Saturday, May 19, 2012

How Did I Do?

There is a new Southern Vampire book out by Charlaine Harris called Deadlocked. When the last one came out, there was a magical object called the 'cluviel dor' in it. I engaged in some idle speculation as to what that object might be. My post can be read here.
So, on to my speculations about the object: *Spoiler alert* I think 'golden key' was a fine guess since it could open a way to Faerie but my guess 'golden thread of life' worked even better because it was how Sookie ultimately used the object - to bring someone back to life. I suspect that Sookie could have used it to bring Eric back to life, which I think is still a good hunch, in spite of Harris saying 'once a vampire, always a vampire.' Any object that can overcome death is a powerful item. However, it seems clear now that Sookie is not going to find happiness with Eric and Harris' answer reflected her intention that he would remain a vampire and did not reflect what the object could do. This outcome has made some fans of the series unhappy and probably accounts for some of the negative reviews.
I don't like that ending myself but I find the novel was still written with the usual quality of the previous eleven books.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Greek Squirrels

I took a trip to the library and found that the entries in the Dictionary of Old English do not contain etymologies. Darn and double darn. But, I spoke to someone from the project who said that Cleasby and Vigfusson were wrong about the Germanic squirrel being a corruption of the Greek term.
Then I decided to see if the Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for the Middle English 'aquerne', which it does. It was last used in print in 1200 C.E.. The entry also states that the first element of the word is identified with 'oak' but that the origin of the word is uncertain. So that is that - our best guess is Anatoly Liberman's - and there were no Greek squirrels running around in migration period Germany.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Dumber But Not Stupider

This post was inspired by a conversation with my son. He was calling someone 'stupider' and I corrected him because it should be 'more stupid' and then I began to wonder why some comparative adjectives use the ending '-er' and others require a 'periphrastic' comparative with the addition of 'more' or 'less'. Having familiarity with several 'dead languages' that have contributed parts to Modern English, I know they all decline, that is have inflected endings to show case, number and gender. Modern English has few declensions, plural is conveyed with the addition of an 's' (with some exceptions), there is no gender and case (or purpose in the sentence) is shown by position and prepositions.
So what happened to the comparative in English so that we have two forms? (with some exceptions) First I shall mention the exceptions. They appear in Latin, such as 'good' which is bonus/bona/bonum but in the comparative is melior/melius and optimus/optima/optimum in the superlative but this also appears in the Germanic languages, like Old English 'good which is god, betera/selra and betst/selest or good, better, and best.
In Latin, one normally converts an adjective to the comparative by adding -ior (m/f) or -ius (n) to the stem of the nominative form, that is the form in which it would be the subject of a sentence without the declined ending for gender and number. In Old English, it would be formed by adding-ra to the stem. However, the Scandinavians who took over the eastern and northern parts of England also contributed to the language and in 1066 the Normans invaded, adding their own contributions to the tongue.
In Old Icelandic, one forms most comparatives by adding -ari to the stem. Like in Old English and Latin, good/better/best is irregular - góðr/betri/beztr or baztr. Comparison is also shown by using en, meaning 'than', or by adding the dative of an adjective like fleiri, more, or the dative of an adjective. In an article, by R.M.W. Dixon, which you can read in pdf here, He called "Comparative Constructions in English", he discusses phonetic forms which take the -er ending or require the addition of 'more' but there are exceptions to just about every case and he did not examine the linguistic origins of the various words which might be useful in determining why this is so. He states that one can use 'stupider' or 'more stupid' although 'stupider' sounds very odd to me so I am going to rule it out as a correct form. He might explain this as a dialectical variance but I have not seen 'stupider' in print anywhere that I can recall. He also states one can use 'solider' for 'solid' or 'more solid' so I wonder if it is disyllablic words ending in 'd' that just don't sound right with an -er ending because 'cold' and 'dead' sound perfectly reasonable as 'colder' or 'deader'. ('deader' may sound illogical but we do have the phrase 'deader than a doornail")
In Comparison in English and German by Markus Schneider and Denis Wippler, they state that trisyllablic words can only take 'more' to form the comparative so perhaps the dividing line is two syllables, some go one way and others go the other way. In the search for the reasons why, there is one more language to consider Old French.
In 1066, the Normans invaded England and French became the language of the court, pushing out much of the Old English or Germanic forms. In Old French: a Concise Handbook by E. Einhorn, it states that comparatives are formed by the addition of the adverbs plus or moins ('more' and 'less') so we can perhaps blame the French for the confusion. However the Normans were Scandinavian in origin (North-men) and so the periphrastic comparative may have come into English from the Old Norse interacting with the French.
One last check with the Oxford English Dictionary reveals that 'stupid' is derived from the latin 'stupidus', solid comes from the latin 'solidus', cold comes from OE 'cald', dead from OE déad. I would hate to conclude that the use of 'more' is due to the Germanic languages having difficulty with the latin derived tongues in disyllablic adjectives ending with a 'd' without making a longer list and checking from which language each adjective is derived from but it is an intriguing possibility. In conclusion, for now, I just want to say that I do not envy anyone trying to learn English as a second language.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

More on Squirrel

The Germanic name for squirrel is annoying me. Is it a corruption of the Greek term? Everyone who says so is quoting Cleasby-Vigfusson but were they correct? I tried to look up the Old English term 'acwern'. The 'ac' in front looks like 'oak' and, since so many OE words are compounds and this is supposed to mean 'shade-tail', then wern or weorn should mean tail but I cannot find an entry in the Bosworth Toller dictionary or the Clark-Hall. I have not been able to access the Dictionary of Old English at the University of Toronto, although I should. They are definitely past the a's but the entry might not include an etymology of the word or break down the compound into its separate elements. Next week, I will try one more time and then I will give it a rest but in the meanwhile I found some other information.
In a book called Old Names - New Growth: Proceedings of the 2nd Aspens Conference (lovely title) there is this entry by Hans Sauer and Ulrike Krischke on quercus, oak, eiche : acweorna 'squirrel', 'eichhörnchen' should probably be placed here, too: according to Pokorny (p. 13F) its etymological root is not *aig- 'oak', 'Eiche' but *aig - 'swinging (violently)', '(sich heftig) bewegen, schwingen.' Still, secondary motivation in OE might have ben ac. Cf. Kluge s.v. 'Eichhörnchen' who connects the word to germ. *aik-'oak'".
Plus, Anatoly Liberman, who is a professor of Humanities at the University of Michigan, writes a word origin blog for the Oxford University Press and has a book out for laymen that is probably worth buying if you are interested in this sort of topic. Word Origins.... And How We Know Them. He wrote that the first German name for the squirrel was eihhurno and the first part of the word, the 'eih', meant 'oak' or was just 'eih'. In other words, it perhaps had two meanings and associating it with 'oak' does not "militate against good sense". The second part of the compound, he wrote was 'hurn' "coinciding with the word for 'horn' by chance." So the modern German word for squirrel would be 'little oak-horn'. He also pointed out that, although it sounds like an odd name for the wee beastie, the Russian name for squirrel is belka, which the first syllable 'bel' meaning white. I have not seen a lot of white squirrels.
If Liberman is correct, then the comment by Cleasby and Vigfusson is questionable. We shall have to wait until I get a chance to see what the entry in the DOE is. Meanwhile, here is a link to Liberman's blog. There are some choice words discussed in the recent past.

Friday, May 4, 2012


How sad for anyone living in Europe. As amusing as the antics of squirrels can be, the chipmunk is far, far cuter than he. I looked up the etymology of the word 'chipmunk' in the OED and they do not know. There is a suggestion from someone or thing called Bartlett that it is a aborigine word but the OED writers thought it was an English compound.
So I went to Wikipedia because, as a resource, it is far better than it is given credit for. They state that the chipmunk is a type of North American squirrel. They quote a Concise Dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe by John D. Nichols and Earl Nyholm. (How interesting that such a thing exists and I don't have one!) Their etymology is that it came from the Ottawa word jidmoonh, meaning 'red squirrel. (Ojibwe, ajidamoo) Chalk one up for Wikipedia!
Because they are so adorable, I am going to post a picture of one taken from Wikipedia.

Add: After logging off I decided to check this dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe. It exists but it lists agongos as the word for 'chipmunk'. Looks like they called Scandinavian people 'chipmunks' too. There is an Eastern Ojibwa-Chippewa-Ottawa Dictionary by Richard A. Rhodes that gives gwiingsenh as the word for chipmunk. Well, whoever wrote the Wiki entry did not properly cite that reference and searching google books as well as a general search does not reveal any book where that may have come from; everyone just quotes the Wikipedia article. That does not mean it is wrong but cannot be viewed as gospel without more information.

One more time: It started to annoy me. Why did they say that? So I did a bit more searching. Whatever I could do from home. I found an article on "The Significations of Certain Algonquian Animal Names" in American Anthropologist from 1901 by Alexander F. Chamberlain which give the Algonquin name for chipmunk as lênâpé pochwapiith or "he who sits upright on something". Appropriate and in the Cambridge History of the English Language, John Algeo ed., 1991, I found an article on Canadian English (did not know there was such a thing) by Laurel J. Brinton and Margery Fee and they wrote that the word chipmunk came from the Ojibwe. From here the trail runs cold, unless I want to go to the university library and I am not feeling that energetic.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


Squirrel the word is just as interesting as the little beastie that wears it for a species name. The Greeks had the honour of naming the squirrel and they called it (without using the actual Greek lettering) skia+oura or 'shade tail'. It made its way into Latin as sciurus and from there into Old French as esquireul and, after the Norman Conquest, Anglo-Norman as esquirel.
It is interesting to me that the German and Old Icelandic names for squirrel are eichhorn and ikorni which seems like the Germanic peoples developed an entirely different name for the species but the Cleasby-Vigfusson Icelandic-English Dictionary states that it is a corruption of the Greek name which all European languages borrowed. They list acvern as the Anglo-Saxon version but 'ac' is 'oak' and eiche in Modern High German is 'oak'. Maybe 'oak' equals 'shade'? Cleasby and Vigfusson speculated that 'ikorni' in the heathen poem Grimnismal 32 was a later addition and spoiled the meter. As well, that Rata-tösker might have not just been the squirrel's name but also the species name for rati (the climber?( sic.)) and tösker for 'tusk' or 'sharp teeth'. Then the squirrel's name was "Climber the squirrel" but this is speculation on their part.
So, if few Normans came over with the Conquest and England remained essentially Anglo-Saxon, why did acvern not survive? It seems like we kept much of the old Anglo-Saxon words but really we kept only a few hundred common nouns. Most words were replaced by the French terms and squirrel was one of them but it is interesting that the Greeks got to name them because I do not imagine forests when I think of Greece nor do I imagine they have squirrels. Goats, lots of goats, but no squirrels.