Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Stupifany #1

So my wife and I have a term we use that we each blame the other for having made up: stupifany. It means "an epiphany about something you should have realized ages ago." In any case, I just had a stupifany: the term "ultraviolence" from Anthony Burgess's novel Clockwork Orange is a pun on "ultraviolet." At least I think so. Not surprising from an author who published a book about Finnegans Wake.

I think I'll make my stupifanies a regular feature of Positive Anymore.

Canadian Place Names

This weekend I was at a conference where a large number of the speakers happened to be Canadian. It struck me that a large number of Canadian toponyms have different pronunciations in Canadian English and American. Some examples:

Canadian M/ʌ/ntreal vs. U.S. M/ɑ/ntreal
Canadian Newfoundland vs. U.S. Newfoundland
Canadian Tronto [or even "Chronno" - thanks, mzn!] vs. U.S. T/ɚ/onto

I think that the pseudo-French pronunciation of Quebec as /kebek/ in Canada is a different, and later phenomenon, a sort of particularly Canadian political correctness. But the others are simply place names for which separate American and Canadian pronunciations exist, each of which are the only legitmate option for Anglophones of the respective countries. For instance, though I'm American, I've started saying M/ʌ/ntreal, which is an affectation, and I'm annoyed with myself for it. Perhaps my excuse is that I'm a quarter Canadian (my Grandmother was Canadian). No, that's no excuse.

I tried to think of other examples of this phenomenon of different pronunciations of toponyms within a language (aside from ones you can explain with reference to dialect differences), but I could only think of a few. For instance, Oregonians get huffy any time they hear "Oregon" with secondary stress on the last syllable and no vowel reduction. Little do they know that the only people who say Oreg̚n are from there (or those like me who have lived there and had the mainstream pronunciation beaten out of them.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Word To The Wise: An Update

A comment by Zackary Sholem Berger pointed me towards the actual Talmudic aphorism, which is as follows:

די לחכימא ברמיזא ולשטיא בכורמיזא
מידרש מישלי כב

which I would translate,
"[Saying something] with a hint is enough for a wise person, and for a fool, with a fist."

It's pithy and it rhymes. Turns out it's not even in the Talmud, but in a ninth-century Rabbinic commentary on the book of Proverbs. Much to my chagrin, though, there is nothing about קונדסא or קונדס. So why did קונדס go from meaning "stick" in Aramaic to "prankster" in Yiddish? Don't know, but I bet it's somewhere in the Talmud. Flip it over and flip it over again; everything's in it.

If you're interested, there's a hilarious heated exchange in Yiddish on a Hasidic online forum in which several people make up insults alluding to this passage.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Caption Contest #39

"See, when I fly I like to wear layers in case I get too hot."

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

From Italy to New York via London

My recent musings about the whole Turin/Torino affair got me thinking about a related matter: the pronunciation of Italy. A few years ago I started noticing people pronouncing the /t/ in Italy as a full-on devoiced aspirated English /t/. This was interesting because, even though that /t/ is a typically English sound, the natural American tendency is to "flap" the /t/ in this situation (before unstressed vowels), making it sound more like a /d/. Okay, technically it's a [ɾ], but you get my point. This means that when an American pronounces Italy with a /t/, it can't be explained away as the speaker adapting the word to the phonetics of their own language, since, if anything, it violates the phonetics of American English. My initial thought was that this was yet another instance of hyperforeignism -- that is, a manifestation of an instinct that a flapped /t/ doesn't "belong" in a foreign word -- never mind that Italy isn't a foreign word.

Then I noticed that the onset of me noticing this pronunciation coincided with my moving to New York, and that the people who I heard saying this were all non-young (50+) native New Yorkers. This is the same group of people who still have a lovely but fading trait of New York English: the pronunciation of the /t/ in "bottle" not as a flap, but as a glottal stop. You know, like a parody of a Cockney accent: 'Ow many bo'les, Guv?

I'll admit that I don't know why New Yorkers say (said?) this, whether it was at one point a generalized Cockney-like tendency to turn flaps into glottal stops (glo'al stops?). I could research it, but I don't have time. So instead I'll offer the following theory, based on nothing at all. There's nothing like mucking up an empirical science by making up theories without any evidence. The mind,
when encumbered by data, is free to go many wondeful, strange, factually incorrect places.

My theory is that in New York at some point the glottal stop/t/ occured more often than only in the word "bottle." How widespread I don't know. I know that in London there is a fundamental sociolinguistic between those who turn their /t/s into glottal stops, and those who leave them as devoiced, aspirated /t/s -- flapping isn't an option in that area. Perhaps such a distinction once existed in New York as well, perhaps even borrowed directly from London. Thus "bottle," a humdrum everyday word, preserved a basolectal pronunciation with a glottal stop, while "Italy," a word associated with high culture (Europe! What could be fancier?) retained an acrolectal /t/. As I have said on many occasions, I just made that up, but I think it might be true.

Lest you mourn the passing of "Italy" with a /t/ and "bottle" with a /
ʔ/, there are plenty of other New Yorkisms which are thriving. Some of my favorites include using the word "Spanish" to refer to anyone of Spanish-speaking heritage, which New Yorkers of all ages and social/ethnic backgrounds do. In fact, a chapter in the Yiddish textbook I use in my classes lists "shpanish" as one of the main ethnic groups in New York. Another striking New Yorkism is calling any surface you walk on "the floor," indoor or out. This is more limited sociolinguistically, but still widespread among all age groups. But the absolute winner is "standing on line." I think for New Yorkers this is like "pop" is for me (as opposed to soda/coke): although New Yorkers claim that they can say "on line" or "in line," in reality they only say the former. Since "in line" is ubiquitous everywhere else, New Yorkers are misled into thinking they say it too. Furthermore, just as us "pop" sayers have no problem with "soda," while "soda" sayers can't stand "pop," so New Yorkers are deaf to "in line," but many of us immigrants to New York passionately hate "on line." Me, I love it. Not that I'd ever say it.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Droppin' Affectations

In honor of President's Day, I'll do a little post about someone who, though not a former president, nevertheless lived in the White House, and who just may become president, which I wouldn't mind at all.

You don't need to believe in any vast right-wing conspiracy to think that Hillary Clinton receives an unfair amount of scrutiny and negative attention. (In the spirit of bipartisanship, I will point out that Mark Liberman at Language Log makes an excellent case that the attention drawn to George W. Bush's verbal slips is unfair). One recent example of this stems from a speech she made on Martin Luther King's Birthday just down the road from me at the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ, in which she made the following remark:
The House of Representatives has been run... like a plantation, and you know what I'm talkin' about.
Perhaps this was not the wisest simile for her to use, and she has come under fire for it. But a significant amount of the criticism focuses on her so-calles "g-dropping" in the word 'talkin''. Here's what Mark Goldblatt, author of Africa Speaks, a "satire of black urban culture," wrote recently in the National Review:

There should be a name for this linguistic tic, perhaps Sudden Melanin Syndrome. It's the habit of white-guilt besotted liberals of adopting the mannerisms of Ebonics in a desperate attempt to indicate their solidarity with black listeners. Naturally it’s insultingly patronizing and what it actually indicates is someone who's not comfortable in her own skin, who unconsciously conforms her very being to whatever she imagines will ingratiate her with her audience. I doubt you'll ever hear Hillary dropping a "g" at a lily white Wellesley College reunion. Or at a lily white Chappaqua bake sale. Or at a lily white pro-choice rally.

Yes, I know, that's the second time I've cited a National Review article in as many weeks. Don't get the wrong idea; it just happens to be a good source of laymen's metalinguistic observations. Anyways, what's interesting to me is that Goldblatt considers 'g-dropping' a 'mannerism of Ebonics." It ain't. (Nor is 'ain't,' for that matter.) That is, though 'g-dropping' is typical of African American Vernacular English, it is much more widespread than that. Others label it 'Southern,' and it is indeed found in Southern dialects. Wikipedia says that
It is currently a feature of colloquial and non-standard speech of all regions, and stereotypically of Cockney, Southern American English and African American Vernacular English. Historically, it has also been used by members of the educated upper-class, as reflected by the phrase huntin’, fishin’ and shootin’.
But this still doesn't give the full geographic range, which I feel covers much of United States. I can attest firsthand that 'g-dropping' is found in the Chicago metropolitan area (known to locals as Chicagoland) from which Clinton hails, because I'm a Chicagoan and I drop my g's. Or rather, my present participles and gerunds have the sound /n/, not /ŋ/. It's a perfectly natural part of my speech, which comes out more when I'm speaking informally (not surprising). Given how pronounced Clinton's regional pronunciation is, so to speak, I can only assume that she was showing her roots at the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ. So ultimately Clinton is not, contra Goldblatt, affecting anything. In fact, she is dropping an affectation.

Speaking about present participles, here's a funny ad for Berlitz language schools, which, if you haven't seen you should. See. It. Thanks go to Sophie for showing it to me. Ten bonus points go to anyone who can explain why this is actually very clever, and not merely a cheap jab at accents.

Friday, February 17, 2006

3 Tendencies of Famous Quotations

I have been working over the past decade or so on an entirely unscientific set of general principles that famous quotations tend to follow. Why, I don't know. Maybe it's because people tend to like repeating these quotations, buying books full of them, using them as prooftexts for various arguments, etc. Which is not to imply that I am not one of these people. So here I will share with the world the following three tendencies:

1. Many famous quotations have multiple attributions.

I discussed an instance of this in a previous post. I think this breaks down into two subclasses: a) quotations that have are clever in a way that multiple people can come up with it independently, or which have perhaps been heard and repeated, and the repeater's utterance becomes famous. This is as opposed to b) quotations which, by virtue of being clever and witty, get mistakenly attributed to someone else known for saying clever and witty things. I'm suspicious whenever I read a quotation attributed to Woody Allen, Groucho Marx, Winston Churchill, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, or Abraham Lincoln. It seems that these people in particular are virtually interchangeable: which one of them said, "I don't want to be in any club that would have me as a member"? If you're me, and I know I am, you've seen it attributed to all of them. For the record, Groucho did indeed claim in Groucho and Me to have sent a telegram saying this, which doesn't mean that he came up with the phrase, or that he ever sent such a telegram. Also, Woody Allen has used this line a number of times (perhaps most famously in "Annie Hall"), obviously in tribute to Groucho.

2. Famous quotations often become altered in transmission, usually improving them.

Ever heard anyone say, "I am as mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore"? Of course not; what people say is "I'm mad as hell" etc., although the actual line (from the movie "Network" -- worth watching only as a cultural artifact) is the former, vastly inferior version. Wikipedia has an impressive list of "misquotations," many of which follow this axiom. What I like about this is that it shows that there is an innate sense for pithiness and elegance leading people to improve on already clever phrases without even knowing they are doing so.

3. Archaic quotations (Shakespeare, King James Bible, etc.) are often obscure.

This is the least scientific of my observations, based solely on the shaky foundation of my subjectivity. But think of the following quotations:

"Suffer the little children to come unto me."
"The lord is my shepherd; I shall not want."
"For now we see through a glass darkly."
"Get thee behind me, Satan."

or these:

"Wherefore art thou Romeo?"
"Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war"
"We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep."

I think that these quotations draw a sort of spooky power by not really meaning much to contemporary ears. Maybe that's why some people, including me, instinctively feel that the King James Version of the Bible just feels more biblical than more up-to-date versions. How could it be the Bible if it makes sense?

So there they are. I feel like there are better examples out there, but I can't think of them offhand. Maybe I'll come back to this later.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Another Turin

Well, it turns out next to no one actually stresses the second syllable of Turin. 'Cept me. But the Columbia Encyclopedia, that great arbiter, backs me up by allowing it as the third of three variant pronunciations. This reminds me of the time when a friend pointed out that I am the only person who voices the "s" in episode. Merriam Webster was on my side, but in all honesty I've been listening for someone else to say 'epizode' for two years now and have yet to hear it.

But I think that part of why I'd never noticed "TURin" before was because the broadcasters have adopted a new pronunciation: /'tɝən/, as opposed to /'turin/. I must have heard the latter my whole life, and, without the vowel reductions to guide me, I misheard stress on the final syllable. Weird.

Anyways, it seems I'm behind the times, and that the real fight is over Turin/Torino, a fight that was started by the mixed signals sent by the IOC, who advise that the games be called Torino 2006, but the city should be called Turin. Their preference for Torino for the name of the games? A marketing decision -- they felt it sounded all cool and Italiany. Missing from the often heated debate was any mention of the fact that the Piedmontese name of the city is Turin. My guess is that no one noticed this because the language has seen better days; according to the Wikipedia article on the subject:

In 2004, Piedmontese was recognised as Piedmont's regional language by the regional administration, although the Italian government does not recognise it. In theory it is now supposed to be taught to children in school, but this is happening only in a limited way... The current state of Piedmontese is quite grave, as over the last 150 years the number of people with a written knowledge of the language has shrunk to about 13% of native speakers, according to a recent survey Efforts to make it one of the official languages of the Turin 2006 Winter Olympics were unsuccessful.

Unlike the article's author, I don't equate a language's vitality with its official recognition or its literacy rate, or whether it is "taught to children in school" -- after all, a non-moribund language doesn't have to be taught to children; they already know it. But I think that what the article's author is trying to get at is that overall Piedmontese is giving way to Italian. I know very little about Italian languages, so I don't know if this is actually true, but if it is it would explain why everyone has been saying that Torino is the "local name" of the city.

Stress and the Olympics

I haven't had a chance to watch any Olympic events yet, but I have heard some highlights on NPR. The real highlight for me, though, is the pronunciation of the place where they are happening. You know, Turin. With the stress on the first syllable. Which is news to me. Although I haven't had much occasion to speak of the town, I always put the stress on the last syllable, i.e. "Shroud of Turin." Shroud of Turin? Can't say I've heard that before, though I'd hate to give in to what the Language Log folks have taken to calling the Recency Illusion. So I'm not going to say that it's a new pronunciation, although I think it is newly dominant.

In doing a bit of research for this post I found an interesting article by Jay Nordlinger in the National Review. It is, of course, cranky and conservative, whereas I am merely cranky. Nordlinger rails against the growing tendency of Anglophone media folks to call the place by its Italian name. "Katie Couric may swing with 'Torino,'" writes Nordlinger, "but ... she probably wouldn't refer back to the (horrendous) 'München' Olympics. Nor would she pretend that the 2004 Summer Games will be held in 'Athena.'"

A good point. But Turin is not like other idiosyncratic English toponyms for foreign cities. Although English tends to be particularly idiosyncratic when it comes to Italy (think of Florence, Venice, Milan, Naples, Rome, and of course Leghorn), 'Turin' is not just Anglophones being dense; it's the local (Piemontese) name of the place. So Nordlinger really has a right to complain about 'Torino.' Me, I'm not complaining about Turin; I've got other things to worry about, nor do I object to the pronunciation; I'm no prescriptivist. I'm just curious why '
Turin' is suddenly ascendant, especially since it violates one of Richard Janda's rules of Foreignese, which is that stress is usually the last syllable.

Nordlinger sheds some light on this situation, I believe. He notes that the respective pronunciations of Kabul and Qatar have now become, according to his transcription, "Cobble" and "Gutter;" that is, the stress has moved to the first syllable, accompanied by typical English vowel reductions. Maybe when a foreign city is suddenly thrust into prominence in the news, there is an anti-Foreignese backlash, and the pronunciation gets a fresh coating (and usually a thin one) of Authenticity thrown on it. I remember in 1989-1991 when, along with dropping the definite article from Ukraine (something I always forget to do and always get in trouble for) newscasters started saying "Lithwania." This tendency, then, explains the rise of both
'Turin' and 'Torino;' the former is the anti-Foreignese stress shift, and the latter is an appeal to authenticity.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Nilsson, Newman, Coptic, and other stuff like that

Although Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman have always been heroes of mine, I only just got "Nilsson Sings Newman," the album where (surprise) Harry Nilsson sings Randy Newman songs. It's typical of Nilsson -- he's an amazing songwriter in his own proverbial right. Indeed, in a 1968 Beatles press conference, both Lennon and McCartney named him as their favorite American musician. At the time he was working at a bank. As a former bank employee myself I can only imagine the Monday morning office talk: "So, how was your weekend?" "Oh, pretty good. The Beatles told the press I was their favorite musician. And Ifinally cleaned out the fridge." Yet in spite ofhis formidable songwriting ability he was always eager to record other people's material, with the effect that now he is now known mostly for singing other people's songs, (like Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'" and Badfinger's "Without You"). But for an accomplished and rising songwriter to dedicate an entire album to another songwriter's songs speaks both to the quality of the material and the discernment of the performer. I've been listening to this album so much that it's given me severe insomnia, exacerbated by a looming conference paper, which, incidentally, is reducing the frequency of my postings. Overall, though, I've had a small epiphany about the album, which has made me rethink Newman's entire oeuvre, although it hasn't diminished my considerable regard for it.

All the Newman songs Nilsson records can be compared against Newman's own (hey, how 'bout that) versions. I tend to prefer the Nilsson versions, but only slightly. Why? Well, they aren't as nasty. Randy Newman has a way of singing a song that makes it sound almost diabolic in its cynicism. That's why many fans are so alienated by his Disney soundtrack stuff; if "You've Got A Friend In Me" were in "12 Songs" or "Sail Away" it would sound like a stinging denunciation of the institution of Friendship Itself, as opposed to cute Disney stuff. But Newman songs, though his sings them ironically, are decidedly sweet, and Nilsson's sweet voice brings this out. Nilsson's recording of "Love Story" is an idyllic portrait of the simple joys of life, whereas Newman's version exposes the sad hopelessness of those who hope for even humble pleasures. The lyrics, mind you, are the same. It's just Newman's voice that makes everything he sings sound, well, nasty. Nilsson's innovation was to peel back the nasty layer and reveal the sweetness underneath. Newman collaborated on the album; it's basically a duet between Nilsson, who sings, and Newman, who plays piano. As such I think that Newman must not have objected to having his ironic songs sung unironically. It makes me wonder, then, whether I've misunderstood Newman all these years; if he couldn't help sounding biting even when he wanted to sound earnest. It's a definite possibility. Me, I've got the opposite problem; everything I sing sounds earnest, even when I don't want it to. Once I sang Newman's song "Sail Away," and someone said, "That's such a hopeful song!" In fact, it's in the voice of a slaver cynically extolling the virtues of American slavery to Africans. But somehow I made it sound hopeful. Go figure.

In a decent New Yorker article on the figure of Mary Magdalene, Joan Acocella makes an odd mistake. Discussing a cache of texts found in the desert in Egypt, she describes Coptic as "an early form of Egyptian." It is, in fact, the absolute latest form of Egyptian. I'm not hear to rail against Acocella or the copyeditors at the New Yorker; everyone makes mistakes. I mention it because it is hard to imagine how this particular mistake happened. Perhaps it is due to ignorance of the fact that the modern inhabitants of Egypt do not speak Egyptian. Of course the texts, being Christian texts, are from the Common Era, and that the history of Egypt goes a wee bit back from there. Though I never underestimate the amount of ignorance in the world, I have trouble believing that Joan Acocella doesn't know that they speak Arabic in Egypt and also has never heard of the pyramids or hieroglyphics. Here's how I imagine, instead, that this mistake came about, and I'm proud of the theory, which is why I share it now.

She originally had written "late form of Egyptian," and some editor down the pipeline thought, "That'll just confuse readers; how could it be late if it's ancient?" and changed "late" to "early." This makes more sense to me. So I'm not going to foam at the mouth or rail against declining standards, although you can, if you want.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Benjamin Franklin: Talmudist

There's a saying in Yiddish that is based on a Talmudic aphorism: "A word to the wise is enough."

Sound familiar? That's because Benjamin Franklin said the same thing, most famously in his 1758 essay "The Way to Wealth," an essay which is basically a compendium of Poor Richard's sayings strung together. This implies that there is an earlier instance of the phrase in the Franklin corpus, but I don't feel like doing the research to find it.

So does this mean that Benjamin Franklin read the Talmud? Of course not. It doesn't even imply that his use of the phrase has any connection to the Talmud. A clever phrase like that can be invented multiple times, because people are clever. Almost makes you believe in universal human nature, don't it?

I tried to find the Talmudic instance of the phrase and failed, which I don't feel too bad about; after all, the Talmud is traditionally compared to the sea, meaning basically that it is huge. In my search I employed a clever technique, which, though ultimately unsuccesful, led me on an interesting journey, the highlights of which I will now share.

My clue in this search was a bit of information given to me by me colleague Naomi Kadar - "Whoever passes on a teaching in the name of the person who said it brings freedom to the world" - Pirke Avot 6:6. (Ironically, this saying isn't attributed.) She said that the maxim in full is "A word to the wise is sufficient, but for a fool not even a stick helps," and that the word for stick is קונדס, which has come to mean "prankster" in Yiddish. One of the two rival American Yiddish humor magazines in the early twentieth century was called דער גרױסער קונדס, "The Big Prankster," but the English title on the masthead was "The Big Stick," which I always found puzzling, but which this bit of information clarified.

So using this information, I went to Jastrow - that is, to Marcus Jastrow's legendary Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature, hoping to get what is known in the yeshiva as a Jastrow Double - a citation of the very passage that sent you to the damn dictionary in the first place. No luck. I learned, not surprisingly, that this is one of many words of Talmudic Aramaic that are not Semitic in origin, which you can tell from the word itself. It comes from the Greek κοντός, which refers to a cavalry lance used particularly on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire. Cognates exist in Latin, Hungarian, Turkish and Arabic. All of Jastrow's citations, however, seemed to have to do not with lances, but with poles, and specifically poles used to hold things up, such as wedding canopies and eruvin (boundaries used to turn large areas into "homes," within which the Sabbath restriction on carrying is looser) and in one instance some unfortunate individual's head and hands. It seemed a little odd, though not impossible, that the sense would be so different in the Talmud, but then I remembered that Naomi said that the form of the word was קונדסא, which made sense, since in Aramaic a א at the end of a word is often a definite article. Jastrow does indeed have the word קונדסא, but it is a unit of measurement used for artichokes. Seriously.The word is a corruption of קינרס "artichoke," from the Greek κινάρες (accusative plural), cognate with the word for 'artichoke' in many languages, and familiar to me from my days working in a liquor store, where we sold (though no one bought) Cynar, an Italian apero (bitter apéritif) flavored with artichokes.

At this point I'm tempted to say something flaky about the journey being more important than the destination, although I generally hate stuff like that. So instead I'll quote the Franklin aphorism in full, which like its Talmudic counterpart, has a rarely quoted second part:

"A word to the wise is enough, and many words won't fill a bushel."

And on that note:

"Of making of books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh." Ecclesiastes 12:12.

A Postscript

Wikipedia gives the following Latin versions of the saying:
Terence Phormio, IIII.3: Verbum sat sapienti.
Plautus Pseudolus, Act I.1: Dictum sapienti sat est.
Thomas à Kempis Imitation of Christ (c.1481), 3.34: Intelligenti satis dictum est.
Franklin could have gotten it from any of these. Or made it up himself. In fact, the Talmud could have gotten it from either of the first two. Goddammit. I wrote my damn BA thesis on the possibility of Greco-Roman influences on the Talmud, and I never knew about this. Just goes to show you: you can't spell "blah blah blah" without BA. Or "a bad grad student" without ABD.

On the other hand, this supports a pet theory of mine that most famous quotations usually have countless antecedents. I have a number of other theories about famous quotations, which will be the subject of my next post, unless anyone has any requests.

Friday, February 03, 2006

What's Been Utzing Me

One of my favorite topics is the peculiar character of English words of Yiddish origin. Nearly all have a different meaning in English than in Yiddish (my sole publication is on this topic), and nearly all have a sort of goofiness or subtlety to them, even if the Yiddish words they come from are completely quotidian. A few examples:

E: shlep: to carry something one doesn't want to carry
Y: shlepn: to drag

E: shmooze: to chat idly
Y: shmuesn: to converse

E: kvetsh: to complain in an annoying way
Y: kvetshn: to squeeze, press or oppress

I'm convinced this contributes to the myth that Yiddish is a particularly nuanced or funny language, since these English words are indeed nuanced and funny.

But then there are those words which everyone insists come from Yiddish, even when no similar Yiddish words exist. I've gotten in a number of arguments over the provenance of futz, schlemiel and shmo. I concede that the second is Jewish in origin, but it simply doesn't exist in what I call Yiddish, i.e. the modern vernacular of Jews in Eastern Europe.

I used to think that I grew up knowing all the Jewish-English vocabulary in common use among non-religious American Jews, but after moving to New York, I've encountered a few supposedly Yiddish-origin English words that I'd never heard either in Yiddish or English. One of these is the verb "utz," pronounced /ʌts/ -- a word New Yorkers with even a minimal exposure to Jewish culture tend to know, as far as I can tell. A little research (okay, googling) revealed that this word's origins were usually described as "Yiddish, from German uzen, to tease." Aside from the specious "Yiddish, from German," there is a problem with this etymology, which is that there is no such word in Yiddish.

Or so I thought. I looked at the Yiddish equivalent of the OED, the incomplete Groyser verterbukh fun der yidisher shprakh, and found the word אוצן, meaning "to tease." With two citations. Both from books printed in what is now Germany -- one in Fuerth and the other in Frankfurt. Here they are:

דו שרײַבשׂ ... גלײַך דו ... פֿיל מאל גישריבן העשׂט ער הלטן ... דו קאנסט אונז ניט אוצין
-י. מאַרשן, חנוך לנער, פֿיורדא 1774

זאָ װערד מער אינס חדר געאוצט
-טענדלאַו, 769

Anyone who knows Yiddish will recognize that both quotations are in "West Yiddish," whose relation to Yiddish is complex and controversial. What I can assert is that this shows the word never existed in East Yiddish. Yet in English it remains a Jewish word, suggesting that it was brought here by German or West Yiddish speaking Jews (probably the former), whose key role in the establishment of Jewish institutions in America had long-lasting effects on the Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews who came later and eventually outnumbered their Central European predecessors by at least tenfold. If this is so, it is not the only such word. Others include the above-mentioned "schlemiel," and the noun "nebbish." Speaking of "nebbish," another bit of Jewish English I never heard outside of New York is "nebekh" as a noun.

I am fairly certain that "utzing" does indeed come from either German uzen or West Yiddish/Jewish German אוצן, even though there is a semantic shift from "to tease" to "to annoy." But such a semantic shift is not unprecedented, nor is it improbable. What is somewhat harder to account for is the vowel shift from /uts/ to /ʌts/. I tend to be skeptical of etymologies that rely on such a vowel change. Prominent among such etymologies is the one that traces English "shmuck" to German schmuck, "jewelry." But it is not the vowel change that makes this etymology impossible, but rather that the immediate source, Yiddish שמאָק couldn't be cognate with German schmuck because of the vowel. On the other hand, it is easy to see how the vowel in Yiddish /ʃmɔk/ resolves to English /ʃmʌk/. (In case you're wondering, the Yiddish word probably comes from a Slavic word meaning "snake.")

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

"Dope, Drink and Tonic" or "The Other Cola Wars"

I was raised by and around linguists, and thus heard murmurings regarding the competing merits of the words "pop" and "soda" throughout my childhood. I never paid them much heed; in fact I suspected it was a fake disagreement, like the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamantash debate, or perhaps some epiphenomenon of the then-raging Cola Wars. I thought to myself, "What's the big deal? They're both perfectly neutral and interchangeable terms."

Then I left the comforts of Chicago for college and was confronted by a dormitory full of Californians and Northeasterners who would howl with derision and displeasure any time I said "pop." Suddenly it occured to me that there was something to this matter. I asked around a little, discovered the (to me) surprising Southern use of "coke" as a generic term, as in "7-Up is my favorite kind of coke." Upon further reflection I realized that while "soda" struck me as a neutral term, one that I would never notice someone else using, I would never utter it myself. Ultimately I formed a more-or-less accurate mental map, with "coke" in the South, "soda" in the Northeast and California, and "pop" in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest.

Fast forward to last year, when I found the following map, (which the Chocolate Lady mentioned in a recent comment):

Beautiful, isn't it? I should mention that maps are a lifelong passion; give me an atlas and I can stay happy and entertained for hours.

Why do I love this map so much? Mostly because the data is so clearly presented; you don't need any isoglosses artificially thrown in, especially in the East where population is dense and counties small. The quality and clarity of the data is all the more remarkable given the incredibly scientific sampling method: the data comes from a website that had a form for visitors to fill out. That's it. Such beauty from such humble origins. What this shows is that this is an entrenched lexical difference in American vernacular speech, and moreover one that involves frequently used words -- in classical American dialectology, the reliance upon obscure terms borders on the ridiculous: "What do you call an oblong barrel for fermenting barley in -- a jim-wheelie [That's the Midland term] or a huck-pot [the Southern one]?" Okay, I made that up. Anyways, whoever you are, wherever you're from, if you're American you use a word for sweet carbonated non-alcoholic beverages that reflects where you are from more than anything else.

A few remarks about the map itself. First off, the distribution of "coke" is an amazingly good indicator of southernness. Not only does it skip over the heart of Appalachia (West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky), but it includes the "Hoosier apex," that is, the part of southern Indiana that Hans Kurath considered a northerly outpost of Southern dialect. Furthermore, Maryland's Eastern Shore, the most culturally Southern part of the state is an isolated "coke" area. In contrast, the pop/soda isogloss does not fit neatly with any cultural isoglosses I know of. And as a pop-sayer myself, I look with pride on the grand stretch of blue from western New York all the way to Seattle.

Notice also the sort of indeterminate area in North Carolina where "soda" and "coke" meet. This is due to two different local terms, "dope" and "drink." I think this proves what I suspect Walt Wolfram of believing, that North Carolina is the weirdest part of the country, dialectologically speaking. That the Boston area has a lower percentage of "soda" sayers is due to another localism, "tonic." I asked a Bostonian friend if he knew the term, and he said, "Sure. Gym teachers say it." I think that's an interesting sociological observation right there. For my part, I always associated a strong Chicago dialect with car-salesmen. Though now that I think about it, gym teachers weren't far behind. I always thought that Coach Z talked exactly like a coach should. Then I realized he was supposed to have a Chicago accent.

Also noteworthy are the two "soda" islands in the Midwest, one in eastern Wisconsin and another in a large area roughly centered on St. Louis. I can only speculate about why they exist, but I can relate that people from these areas have told me that for them "soda" is a prestigious term that they associate with urbanites, while hicks say "pop." This makes sense, since the eastern Missouri/southwestern Illinois soda island radiates out from a major city (St. Louis), and eastern Wisconsin one divides the more urban, industrial eastern part of the state from the rural, agrarian west.

Finally, I think I now understand why I failed to see any real distinction between "soda" and "pop." While I was from the heart of the "pop" zone, I was exposed to mass American culture, which is produced in the "soda" saying lands of California and the Northeast. Thus "soda" seemed so acceptable to me that I didn't even know I didn't say it.

A footnote about Coach Z: although his Chicago dialect (or maybe just Inland Northern, though his dental fricatives do border on plosives) is not bad -- certainly not much worse than that of the Superfans -- the feature of his speech that gets the most attention is an exaggeration of a Midland one.

Caption Contest #37

"This isn't what we meant by trial in absentia."

A bit obvious, I know.