Ur-etyma Count

Linguist Victor Mair has a post over at Language Log on how many root-concepts appear in Proto-Indo-European and other language families. Mair concludes that there are only some 1,200–1,500 root concepts in each of the language families that are used to form other words.

There are a lot of problems with the data, which Mair acknowledges, primarily that the number can vary wildly depending on how one defines what a root-concept is, not to mention that any detailed work on proto-languages is highly speculative. He is conducting a “back of the envelope” estimate, and we must be careful not to put too much faith in the data. Still, it’s an interesting result.

The 1,200–1,500 figure is a plausible one. There is an upper limit to the number of roots and words that can exist in a language at any given time—our human brains are limited. And that number of roots seems about right to support the standard vocabulary counts we find in languages.

I’d like to see someone do a similar, albeit more rigorous, study using modern languages.

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Tolkien’s Beowulf

When I heard the news that J. R. R. Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf was to be published, edited by his son Christopher, I was excited. (Counting this one, I own nine different editions of the poem.) Tolkien, most famous for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, was also a noted scholar of Old English, so an edition of the famous Anglo-Saxon poem by him carries some rather high expectations. But when I learned that it was a prose translation he completed in 1926, I became somewhat more cautious in my expectations.

Tolkien, J. R. R., Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2014, hardcover, $21.17*

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If We Won

This ad for Newcastle Brown Ale plays off the differences between American and British swearing. The analysis is, as you might expect from a beer commercial, anything but deep, but it makes you think about how Americans might talk if the British had won the war for independence. (Actually, probably not all that differently. After all, Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders don’t sound British.)

This video is NSFW for mild British swearing.

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WWI Vocabulary

Cooties, doughboys, and foxholes. Jonathan Lighter has a rather good article on CNN.com on the words spawned during the First World War, which began one hundred years ago next month.

If there is a complaint about the article it’s that Lighter only scratches the surface. There are many, many other terms that could have been mentioned, like tank, over the top, and storm troop. But there is only so much that can be included in an article such as this, and the ones that Lighter includes are a good representational sample.

(CNN gives the date of the war’s start as 4 August, which is the date Britain entered the war, but hostilities had started on 28 July 1914 between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. I wonder if, as the anniversary approaches, if there will be quibbling in the press as to the “true” date.)

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Business Jargon Tumblr

I’ve just discovered Use Sparingly, a tumblr that is a Devil’s Dictionary of business jargon.

Rather amusing.

[Tip o’ the hat to Lowering the Bar]

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