Category: Linguistics - Dreams and Dialects
 
Today I am stuck in bed with the worst cold I've had in years. So naturally I am cheering myself up by reading up on Chinese logogram etymologies. Yep - this is how I spend my sick days. What of it.

It's really interesting how some of these characters came to be. For example, 令, originally meaning an order or command, is made up of the symbol for a mouth (亼) above a kneeling person (卩). Pretty cool, right?

Also, let's look at the character for bird: 鳥. Looks nothing like a bird, right? Check out the development of the character and you'll totally see it.
PictureLeft to right: Bird who dropped his keys; Bird running away from the police; Meth addict bird






So some of these are really quite obvious and make a lot of sense. Those obviously look like birds, right? But then there are some that are just so strange and interesting, and one cannot help but see other pictures in these symbols. So today I present to you the daft imagination that my cold has granted me and I will guide you through the secret hidden etymologies of Chinese characters that nobody ever told you about because they're silly and were made up by me.

WARNING: Silliness imminent.

1. is a cat being tickled

In reality, this is a tripod or a three-legged couldron, also known as a ding. But just take a quick peek at the history of the character and damn well look me in the eye and tell me that's not a cat being tickled.
Picture
How many tickled kitties does it take to fill a ding? Can honestly say I never saw myself producing that sentence in my entire life.
That is blatantly a picture of two arms reaching up and tickling a cat whose legs are wriggling around in joy. Don't try to pretend it isn't. Also, I think the cat may be blindfolded. Should we be worried? What kind of cat-tickling practices did the ancient Chinese partake in?

2. ...I'll let it speak for itself

Now I'm not really the type to be immature, bu-- okay yes I'm immature. Just thought I'd get this one out of the way.
Picture
Yeah... sorry
Let's move on.

3. is a Wugballoon

If you haven't been anywhere near an Intro to Linguistics lecture then this may take some explaining. The Wug is a fictional creature invented for use in the Wug test. Essentially, the Wug tests how first language English-speaking children understand and pick up inflections, and in the Wug's case in particular, it's testing plurals. Here is an example of the Wug test. Isn't he cute?
Picture
This is a Wugballoon. Now there are 99 of them. There are 99 ________________.
Wait a minute. What the hell is a Wug doing in some ancient Chinese scripts? This symbol means moon or month, and it developed from a pictogram of a crescent moon. So how on earth did it even turn into a Wugballoon? Jean Berko Gleason has some explaining to do.

4. is a baby dragon that is totally pleased to see you

Some people would have you believe that this character means leader or chief. Some say it developed as a pictogram of a head with lots of hair. Ya know, like this guy. Yeah? Do you see it? Well you're wrong, and I have too much respect for you to not tell you what it really is. Because It's a happy baby dragon that is totally pleased to see you.
Picture
"Hey, buddy! Wanna get some take-out?"
Isn't he just an adorably little happy baby dragon? He's so happy to see you! But he's not happy about the fact that he has been forgotted in the mists of etymology. This guy is the rightful heir to the throne of the 首-symbol and he refuses to be forgotten.

5.  is two cats arguing over a garden fence

Don't see it? Are you sure? This character actually means dance, and is compromised of  + . Historically, the character is made up of a picture of a dancer holding two animal skins. was originally compromised of two feet facing each other, i.e. steps. Look at this Bone Oracle script version, it's so obvious now. It's a person dancing, right? It's a dancer.

Yeah, no it isn't.

Look at other forms of this character and it becomes obvious that the secret hidden etymology of this symbol is that of two cats shrugging at opposite sides of a fence.
Picture
"Srsly I has no idea who poopt in ur flowrs"


Yeah, now I'm just going to roll around in a bath full of Vicks Vapour Rub and wait for death. Thanks for reading.
 
Last week I came across a meme on the increasingly bad Welsh Memes Facebook page and I admit, it was nice to see a meme that was actually being used correctly and wasn't about bestiality, but I ended up having to correct a couple of angry Welshmen who refused to believe that Welsh isn't one of the oldest languages in Europe. I admit this is something I used to believe myself, when I was maybe, oh I don't know, 13, but there are so many myths going around about the Welsh language that I feel need to be addressed, for Welsh speakers and non-Welsh speakers alike. 

This is absolutely in no way whatsoever an attack on the Welsh language, nor is it an attack on its speakers or those who believe in these myths. I just want to get this off my chest more than anything. People need to stop saying this stuff because it's ridiculous and starting to really, really annoy me

1. Welsh is not one of the oldest languages in Europe, nor is it any older than English

This is such a common myth and this is precisely why I'm writing this blog post. Within the past few months I have heard so many people argue that Welsh is older than English, and it truly is ridiculous. The idea that Welsh is older than English is incredibly outdated and goes back to the early days of Linguistics when people took the story of the Tower of Babel literally. By today we know that Welsh and English share the same root and have both been around for the same amount of time. 

True, Welsh (and Cornish and Breton) come from the Brythonic language, which existed in Britain before Anglo-Saxon arrived, but that doesn't make Welsh older than English. No, English didn't 'come from German'. No, English didn't 'come from Latin'. And, goddamnit, no, English isn't a younger language than Welsh. 

English as we know it today has changed a lot from Old English, which was a super cool language with lots of extra letters and is completely unrecognisable as the ancestor of today's language. It can be argued that Welsh hasn't changed quite as drastically as English over the centuries, but that doesn't make it any older either. 

Maybe people think that Welsh is older because it existed in Britain before English did, maybe they think it's older because minority languages are generally linked with tradition, maybe it's the aftermath of decades of being told that English is the language of modernity and Welsh is the language of the olden days, but none of these things matter because, and this is the last time I will be saying this, so read it slowly and carefully now, please: the Welsh language is not older than the English language

2. Welsh is not a dead language

This is aimed at those who don't speak Welsh or feel like they were forced to learn Welsh in school: so often have you gone out of your way to let me know that the language I hear on a daily basis is dead. Just because you don't use it, it doesn't mean that it's dead. 

Let's put it this way: I don't personally know anybody with an iPad, I've never used an iPad despite all the adverts I ever saw and I never will buy such a thing. But I don't claim that it doesn't exist just because I haven't personally encountered one or found use for one. 

Me claiming that iPads don't exist is exactly how daft you sound when you say Welsh is a dead language, especially since it has 562,000 speakers in Wales alone. 

3. Welsh is not a dying language

And this is for those of you who exaggerate the state of the Welsh language for the opposite reason. Now, I am by no means whatsoever saying that there is no need to preserve the Welsh language, or that no action needs to be taken to help the Welsh language survive. I wouldn't be dedicating my life to the cause if I didn't think so. The point is, I understand that Welsh is a vulnerable language but it is nowhere near dying. We have radio, TV, websites, education systems, newspapers, magazines, popular music, films, all sorts of amazing Welsh-medium stuff that most dying language activists would only dream of having. You can use Welsh daily if you choose to, speakers of real dying languages can't do this.

If you look at Fishman's Graded Inter-generational Disruption Scale, Welsh is most definitely at stage 1 or 2. That means, for a minority language, we're doing pretty damn well. I think more of us need to be grateful for that. Go and read about languages with less than 5 speakers and then see if you still want to complain about how we have English adverts on S4C. 

4. Welsh spelling is not stupid

We've all either said it or heard it at some point: Welsh looks like a cat walked across a keyboard. Trust me, it gets funnier every time, folks. But what a lot of these people don't realise is that Welsh spelling is far more uniform and easy to learn than English spelling is. 

I can understand why words like anghydweddogrwydd  might look like a mess to non-Welsh speakers, but while our spelling system may seem strange to outsiders, it is at least more or less, what we call, transparent. What this means is that a letter of the alphabet represents a particular sound and will represent that sound in all contexts. This seems basic enough, but there are plenty of languages that aren't transparent; English being one of them. Orthographical transparency is almost entirely true for Welsh however, with only a few exceptions that have simple rules that can be learned. 

For example

Most people can't get their head around the fact that <dd> is used in Welsh to represent [ð] (i.e. the 'th' sound at the beginning of the words 'the' and 'this'). It might seem weird to have <dd> for this sound but whether it is at the beginning, middle or end of a word, it will always be pronounced the same way. 

What about English? Well, just then I had to clarify the fact that <dd> in Welsh is the 'th' sound of 'the' and 'this' rather than 'thin' and 'through'. In English, <th> represents both sounds [ð] and [θ] and it isn't immediately obvious which is used in what context. Essentially, with English you generally have to learn how to pronounce a lot of words individually, whereas a Welsh speaker will be able to pronounce almost any new or unfamiliar Welsh word when it is presented to them. If you need more proof, you need only try to list as many words as you can that end in -ough and hopefully you will never need to think that Welsh spelling is stupid ever again. 

In fact, I'm not quite done just yet, because this is the one myth that bothers me above all others. I am going to give one final example before I leave you all alone. So let's look at a nice made up word:
If I were to show this to 50 Welsh speakers and tell them 'this is a brand new Welsh word, how do you think it's pronounced?' I would say that almost all of them would pronounce it something like [aˈbamɛ]. Tell the same amount of English speakers that it is a new English word and you would get all sorts of different answers ([ə'beɪm, 'abeɪm, ə'bɑːmeɪ, ə'bɑːmiː] etc etc). 

The point is that Welsh spelling is far more regular than English so please stop complaining about it, thank you. 


5. Welsh has no vowels

We get this one a lot, and you have no idea how stupid you sound when you say that Welsh has no vowels. In all fairness, unless you have some knowledge of Linguistics you probably don't know that spellings and sounds are not the same thing, so even in English, 'the word rhythm has no vowels' is about the dumbest thing you can say because <y> is being used as a vowel in this context.

As far as phonemes go, standard RP English and Welsh have pretty much the same amount of vowels, with Welsh winning by one extra. When it comes to the alphabet, English vowels are taught as a e i o u (y), Welsh vowels are taught as a e i o u w y. So as far as the alphabet goes, Welsh has more. 

So the reason why people think that Welsh has no vowels is because <y> is used to represent a vowel sound in Welsh, and <w> is used as both a vowel and a consonant (just like how <y> is used in English, e.g. yes vs happy). In fact, <w> is used to represent vowels in English, too (crowd, crown, news), so it's not that weird that we use it as a vowel (words like cwrw are a lot of fun for non-Welsh speakers). In fact, ever stop to think that the English name for <w> is called DOUBLE-U and the Welsh use it as a long [u:] sound? Logic'd. 

6. Welsh is not just "a cheap copy of English"

Welsh is full of English loanwords and apparently this is a source of much hilarity. There's no point in me lying though, I've found myself scoffing at an ashtray marked stwmps sigarets in Welsh, and I think everyone in Wales is familiar with bin brown, the Welsh translation of 'brown bin' found on our food waste bins. To be honest, this is a lesson I need to learn myself; I am always the first to laugh at 'stupidly bad' Welsh borrowings but I'm also the first to point out that there is nothing wrong with loanwords, no matter how stupid they seem. 
Wait... what language was I learning, again?

Lexical borrowing happens in all language contact situations, and the language with less influence is the one that ends up borrowing lots of words from the language with more influence. This happens all over the world and it's not just the Welsh 'being lazy'. The people who criticise the amount of English loanwords in Welsh tend to either be monolinguals who don't understand how bilingualism and language contact works, or language purists who won't accept the reality of how bilingualism and language contact works. But for those of you who scoff at our words like tacsi, ciwb, pyramid, ambiwlans and coffi, let me just remind you: 

Taxi comes from French (from German, from Latin)
Cube comes from French (from Latin, from Greek) 
Pyramid comes from French (from Latin, from Greek)
Ambulance comes from French (from Latin) 
Coffee comes from Italian (from Turkish, from Arabic).
 
A topic came up in the Facebook Conlangs group about international auxiliary languages (auxlangs) designed for endangered languages, and I simply had to write about it. 

For those who don't know, an auxlang is a language that has been constructed with the purpose of being used by people who don't share a common language. They are often designed to be neutral and easily learnable (for example, I'm sure most people have heard of Esperanto; this is a pretty well-known auxlang). So, auxlangs are meant to be a neutral solution to finding a common language to use with others. As much of a constructed language enthusiast as I am, I'm still not much of a proponent of auxlangs, and here's why: as a Language Planning student, I want to encourage people to learn and speak endangered and minority languages. So, when my passion in life is the preservation of lesser-spoken languages, why would or should I support a language that has been designed with the intention of being spoken internationally? It's somewhat of a conflict of interest.*

Personal matters aside, would an endangered language auxlang actually work? I'd have to say that I don't think so. To explain my point, I'll give you a little example: my hypothetical auxlang, Brėthoneg.

Brėthoneg is designed to be a hypothetical auxlang for the Brythonic languages, i.e. Welsh, Cornish and Breton, the latter two being listed as endangered by UNESCO. This project started as an idea to make a language that would be intelligible or easily read by speakers of any of the Brythonic languages. When I realised that this was pretty much impossible, it became a language that should simply be easily learnable for those speakers, with plenty of room for regional variations (one example being that <r> may be pronounced according to the speaker's native language, i.e. /r, ɹ, ɾ, ʁ/). 

Simple phrases are easily intelligible in the standard forms of the languages: 

English: I have a book
Welsh: Mae llyfr gennyf 
Cornish: Yma lyver genev
Breton: Ul levr zo ganin 
Brėthoneg: Ma lyvr geniv

English: Hello! My name is Rhian. What's your name?
Welsh: S'mae! Fy enw i 'di Rhian. Beth yw dy enw di?
Cornish: Dydh da! Ow hanow yw Rhian. Pyth yw dha hanow?
Breton: Salud! Rhian eo ma anv. Petra eo da anv?
Brėthoneg: Deidh da! Ma anu ėw Rhian. Pėth ėw da anu?

...and so on and so on. If you look closely, the biggest problem with Brėthoneg is that it is ridiculously similar to Cornish. So if I've designed an auxlang based on three languages, and it turns out to be structurally almost identical to one of them, why not just learn that one, and not waste time on a conlang? I can only imagine that in a larger group of endangered languages, a similar thing might happen, or all the words would be so different that there would be no way to find a neutral solution.

Coming from a language ecology standpoint, I think it's more important to encourage the learning of the endangered languages themselves rather than to suggest a new one for people to learn. I don't think that anyone would want to learn an inter-Celtic language, simply because Celtic-language speakers already have a common language, as is the case with most speakers of endangered languages. Besides, I think it takes a certain kind of person to take an interest in an endangered language, another kind to want to learn an auxlang, and I think that it would be a very rare breed that would want to learn an auxlang for endangered languages. 

So, would they work? As with any auxlang, it's a nice idea, but I really don't think they would catch on. A nice conlang project perhaps, but I wouldn't expect too much. 


 
* (I am aware that auxlangs are meant to be used as a second language, but many endangered languages' only hope is to spoken as a second language, too.)


 
Yup, my life is so void of any real excitement that my favourite thing to do is collect interesting words. Since I have a vast collection of many, many words, today I thought I’d share about 10 of these with you. Enjoy!

1. 積ん読 tsundoku (Japanese) 

(n.) The act of leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piled up together with other unread books

I think many of us can relate to this one. I myself have quite a few books that I will probably never really read. My grammar of Middle Breton, for example. I just love to collect books, to have them there on my shelf whether I read them or not, just so I can say, "Hey, look, I have a book on Middle Breton grammar" or "And this is my Irish dictionary from the 1920's written in An Cló Gaelach". A lot of people would criticise this practice, but really, with books slowly being pushed aside for e-readers and so on, I'd assume that one day most books will only have ornamental value anyway. 

2. Wīwī (Māori)

(n.) France
I don't think this word needs much explanation. It comes from French "oui, oui". Can you imagine naming a country after one stereotypical phrase used by its language's speakers? Just beautiful.  

3. snowlight (English)

(n.) The light reflected by snow

I'll be honest, I thought I had invented this word myself, so I was a little disappointed to see that it already exists, but it's a wonderful word nonetheless! Have you ever noticed how the world just glows when you're outside in the snow at night? You could walk through a field in the middle of the night and be able to see clearly just from the light reflected by the snow. It's one of my favourite things about winter.

5. molotulun (Ngarrindjeri)

(vb.) The ebbing and flowing of the waves on Lake Alexandrina, South Australia

I can't vouch for the authenticity of this word, as a Google search will only give you links to various dictionaries and a couple of books. Whether this word is genuine or not, the idea of a language having such a specific term fills me with joy. 

6. 森林 sēnlín (Mandarin Chinese) 

(n.) Forest

"Forest?" you might ask, "that's an interesting word?". Well, stop asking such silly questions and just look at it. It's literally a picture of five trees. In fact, from what I've seen, it gets even better. Let me show you how often you can use this simple 木 character: 
木 林 森 𣛧 𣡕 𣡽

How can you not adore this language!?

7. ននៀល [nɔniel] (Cambodian)

(vb.) to lie on the ground and thrash about (as a fish out of water or as a child having a temper tantrum)
It's essentially comparing a spoilt brat to a dying fish, what more could you possibly want from a word? There can't really be that many instances in which you could use it, but I can just imagine it being hilarious. 

8. crebi (Welsh)

(n.) A sheep that has lost its wool by forcing its way through thorns and briars, etc

I discovered this word the other day through the Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru, and it had me laughing for a good five minutes. Only Welsh could have such a specific sheep-related word. I love this language.

9. serein (English)

(n.) fine rain falling after sunset from a sky in which no clouds are visible

I can't say I've ever experienced this myself, and as someone who doesn't know the first thing about meteorology, I don't quite understand how you can have rain without clouds (someone enlighten me?) but I just love nature words that are so specific. 

10. petrichor (English)

(n.) The distinctive scent which accompanies the first rain after a long warm dry spell.

Some people use this word to mean 'the smell of the earth after rain', but it does have a slightly more specific meaning than that. It was coined by two Australian researchers, and it is an absolutely beautiful word: it's combined of the Greek words 'petra' (πέτρα) meaning 'stone', and 'ichor' (ἰχώρ) the ethereal golden blood of the gods. 
 
I've never been particularly fond of writing introductory blog posts. To be honest, I think I usually just write the one post and then give up on the blog altogether. So this time I don't think I'll dwell on introducing myself and just get straight into the cool stuff. You will get to learn that I use the term 'cool' lightly.

Do not judge me lest ye be judged: I take an immense amount of joy in reading about old orthographies, and I am hopelessly interested in their development. So, yesterday, while looking for an online copy of William Owen Pughe's hilariously fantastic dictionaries from the 19th century, I came across this absolute gem of an orthography and I have fallen madly in love with it. 
It appears to be based on Coelbren y Beirdd, the Welsh bardic alphabet invented by Iolo Morgannwg.  It's unfortunate that the book is so old that the diacritics aren't very clear. Here's a copy of the alphabet. The Coelbren-inspired orthography is on the left, while the modern orthography is on the right: 
The graphemes for <w> are a little hard to decipher. They look a bit like Cyrillic <ϭ> or Greek <σ>. I know that in Mediæval Welsh texts, a letter that looked similar to the number <6> was used for this letter, so it's likely based on that (I don't think it's available in Unicode yet). Since neither of these however will combine with a circumflex, I'm going to be boring and just use the <ϭ> for both <w> and <ŵ>.


a ... [a]
â ... [a:]
b ... [b]
b̓ ... [v]
b̔ ... [m]
c ... [k]
c̓ ... [g]
c̔ ... [ŋʰ]
ć ... [x]
d ... [d]
d̓ ... [ð]

d̔ ... [n]
e ... [ɛ]
ê ... [e:]
v ... [v]
f ... [f]

g ... [g]
g̔ ... [ŋ]
h ... [h]
i ... [ɪ, i]

l ... [l]
l̔ ... [ɬ]



m ... [m]
m̓ ... [v]
n ... [n]
o ... [ɔ]
ô ... [o:]
p ... [p]
p̓ ... [b]
p̔ ... [mʰ]
ṕ ... [f]
r ... [r]

r̔ ... [rʰ]
s ... [s]
t ... [t]
t̓ ... [d]
t̔ ... [nʰ]
t́ ... [θ] 
u ... [ɪ, i, ɨ]
ϭ ... [w, u, u:]
y ... [ɪ, i, ɨ]
ᶌ ... [ə] 


In all fairness, it is a complete mess of an orthography. But it has its charms, and the fact that you can tell which letters are mutations is useful. Apart from that though, it's an awful, awful mess. Just for fun here's a little comparison of the first verse of the Welsh national anthem in both orthographies: 

Contemporary Welsh: 
Mae hen wlad fy nhadau yn annwyl i mi,
Gwlad beirdd a chantorion, enwogion o fri;
Ei gwrol ryfelwyr, gwladgarwyr tra mad,
Dros ryddid collasant eu gwaed.


This silly Welsh: 
Mae hen ϭlad vᶌ t̔adau ᶌn annϭyl i mi, 
Gϭlad beird̓ a ćantorion, enϭogion o b̓ri; 
Ei gϭrol rᶌvelϭyr, gϭladc̓arϭyr tra mad,
Dros rᶌd̓id col̔asant eu gϭaed. 


Despite being messy, I think it's fairly cool-looking. I'm personally a big fan of having lots and lots of diacritics (Vietnamese, hnngg). Being the big orthography geek that I am, I might spend lots of time learning to read and write this fluently. Maybe it would make a useful shorthand for Welsh? Or maybe it should just stay in that book forever where it belongs.