Language Humor, IndoEuropean and Beyond!
(to the Stars?)

Below, find some humor on the degradation of language and how to combat it.
Does Nine equal New?. If nothing else, it proves linguists have a sense of humor!
Autoantonyms: words that are their own opposites ... really!
Help! Someone sent me a list and some discussion of autoantonyms. I thought I had saved his email, but I had not! If he sees this, could he please send it to me again? I'd love to post it...


Back to the Pure Language!

Nigel Love wrote "my experience as a panellist on a radio programme fielding listeners' queries about 'correct' English may be relevant. ... When someone writes in complaining that they heard someone say/write, e.g, "who did you see?" instead of "whom did you see?", I answer along the following lines [explanation of language evolution and the loss of pronomial case endings, etc, edited ... see the Pellissippi Parkway for some discussion on this (kmd)]. ... The response is to execrate me for letting the side down, benignly 'allowing' (or even contributing to) the barbarisation of the language, etc. ..."

And Bruce Nevin counters with this lovely bit of advice for us all: "The logical implications of their position can be made evident. An alternative tack, then, is to agree with them, and excoriate them for only now waking up to the degradation of language.
Loss of the case endings has been going on for a long time, let's bring back nominal as well as pronominal inflection, genitive and dative at the very least. And imagine such a Frenchified form of the language being held up as a model in our schools as that represented in the writings of Shakespeare! What's in an ekename? Where's the beef, it's cow flesh from now on! But they are like the deaf nadder that stoppeth her ear. Reverse the great vowel shift! Back to our Indo-European roots! And beyond!"

Words Equal Thoughts?

A thought on the hypothesis that words and language shape the mind and how it views the world:

But don't look to me for a serious view about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. What do I know from language and culture? I have no idea whether my vocabulary shapes the things I am permitted to think; I only know that when I think something, the words to talk about it do seem to be there, except when words fail me.
Geoffrey Pullum, Univ of California Stevenson College

Does Nine Equal New?

Today's great question (proposed and moderated, mostly, by Trey Jones):

A couple of years ago, I was a TA for a History of Math course, in which the professor, who is a mathematician and amateur polyglot, told the class that there was a strong resemblance between the word for "nine" and the word for "new" in many languages, and that this was because (according to his theory) people got along with 8 numbers for a long time (because they had 8 fingers) and then needed a "new" number.

He cited, of course, Spanish "nueve/nuevo" and French "neuf/nouveau", and even English "nine/new".

So, the question to the class is: how many languages can we come up with that match this theory (however spuriously or vaguely)?

Well, here's a great lesson in how "sounds are evil" and only history is good.

But, let's start:

Of course, this all dates to the original Indo-European *newo/*newn, which pretty obviously leads to the rest... but what about non Indo-European languages? After all, they count on their fingers, don't they?

Basque - berri/bederatzi ... but that's not real close, is it?
And people have surely had ten fingers a lot longer than the Indo-Europeans were around, no?

But wait! In one of those freakish chance occurences that happens when you start looking at something, we make this astounding discovery:

in Chinese, nine = old (jiu3/jiu4)!!!! And they write backwards, too!
Chinese Pinyin: nine = jiu, new = xin:
Words both have one syllable!
Words would both be high-scoring in Scrabble!
Japanese (native roots): nine = kokonotsu, new = atarashii:
Words are both amazingly hard to pronounce! (mere coincidence? or something deeper?)
Words both have the same number of letters when transliterated into English/Latin alphabet!
Japanese (foreign roots): nine = kyuu, new = shin:
Words both look funny!
Same number of letters!
So, obviously, despite my college professor's theory that Europe was colonized by six-fingered aliens from outer space (which is why we have dozens instead of tens), it's obvious that it was four-fingered TOONS that ruled the earth in days gone by!

Autoantonyms: Their Own Opposites

Sure, everybody's heard of oxymorons, phrases which contradict themselves, like military intelligence, jumbo shrimp, political ethics.... But there are plenty of words in English, most of them fairly well-known and in fairly ordinary use, that are their own opposites. Of course, there are many reasons for this:

T-Rex was introduced to them just recently (Nov 2, 2007 in fact) - and he totally fell for them. As how could he not???? (There's a list below the cartoon!)

i looked up "emo" on wikipedia, and apparently there's a new form of music based on emo, but with more yelling into the microphone! guys. it's called "screamo".

Some of them are considered substandard or "wrong", but they're in common, valid use. Like these:

aughteverything, all nothing, zero
billinvoice, charge money
cleavecut apart stick together
clipcut apart join together
customusual, ordinary special, made-to-order
doubtfulcausing doubt or uncertainty having doubt; showing doubt
dustremove fine particles cover with fine particles
faststeady, unmoving at high speed, quick
fearfulfrightening, causing fear frightened; showing fear
inflamableable to be set aflame unable to be set aflame
joyfulgladdening, causing joy happy; showing joy
learnto take on knowledge to teach (Old English and current dialect)
letto permit to hinder (without let or hindrance; a let ball)
leaveto depart to cause to remain behind
literallyactually figuratively (at least in the US!)
marryto join two people in marriage to get married
modelarchetype, prototype copy, imitation, display
momentarilyimmediately for a moment
mootacademic, of little importance debatable, important
notea promise to pay money
overlookto look over to refuse or fail to see
oversightkeeping tabs on missing, making a mistake
paperofficial spurious
partitiona division the thing used to divide
peera person of equal rank a noble
proveto test to demonstrate
putto place, to lay to throw with force
puzzleto pose a problem to solve a problem
quantumvery small but discrete very large (a quantum leap in the fight against AIDS)
ravelto entangle to disentangle
rentto let out for money to temporarily possess for money
resignto quit to sign up again
sanctionto forbid to allow
sanguinemurderous optimistic
scanto examine closely to glance at quickly
skinto cover with skin to remove the skin of
soldierto perform one's duty to shirk one's duty
spliceto slice apart to fasten together
striketo hit to miss (in baseball)
tableto set aside (US) to propose (British)
tearfulmaking one cry, causing sadness crying
temperpassion, fury to calm by mixing
trim to cut things off to add extra bits on
unravel to come apart, fray to solve, disentangle

Do you have any autoantonyms to add to the list?
E-mail me at

New Languages

Here are the translations for the New Languages:

Darkest Africa, No one I knew, Mortal enemies, Briar patch, Dirty attic, Lobster Bisque, Dingbats, Barber of Seville, Hillbilly, Belly buttons, Standing ovation, Alley cat, Strawberry jam, Double chin, Chinese checkers, Blue chip, Traffic cop, Popcorn, Dernier cri, Creases, Up a creek, Shrimp creole, Rubber check, Prune Danish, Cellar door, Going dutch, Got in dutch, Protestant ethic, Body English, Reverse English, Wet nurse, Gall stone, Rolling stone, Itchy truss, Rotary fan, Photo finish, Nasal phlegm, Fox fur, Best friend, Deep freeze, Brimfull, Howling gale, Exravaganza, Figaro, Natural gas, Gorgeous George, Wheat germ, Cousin german, Indira Ghandi, Fenugreek, Sea gull, Full house, Milwaukee brew, Cornish hen, Westward ho, Bunny hop, Gnawing hunger, Take it easy, Rikki Tikki Tavi, Overhead cam, Swift kick, Protocol, Terpsichore, Overcoat, A capella, Flight crew, Chocolate cookie, Standup comic, National Lampoon, Last lap, Gelatin, Iceberg lettuce, Stove lid, Antimacassar, Chocolate malt, Gentlemen, Virgin Mary, Coal mine, Night nurse, Euphoria, Bosom pal, Shoo-fly pie, Stand pat, Another man's poison, Love potion, Pigeon-toed, Nail polish, Fools rush in, Shifting sands, Can of sardines, Alto Sax, Hopscotch, Yosemite, Original sin, George Bernard Shaw, Worcestershir, Hot tamale, Creases, Dying swan, Sickeningly sweet, Dotted Swiss, Dromedary camel, White tie, Hot tamale, Thanksgiving turkey, Christmas tree, Whooping crane, Electrocute, Resounding wails, Wishing wells, Cry wolf, Superhuman, Bronx zoo.

source unknown...


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