Category Archives: Linquistics

Illusions of Stability: Dictionaries & Printing Presses

Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press in Germany around 1450, and then William Caxton introduced it to England in 1476. Five major dialects of English existed at that time and as early as the 1430s the Chancery of Westminster had made efforts to standardize spellings for written documents of English. With the printing press the standardization success blossomed. Choices of publishers quickly influenced the evolution of English.

About a century later, the first English dictionary was written: “A Table Alphabeticall” by Robert Cawdrey in 1604. The Italians had theirs 8 years earlier and the French 35 years earlier. While the Arabs had theirs 800 years earlier and the Indians had their first Sanskrit dictionary 1,000 years earlier. Mass distributed dictionaries were published over the next 150 years and the standardization of English progressed hugely.

I think it is because with our long history of fairly standardized English, the average person today is often blind to the real nature of language. They think that words have real definitions, real meanings. But with only a little study, it is clear that language, by nature, is constantly changing. Running into such illusions I stability I constantly challenge language prescriptionists by saying:

“Language is a temporary cooperative contract between people.”

Source & Inspiration: The History of English — an excellent website


Filed under Linquistics

The Qur’an’s Extra Apostrophe

Quran_ApostropheMany English readers’ will pause when reading the title of this post thinking there is a mistaken apostrophe. But as many of you know, the vogue way of spelling “the Koran” has become “the Qur’an” so two apostrophes are needed.  The use of the apostrophe here is not in any of the ways used in English: possession and to show missing letter being the common.  Instead we use apostrophes occasionally when transliterating words from other languages, in this case Arabic and here it actually represents a sound. But what sound is the apostrophe in the Qur’an represent?  For most Americans ignore it.

My diagram above shows the breakdown of the Arabic letters in the phrase “the Qur’an”. Arabic reads right to left and omits some vowels in common writing — here, the “u”. Many Arabic sounds (phonemes) are different than English sounds and thus can be transliterated in a variety of fashions.  There is not a standard transliteration system: here is a list of the main ones.  Due to these complications, several common Roman spelling permutations can be seen for any given word. I grew up with “the Koran” as the standard spelling. You can see in the below google ngram that “Qur’an” is actually a new popular spelling and with this has come a change of pronunciation.  In my day, we pronounced Koran as “core – an”, but for Qur’an, the “o” was changed to a “u” and the sound is more accurate.  The “a” was kept, but is no longer the “a” in apple (or “an”) but is pronounced like the “a” in “father”.  However, the “a” in “apple” actually sounds closer to the Arabic on google translate (you tell me). And though the K became a Q, it is merely a cosmetic change with no one attempting the real lingual-glottal intended with the Q. But almost no English speaker will attempt true glottal Q least best they be thought a snob or at worse laughed at.   I am not an Arabic speaker, so corrections are welcome.


The apostrophe is called the maddah and signals a glottal stop and lengthening of the “a” and thus those permutations in spelling where the “a” is doubled (“aa”) or has a long mark over it (“ā”).  So the new Romanization, “Qur’an”, tells us a bit more about the actual underlying Arabic orthographics, but is correct pronunciation important?

Actually, the pronunciation of “al-Qur’an” even varies between dialects of Arabic. So who cares if we don’t do it right, for there is no real “right”.  Below I list the top Arabic dialects in order of number of speakers:

  • Egyptian – 50 million
  • Algerian – 22 million
  • Moroccan/Maghrebi – 19.5 million
  • Sudanese – 19 million
  • Saidi – 19 million, spoken by some people in Egypt
  • North Levantine – 15 million, spoken in Lebanon and Syria
  • Mesopotamian – 14 million, spoken in Iraq, Iran and Syria
  • Najdi – 10 million spoken in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and Syria

Between the pronunciations differences and these varieties of romanizations options, what is the right way to spell, “the Qur’an” in English? Well, like the myth of definitions, spellings change and are not stable or fixed except by particular groups. If you wish, you can arbitrarily choose an authority to prescribe a spelling for you: Webster’s Dictionary, The Chicago Manual of Style, The New York Times Style book, the Associated Press Stylebook.  But even their prescriptions will change over time.

The masses may not have power over much, but they certainly do over language — the only place where democracy rules.



Filed under Linquistics

“The Bible” & Papyrus


The word “Bible” is used in several ways.  Let’s look at some background to the word.

Egyptian writing in the 2000s BCE was done on the pith of a plant called “papyrus”. Paper, on the other hand (developed in China around 100 BCE).  The Egyptians called the plant “paperaa” which meant “of the Pharaoh” since apparently he owned a monopoly on its production.

Papyrus RouteThe Greeks, in importing papyrus products, called the food products of this plant “papuros” but the nonfood products (scrolls, baskets …) they called “bublos” after the Phoenician city of Byblos from where it was exported.  But “Byblos” was the Greek slaughtering of the Phonecians real city name of “Gubal” (currently Jubayl) which meant “well” or “origin”.

The Greek word word “book” comes from their name for Gubal, where they got their material (papyrus) to write on.

“Paper”, interestingly, also comes from the greek work “papuros” even though the papyrus plant is not used to make paper but instead, paper production was developed in China around 100 BC and only made it to Europe in the 1200 CE to eventually replace both papyrus and parchment (animal skins) .

Returning to the word “Bible”, since Christianity has a book they value above all others, that book was simply called “The Bible” or “The Book”.  So the phrase “the Bible” means:

  1. sacred collection of books used by Christians and Jews
  2. and by extension: the sacred collection of books of any religion

Since the Bible is the source of Christian theology, doctrine and authority,  the word “Bible” eventually was enlarged to also mean:

3. any authoritative book (Oxford dictionary)

    • a book considered authoritative in its field
      (The Free Dictionary)
    • a publication that is preeminent especially in authoritativeness or wide readership
    • any book, reference work, periodical, etc.,accepted as authoritative, informative, or reliable

Reader Challenge:  Give some examples of this general use of the word “bible”.


See other “Word!” posts, here.


Filed under Linquistics

Language Families


Dividing up Languages

Linguists divide up the world’s languages into families. Above is a map showing the world’s top ten language families and below is a table showing their subgroups. I ranked the top 10 languages by the number of present speakers as of November 2013. My data was taken from Ethnologue and map from wiki.  Looking at Ethnologue: here are the language families (there are dozens) and here are the number of speakers. The map and table shows the name of the family, the percent of world speakers for whom it is their native tongue and then the number of individual languages in that group.


Jumping Language Families

Trust me, for any of you who can speak fluently more than one language fluently, you have never studied a “foreign” language, until as an adult, you have learned a language outside of your mother language’s family group.  For instance, my mother language is English.  I first studied German, then dabbled with Greek, then learned to speak/read/write Hindi & Urdu.  At that time, I thought my language skills were pretty broad.  But all those languages are Indo-European.  And when I landed in Japan, I quickly found out what “Language Family” meant.  In Japanese I had to twist my linguist brain into completely new knots.

Choosing the Top Ten

I arbitrarily chose the top 10 languages and arbitrarily chose what qualified as “top” by the number of speakers (not land covered).  If my arbitrary choices excluded your favorite language or seems to minimize it, then tough luck I’m sorry. Also, for sake of size, I left the Americas off the map because the only top 10 language family there is Indo-European.  Remember, as of today there are 7,105 living languages — hard to include them all.



Filed under Linquistics

Cut by a Mandolin

woman-playing-a-mandolinThe mandolin is a string instrument in the lute family. Lutes (and thus mandolins) have 4 courses or pairs of strings.  Each pair is identical but inevitably generating slightly different frequency to add a tremelo or richness to the tone as compared to only a 4 string equivalent.  Each pair tuned in perfect fifths and plucked with a plectrum. Mandolins evolved in the 1700s in Italy and descended from the mandore which was seen in the 1500s — probably used in King Henry VIII court (remember, I am watching the Tudors). For your entertainment, here is a link to a mandolin performance of a piece by J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750).

Yesterday at my clinic, a patient came in complaining that she cut her finger on a mandolin. Fascinated, I wondered how she could have possibly plucked her mandolin to hard as to cut herself?  But she had, when I walk into the suturing room, I found that she had avulsed the tip of her finger and it was bleeding profusely. After I stopped the bleeding with some foam, I then asked her if she was plucking her mandolin with her fingers because I figured that a pick (a plectrum) would have protected her.  She said she was using a large potato!

“What?”, I said, “Why a potato?”

She replied, “Yeah, I was making dinner.”

I said, “You were using your mandolin to make dinner!”

She said “Yes, I use it all the time to cut things.” It took another minute or so to realize that this was the mandolin she was using.  I laughed!

This misunderstanding illustrates how we can hear only what our mind is steeped in. I am watching the Tudors where I have been thinking about medieval musical instruments — but she was talking about a potato slicer.

Question to Readers:  Is it just me? Please tell me that you had never heard of the food slicer called “a mandolin”!


Filed under Linquistics

Idioms Exposed via Ngrams

I just discovered Google’s Ngram Viewer which came out in 2010 — boy am I behind the times!   Did you guys know about this and not tell me?

An “ngram” (wiki) is a term to describe data series used in computational linguistic.  If you are interested, here is a fun TED talk describing its use in “Culturomics”.  In this post I use the Ngram Viewer to explore a few idioms.

Idioms are phrases whose meanings you can’t understand by just knowing the meanings of the phrase’s individual words. When learning Japanese I had to memorize hundreds of idioms to even begin to understand normal Japanese conversation. Most of us don’t know the historical origins of idioms but we can still use the expressions perfectly.  But knowing their origins, can make a language much more colorful.  The idioms I will explore below are:  “one of the Jones boys“, “petered out“, and “lost my marbles“.

One of the Jones Boys

When older patients named “Jones” introduce themselves, they will often say “I’m one of the Jones boys“.   I have always wanted to know where that idiom comes from.  Google books “Ngram View” comes to the rescue!  I just typed in the phrase “one of the Jones boys” and “Bang!” there it is – click this link to see it.  The phrase began in the 1940s-1950s and then petered out.

With only a little more searching, I quickly understood the 1940-50 spike and thus the origin of the phrase. “One of the Jones boys” actually was the creation of E.C. Segar who made it a saying of  Wimpy in his comic strip series of Popeye.  The clever, but cowardly Wimpy used the phrase to placate possible enemies by implying there must be a mistaken identity since “Joneses” are in large number.

Petered Out

If you will note, I used the idiom “petered out” above. Again, using the Ngram Viewer we see that ironically “petered out” began in the 1880s and has stayed up since — it has not petered out like “one of the Jones boys“.

If you are a native American English speaker, you probably can imagine where “petered out” came from — but you’d be peversely wrong. There are many theories about the origin of the word — even a religious one referring to Peter’s betrayal of Jesus — his loyalty withered. But the real origin of the idiom is not as gloriously religious or crudely sexual.  Instead, apparently the word originated in the mining camps of America in the 19th century when “peter” was saltpetre (potassium nitrate) — used in gunpowder (source). Indeed, it was not until the 1920s when “peter” changed to mean “penis” that the phrase took off!  Sorry, I just can’t help myself.

Lost my Marbles

My idiom research for this post began today when my daughter asked me to explain a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip which used the idiom, “I’ve lost my marbles“.   Using the Ngram View, you can see that “lost my marbles” took off in the 1950 which a further google search reveals was due to Humphrey Bogart using the expression in the movie The Caine Mutiny (source).

Well, this post was meant to introduce you to the Ngram Viewer if you did not know of it.  It is a great distraction for us nerds.  Even more interesting is when you use the Ngram View to compare words or phrases.  HT to Language Log for introducing me to the viewer by discussing the recent acceptance of “Hopefully” as a sentence modifier — a fun post showing how language changes.

In my next post I will use the Ngram Viewer to explore religious issues. But in the meanwhile:

Challenge to Readers:  use the Ngram Viewer to expose the origins of an idiom, then tell us your findings in the comments along with a link to your Ngram chart.  Remember, in the next post we will do more than one word/phrase, so here, just stick to one idiom.


Filed under Linquistics, Philosophy & Religion

Mac Diacritics

A quick diacritic reference guide for Mac users who deal with non-English languages.  Let me know if I should add more.  Hope it helps one or two folks.


Filed under Linquistics

The Z Cult & Phonosemantics

I personally think that Nietzsche and Zen wouldn’t be even half as popular as they are if they weren’t spelled with a “Z”.    Seriously, what is the draw of the “Z”?   Is it the shape or its sound? Phonosemantics states that the sounds actually have meaning. Wooooooo, yeah, right. But lots of folks believe this. Mantras are based on this and many poets swear by it.

Yeah, I am skeptical about phonosemantics but this Z phenomena points to something, don’t you think?  Maybe it is the shape of the letter — forget the sound.  Can you think of other “Z” things that probably got a little help from the letter?

Alert:  a reddit reader pointed out that maybe for this reason, we should spell “Atheism” as “Atheizm”  !!!


Filed under Linquistics, Philosophy & Religion

Crow Mind

Urdu is a South Asian language and is the national the language of Pakistan.  Urdu was one of my graduate school languages and a bit of a struggle for me because it uses the Arabic script.  Though up until then I had learned Roman (of course), Greek and Devanagri (Hindi) scripts, Arabic script blurred together and changed form depending on position.

After a year of study,  I won a fellowship to study Urdu in Pakistan.   When I arrived in Pakistan my Urdu was very weak and I could only have minimal conversations with my home-stay family.  But after three months of study something happened that showed me that my Urdu skills had reached a new level.

One morning on my usual bike commute from my home to the school I rode past a local garbage dump.  As I rode close to the dump, I saw a crow picking at some rotten food scraps and when I got close, the crow flew off.  I tracked him as he flew across the sky and off into the distance when all of a sudden a voice in my head said: “Your lips will be a beautiful red!

I was puzzled.  “Where did that come from?” I thought.  Then as I looked back toward the garbage dump I saw that the crow had flown past a billboard advertising for lipstick and the sentence on the billboard in Urdu said “Your lips will be a beautiful red!”

My mind had read and translated the Urdu without my conscious participation.  And then I heard the broadcast of the translation.  Wow, and all this without me doing I thing.  This is how I realized I had finally reached a new level in this language — an automaticity.  But more importantly, I also had another concrete lesson of how my mind works without me.  My sense of “self” was chiseled down a little further.


Filed under Linquistics, Philosophy & Religion

I speaks wrong English

The same people deluded by “The Definition Myth” are also deluded into think that there is such a thing as “correct” English.  This dictionary website shows how wrong my English is.  Because according to them, out of the 100 most mispronounced words, I mispronounce 39/100:

across, affidavit, Antarctic, Arctic, athlete, barbiturate, candidate, cardsharp, champ at the bit, clothes, dilate, diphtheria, drown, et cetera, especially, February, founder, height, hierarchy, regardless, jewelry, Ku Klux, Klan, mayonnaise, miniature, moot, nuptial, ordnance, parliament, percolate, prerogative, prescription, perspire, Realtor, recur, silicon, spit and image, tenent, tenterhooks, triathlon,

That is why a spell checker is so important to me — it is not my spelling that is bad, but my English.


Filed under Linquistics