with us) edited a book about the extraordinary Muir of Huntershill, and as his assistant I had some dealings with it (not as many as I should have, as Richard – for all his many talents – was not terribly good at delegating, but the author was a personal friend).


Biased news: Cockneys' kosher butchers, we hear. (10)

Sunday, 7 August 2016


<rant id="1"  ferocity="intense, but not as strong as that of MrsK">
The term highlights has a longer history than one might think, given that its meaning today is so closely related to radio or television. Etymonline, glossing over the pluralized version (which it doesn't distinguish as a headword), says

highlight (n.) Look up highlight at Dictionary.com1650s, originally of paintings, "the brightest part of a subject," from high (adj.) + light (n.). The figurative sense of "outstanding feature or characteristic" is from 1855....  Related: Highlights.

The Collins Online site avoids this dilemma (geddit? LEMMA), even giving it its own frequency graph:

In the words of a comment I made recently to the Collins Online site
The definition 'a selection on the TV or radio of the most important and exciting parts of an event, esp a sporting event' doesn't work any more. To judge by the BBC's coverage of Rio 2016, "highlights" seems to mean "about an hour of celebrity chat, punctuated by very occasional and sparse clips of sports action".


<rant id="2" ferocity="mild – not even a rant really, just an occasion of vague regret and nostalgia">

I know I know  I KNOW, this is the way language develops – I've defended so-called "mistakes" often enough in this blog.

But I'll never say (or write, except here, of course) appeal the decision. The most recent "infraction"("He only does it to annoy, because he  knows it teases") was probably to do with drug cheats before Rio.  I compared this construction (and the version we dinosaurs still use, with a preposition and no direct object) in the British National Corpus and in its American analogue COCA.

The search appeal against the [n*] (by the magic of BNC, you can just click on that link) occurs 136 times in BNC. Meanwhile, appeal the [n*] occurs only 36 times: the version with the preposition outnumbers the newcomer about 4:1. (That word newcomer suggests a possible PhD study: "The usage of non-traditional grammatical forms – an age-related study". That would put some numbers on what to me at least is a self-evident truth: as language develops over time, the trail-blazers are the young.)

In COCA, unsurprisingly (although possibly the extent of the preponderance [nearly 20:1] is a bit of a surprise), the relative weights are reversed: the American English strong preference is for appeal the [n*]. (Given the state of the hedge [] I must leave the workings as an exercise for the reader.)