Word of the Day

Friday, December 29, 2006

O babuíno matou o leopardo

Yesterday a student and I had a discussion in Portuguese about baboons and leopards (very productive for a German class!) and he said that when baboons are in groups, they are bold enough to go after their natural predators and kick their asses, but that was not the case with two youths of the baboon and the leopard family he saw in a Discovery documentary. He said the young leopard saw a baboon, charged against it and due to all the stress of the fight, the baboon, who was pregnant, delivered a beautiful baby. At that point (I don't know if I was paying much attention or just spaced out) I said Mas quem matou a quem? (Who killed whom?) since he had said O babuíno matou o leopardo (The baboon killed the leopard or The leopard killed the baboon). The problem with that sentence is, since Portuguese is a language with a very free word order, which is normally subject (S) + verb (V) + object (O), but can also be SOV, VSO and VOS, among other possibilities, I was left clueless who was the killer and who was the killee. That especially happens when you have two nouns in the same number (in this case singular). What could my student have done to avoid that ambiguity (I'm sure the ambiguity was only in my mind, not in his)? He could have used the preposition a, normally translated as to, before the direct object and there would be no chance for misunderstandings: O babuíno matou ao leopardo (The baboon killed the leopard), Ao babuíno matou o leopardo (The leopard killed the baboon). This problem wouldn't have arisen if the conversation had taken place in, let's say, Spanish, since the language requires the direct object to be followed by the same preposition a in that case, not so in Portuguese, which may or may not use it. In Spanish you'd have El babuino mató al leopardo. Al leopardo mató el babuino.

This is the kind of misunderstandings that you may sometimes have in a language that doesn't have declensions and allows for a free word order, since cases tell you exactly who did what to whom. In Czech, Polish, Russian and German, for instance, languages that have cases, you have Pavián zabil leoparda. Pawian zabił lamparta. Бабуин убил леопарда. Der Pavian tötete den Leoparden, respectively. You could play around with these sentences and say/write Leoparda zabil pavian. Lamparta zabił pawian. Леопарда убил бабуин. Den Leoparden tötete der Pavian and you'd still have the baboon as the predator and the leopard, the prey, at least in the realm of language.

Just to finish my story, it turns out that the leopard was overcome by an irresistible motherly love and took care of the baby baboon in the absence of his or her (just to be PC) mother, who had been slaughtered mercilessly by the feline.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Prize or price?

The inattentive observer could argue that it was a Spanish or a Scandinavian speaker who brought about all the confusion found in many languages when it comes to describing prices and prizes, since the aforementioned speakers have a hard time distinguishing a voiced from a voiceless s and tend to pronounce the latter to the detriment of the former. Many languages, related and not related, have only one word to refer to what is known in Portuguese as prêmio and preço, in Spanish as premio and precio, in Italian as premio and prezzo, in Polish as nagroda and cena, in Russian as приз (priz) and цена (tsena). Dutch, for example, has prijs, German Preis, Czech cena and French prix. I don't know how they don't get muddled up sometimes.

Saturday, December 23, 2006


A língua portuguesa e todas as outras línguas romances contam com um sem-fim de derivados do verbo latino ducere, conduzir, reduzir, introduzir, produzir, traduzir, etc., mas perdeu-se de vista o étimo, o próprio verbo ducere, que, comparado com as outras formas que surgiram, teria dado duzir. Ducere é o que se encontra em italiano com o substantivo duce, comandante, levado a público principalmente com a entrada de Mussolini no poder. Também se encontra no verbo romeno a se duce, ir, e em catalão dur, levar. Onde foi parar o nosso duzir?

Friday, December 22, 2006


A palavra inóspito, com suas variações em qualquer língua novilatina, refere-se sempre a ambientes que proporcionam o mínimo ou a escassez de recursos para a sobrevivência, seja de espécie vegetal seja animal. Entretanto, esta pessoa que vos escreve faz uso desta palavra de forma bastante própria: acrescenta-lhe uma acepção que não lhe pertence, a de antipático, com quem não se pode entabular uma conversação. Eis a palavra sendo usada no meu idioleto: Fulano é uma das pessoas mais inóspitas que já conheci. Olha a todos com desdém e responde mal a todo o mundo. É claro que não se trata de uso padrão dessa palavra, como já apontei, mas de uma nova utilização toda minha a que dou vazão às vezes. Dependendo da situação, deixo bem claro ao meu ouvinte que é uma das minhas idiossincrasias e a resposta que obtenho pode ser tanto positiva (a maioria das vezes) ou neutra. Negativa ainda não encontrei nenhuma.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A Semantic Approach to wa/ga Distinction

The esoteric distinction between Japanese postpositions -wa and -ga has caused so much rancour all around the galaxy that there exist several planets where the inhabitants pick up sundry exegeses on this topic from the street and throw them at each other in greeting. What we will say below covers a small semantic difference of the two particles. It is hoped that this is going to be a short essay lest it should cause serious damage when used as a projectile by an enraged reader.

We begin by comparing how -wa and -ga have different implications for a statement that English expresses with; "R2-D2 sang Rigoletto."

1. R2-D2はリゴレットを歌った。
  • R2-D2-wa rigoretto-o utatta.
  • R2-D2-wa Rigoletto-Accusative singPast
  • Rigoletto is likely to be the only piece that the robot sang.

2. R2-D2がリゴレットを歌った。
  • R2-D2-ga rigoretto-o utatta.
  • R2-D2-ga Rigoletto-Accusative singPast
  • The robot is likely to
    have been the only performer who sang Rigoletto.
Using logic symbols, we tentatively understand the two sentences as conveying the following basic scheme;

S ⊂ P (the subject, S, is part of the set that meets the predicate, P)

S ⊃ P (the subject, S, includes as its component the set that meets the predicate, P)

This explanation for wa seems justifiable but ga poses a problem, if we consider the following pair.

3. OK自然数は整数である(ℕ ⊂ ℤ)。
  • šizensū-wa sēsū dearu.
  • Natural number-wa integer Copula.
  • Natural numbers are integers.

4. *整数が自然数である(ℤ ⊃ ℕ)。
  • *sēsū-ga šizensū dearu.
The sentence is well-formed but hard to interpret. A forced interpretation is, "Integers are natural numbers." This does not convey the mathematical relationship between integers and natural numbers, ℤ ⊃ ℕ. The ga interpretation needs renovating with another method of analysis.

We now consider a set of opera performances in order to analyse the semantic implications of -wa and -ga. The table below lists opera performances at Carnegie Hall in the summer of 2006.

Performance at Carnegie Hall




Cheshire Cat



The Pirates of Pensance


Cheshire Cat





Cheshire Cat


Any useful list of such performances should tell vital information such as performer, date and the performed musical pieces. The table captures them in the three columns, for which we now postulate an important relationship; that each column has values independent of those in other columns. The name of a performer poses no constraints on the date he can perform or the piece he can sing, for example.

Looking at performances on 07/01 and 09/03, we realise that Cheshire Cat was the only performer who sang Othelo during this season. Also, the record for 09/01 shows that R2-D2 was the only one to sing Rigoletto. Without contradicting other performance records, wa/ga postpositions can be used to express these facts.

5. チェシャ猫がオテロを歌った。
  • Češa Neko-ga otero-o utatta.
  • It was Cheshire Cat that sang Othelo.
6. R2-D2はリゴレットを歌った。
  • R2-D2-wa rigoretto-o utatta.
  • R2-D2 sang Rigoletto only.
Sentences 5 and 6 are equivalent to the following statements about the table PERFORMANCE
(where p is an instance of performance);

7. ∃p (performer = Cheshire Cat, item = Othelo)
AND ∄ p (performer ≠ Cheshire Cat, item = Othelo)

The first clause states that there is indeed a record of Cheshire Cat singing Othelo at the prestigious venue, whereas the second one says there was no other performer who sang Othelo. Note that this formulation is irrelevant of other performances of the grinning feline. In fact Cheshire Cat sang Lohengrin too. This, however, does not prohibit ga-statement from use here.

8. ∃p (performer = R2-D2, item = Rigoletto)
AND ∄ p (performer = R2-D2, item ≠ Rigoletto)
(optionally) AND ∄ p (performer ≠ R2-D2, item = Rigoletto)

The first clause for wa-statement has the same effect as that for ga-statement. Then second clause reads that there exists no record such that, while having performer = R2-D2, item is not Rigoletto. The third one is equivalent to the second for 7.

We might be able to build a similar table for the sentences about natural numbers and integers (3, 4). A table like below, however, violates the column independence condition being postulated above. If a record has natural_no = Y, then always int = Y. Statements 7 and 8, having foundation on this postulate for the table, cannot be applied where the postulate does not stand.

Table of Numbers











The ga-statement about natural numbers and integers (4), therefore, cannot be accorded with a proper interpretation. Sentence 3 is still interpreted properly since for a wa-statement, interpretation at table level is not necessary. The relationship between the wa-subject and the predicate is that of set theory (S ⊂ P).

The following is the formal definition of a ga-statement.

For a group of records R, with mutually independent elements from e1 to en,
R = (e1, e2, e3, e4, ...., en)

if a
ga-statement exists between two of the elements,
e1-ga e2 da.

then the relationship between the elements is:
r (e1 = S, e2 = P)
r (e1 ≠ S, e2 = P)
where S is the subject and P the predicate, of a

This is the logical structure of the ga-statement, often called exhaustive ga.

We have yet to establish a logical representation of the implications of wa-statement outside the table framework.

9. 70点は取った。
  • nanajutten-wa totta.
  • seventyPoints-wa takePast.
  • I got around seventy points.
In this sentence, -wa substitutes the accusative marker and roughly corresponds to the English "around." If a student is talking about how many points she thinks she got in the last ungraded exam, sentence 9 means 70 is the student's assessment of what she has scored. If the results are out and it turns out the student is graded 67 points, her assessment would have been quite a valid one. The same goes for 76, 71, 68 etc. since these figures are close enough to the mark. An overly high or low grade such as 53 and 99 means that her wa-statement did not match the reality.

Even if individuals may differ in assessing what is different enough from the subject, we can safely assume that a wa-statement entails negative relationships between subjects not being
"similar" to the wa-clause and the predicate. A wa-statement contrasts the subject with other objects belonging to the same class. For the example above, points that are not close to 70 cannot be interpreted as the points scored by the student. If we use Sim(S) as a notation for subjects "similar to S," we get an implication;
10. ¬Sim(S) → ¬P
for a wa-statement.

The primary semantics of a wa-statement, S ⊂ P, can be modified as below in the light of similar subjects:
Sim(S) ⊂ P (S and others similar to S are included in P).

This entails,
11. Sim(S) → P
S ∼ Sim(S) ∼ ∞ (∞ ≠ ¬S)
default: Sim(S) = ∞

Due to the subjective nature of Sim(S), we allow it to range from S itself to whatever the speaker pleases, unless it is ¬S. The default value Sim(S) = ∞ is postulated in order to minimise the ¬P conclusion unless context is given to justify shrinking the range of Sim(S).

When Sim(S) is S, 11 and the inverse of 10 are;
S → P
P → S,

This means;
12. S ↔ P
that P and S are equivalents. This has been, in fact, the conclusion of the full-fledged version of statement 8.

The consequence of 11 and 12 is that, when context renders to -wa utmost power of contrasting, the postposition is used for a definite object. If an object in an utterance is equivalent to another, then the object is uniquely identifiable among other objects of the same class; thus the object becomes definite. Even if the opposition definite vs. indefinite plays little role in Japanese syntax,
-wa can be a sort of definite marker by virtue of contrasting. In fact, contrastive function is the primary role of this postposition (contrastive wa).

13. 年とった猫が宿屋に住んでいた。猫は鼠捕りが上手かった。
  • toshitotta neko-ga yadoya-ni sundeita. neko-wa nezumitori-ga umakatta.
  • old cat-ga inn-Locative livePerfectProgressive. cat-wa catchingMice-ga goodAtPast.
  • An old cat lived in an inn. The cat was good at catching mice.
After an old cat living in an inn has been introduced in the discourse, there is little possibility that another cat is discussed in the second sentence. The "neko" in the second sentence is a definite object, thereby requiring -wa.

Also of note here is that "an old cat" is introduced by -ga. Replacing it with -wa causes interpretive dissonance. This may be accounted for by the different levels that -wa and -ga operate. On one hand, -ga, working on table level, requires that such an object indeed exists that meets the criterion denoted by the predicate (∃r (e1 = S, e2 = P)). On the other hand, -wa indicates relationships between propositions, without specifying the truth value of any of them. First, -ga introduces the existence of a cat living in an inn. Then, -wa elaborates on the object at
categorical level.

This has been an attempt at analysing exhaustive ga and contrastive wa in the light of semantics. We have found that the two postpositions work at different semantic levels and that some semantic implications are reflected in syntax. Other syntactic characteristics of wa and ga may be also worthy of semantic examination.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Latin v - French g

Today I was really proud of my student Mirela Bertin Carnietto (she said it's okay to disclose her name here) when she exclaimed she had found a way to remember how to say snow and light in French (neige and léger). She said all you had to do is change Portuguese v for French g: neve - neige, leve - léger. I looked at her and announced: "You're totally right, I'd never thought about that". That thinking took me to Latin, which has nix, nivis for snow and levis, levis for light, which took me to Latin cavea, which became cage in French (and was taken by English with the same meaning). Voilà! I'm glad I'm instilling some linguistic thoughts in some of my students.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Telón de Acero

La denominación Telón de Acero, acuñada por el ministro de propaganda nazi Joseph Goebbels para referirse a la línea demarcatoria entre los países europeos del bloque socialista, liderados por Unión Soviética, y los de orientación capitalista, por Estados Unidos, que entró en circulación en el fin de la Segunda Guerra Mundial y permaneció en uso hasta la caída del Muro del Berlín, me parece una mala traducción del original alemán (der Eiserne Vorhang), que significa Cortina de Hierro, otro nombre que se le da en español. En el original alemán y en ninguna otra lengua (salvo en el catalán Teló d'Acer, que habrá surgido por influencia castellana) está presente el vocablo acero, Stahl en en idioma de Goethe. Para que el español se alinease con las otras lenguas europeas en este punto, sería necesario abondonar el término Telón de Acero y dar preferencia solamente a Cortina de Hierro.

Sólo por curiosidad, veamos cuántas ocurrencias hay en Google para Telón de Acero y Cortina de Hierro:
Personalizados Resultados 1 - 10 de aproximadamente 83.000 para "Telón de Acero" (0,36 segundos)
Resultados 1 - 10 de aproximadamente 54.900 para "Cortina de Hierro" (0,23 segundos)

Telón de Acero sigue en el liderazgo, pero Cortina de Hierro no se encuentra en un margen de diferencia tan significativo.

Friday, December 15, 2006


A leech, besides a worm, can also sometimes refer to a doctor. The term leech comes from the time when doctors believed leeches could be used to cure a considerable number of diseases. They would apply the leeches to the patient's skin and the blood that the vermin would suck out was regarded as bad, meaning that the person's ailment had gone away. What has always intrigued me is that the word leech bears a striking resemblance to Czech lék and Polish lek "medicine (the one the doctor prescribes)". They ought to be related!

Thursday, December 14, 2006


Hace unas semanas un amigo mío usó la palabra escuálido en una acepció que me extrañó un poco. Se lo señalé y, como él no estaba seguro si había usado bien la palabra, me sugirió que la buscara en el diccionario y averiguara el significado que le es propio. Más tarde, en cuanto llegué a casa, corrí al diccionario y constaté algo que ya sabía, que escuálido significa sucio, inmundo, pero la segunda acepción que aparecía era aquella de flaco, macilento, muy próxima al significado que mi amigo pareció darle, de fino o delgado. Entonces me asaltó la curiosidad de saber si escuálido significaba exactamente lo mismo en otras lenguas neolatinas (preciso que nuestra conversación fue en portugués), y esto es lo que encontré:

Español -
escuálido, da.

(Del lat. squalĭdus).

1. adj. Flaco, macilento.

2. adj. Sucio, asqueroso.
Coincide, por lo tanto, con las acepciones de la palabra en portugués.

Italiano -

e agg.
1 spoglio di ogni grazia e ornamento; misero: un ambiente squallido
2 triste e desolato: condurre una vita squallida | privo di vivacità; stentato: abbozzò uno squallido sorriso
3 moralmente deprimente; abietto: una vicenda, una persona squallida
4 (lett.) pallido, smunto, emaciato: con la squallida prole e con la nuda / consorte a lato (PARINI) | incolto, ispido: squallida avea la barba, orrido il crine (CARO)


Las acepciones 1 y 2 no coinciden con aquellas en portugués y español, por lo que se ve que en italiano ha habido una extensión semántica, que no parece haber sucedido en las lengus ibéricas, por lo menos se ve que esa extensión no está registrada en el diccionario. Sería menester hacer una investigación lingüística para saber si a algún "lusófono" o hispanohablante se le ha ocurrido hacer uso de ese vocablo de la manera como se lo podría usar en italiano.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


I don't like the idea of having only one word to refer both to time and weather. To me these are totally discrete concepts that should have their own word, I don't care what language you're talking about. Portuguese and Italian have tempo, Latin tempus, Spanish tiempo, French and Catalan temps and Romanian is the only lucky Romance language to have two words: timp (time) and vreme (weather). Vreme is clearly a word of Slavic language, cf. Russian время, which, oddly enough, means time. Macedonian време can mean both. Is that maybe where Romanians got their word?

Monday, December 11, 2006

To need

Different languages have different constructions when it comes to expressing needs. I'll divide this post between nominative languages and dative languages. The former have a subject expressed in your usual nominative, as is the case in English; the latter puts the subject in the dative case and the object needed in the nominative case:

Nominative languages:
English: I need a pen.
Portuguese: Preciso/Necessito de uma caneta.
Spanish: Necesito un bolígrafo.
Czech: Potřebuji pero.
Polish: Potrzebuję pióra.

Note: Portuguese precisar and necessitar are normally followed by the preposition de. Omission of the preposition is a sign of an older style of language, especially with precisar.
Polish potrzebować requires the genitive: pióro (nom.) - pióra (gen.). German bedürfen has a similar construction, in which the object is also placed in the genitive: Ich bedarf eines Kugelschreibers.

Dative languages:
Romanian: Îmi trebuie un stilou.
Latin: Mihi opus est calamus.
Russian: Мне нужна ручка.
French: Il me faut un stylo.
Macedonian: Ми треба перо.

Note: In Russian the adjective нужeн has to agree with the thing needed in gender and number.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Orthographical inconsistencies across languages

English is said to have such chaotic spelling largely due to French. I'm inclined to agree with that, except that the two don't coincide 100% of the cases. Take English marriage, rhythm and rhyme. French has mariage, rythme and rime, respectively. Whenever I have to spell these words, I have to stop and think which language requires an h here, which language takes a y there. Crazy! Marriage and mariage go back to Latin marito, maritare, meaning to get married; rhythm and rythme to Latin rhythmus, ultimately from Greek υθμός; rhyme and rime have ρίμα in Modern Greek. Wikipedia says rhyme (for original rime) was introduced at the beginning of the Modern English period, due to a learnèd (but incorrect) association with Greek ῥυθμός (rhythmos). Everybody with a half braincell knows that Greek ῥ becomes rh in English and French, but why did the French flout that?

Another pair that drives me insane is Portuguese estender and Spanish extender. Why on Earth do we have to spell estender with an s in Portuguese, given that Latin extendo, extendere is written with an x!? And the worst is that we have to spell extensão with an x, so we're stuck with an illogical set estender extensão.

Maybe we should go back to smoke signals. Now I wonder if they also cleave to orthographical rules.

Monday, December 4, 2006

What squirrels and ferrets have in common besides NOT being rodents

Ricardo Soca's weekly piece on Spanish etymology gave me stuff to mull over. This week's topic was esquivel (someone who works during a strike, a scab) from Catalan esquivel, squirrel. At some point he states that Spanish doesn't line up with other Romance languages insofar as the word for squirrel, ardilla, doesn't come from the same root as Portuguese esquilo, English squirrel, French écureuil and German Eichhörnchen.

Eichhörnchen never struck me as a Latinate word, I'd always associated it with Eiche (oak) + Hörnchen (little horns, from Horn, horn), but even that didn't make sense, so I went to my always dependable Wahrig for illumination. This is what it says: Eichhörnchen < ahd. eihhurno < germ. *aikwernan = *aik "Eiche" (oak) + idg. stem meaning ferret (for example in Latin viverra). What was my surprise to see veverra, ferret, mentioned there! It immediately took me to Polish wiewiórka and Czech veverka, both meaning... squirrel! Its sense has then apparently migrated from ferret to squirrel, something that isn't impossible to imagine, given both animals' "rodentness". The Russian word белка (belka) doesn't look anywhere close to wiewiórka or veverka but it bears a striking resemblance to French belette. The Russians probably took this word from French and Russified it by adding a genuine suffix -ka, feminine in meaning, to it. I'd like to have this assumption corroborated by some palpable proof, which I haven't been able to produce yet. French belette reminds me of Portuguese belota, Spanish bellota, acorn, which again reminds me of Eichhorn and Eichhörnchen.

I hope I'm not going nuts.

A Bible without prejudice

International Interfaith Award for Barclay Newman, who "pored over the Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic words that make up the Bible in an effort to create a readable English translation that is "in keeping with the spirit of the author.""

I groaned, moaned and winced when the Catholic Church embarked upon modernising the liturgy in the local languages but, hey, even religions are self-reflexive in modernity. I hope to get hold of Dr. Newman's œuvre to see if the good book has been bettered.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

On getting married

Getting married is not only a big step in real life, but all the intricacies that involve the holy bonds of matrimony also play a key role when it comes to languages.

Slavic languages and Latin seem to be the ones with the greatest array of possibilities according to the sex of the person who will tie the knot*. A few examples:

Russian: выйти замуж за какого-нибудь (for women) and жениться на каком-нибудь (for men), пожениться (for couple)
Наталья вышла замуж за Антона.
Антон женился на Наталье.
Hаталья и Антон поженились.

Czech: vdát se za někoho (for women) and oženit se s někým (for men), vzít se (for couple, but also for men and women indistinctly)
Božena se vdala za Miroslava./Božena si vzala (za muže) Miroslava.
Miroslav se oženil s Boženou./Miroslav si vzal (za ženu) Boženu.
Božena a Miroslav se vzali.

Polish: wychodzić za kogoś (for women) and żenić się z kimś (for men), pobrać się (for couple)
Maria wychodziła za Andrzeja.
Andrzej się żenił z Marią.
Maria i Andrzej się pobrali.

Latin: nubere cum aliquo/alicui (for women) and in matrimonium ducere aliquam (for men), matrimonio iungi (for couple)
Maria Caesari/cum Caesare nupsit.
Caesar Mariam in matrimonium duxit.
Maria et Caesar matrimonio iuncti sunt.

Many Romance languages seem to build the word to marry on casa (house). The idea is that a married couple will jointly build a house, or even better make a home.
Portuguese: Maria (se) casou com João./João (se) casou com Maria. João e Maria (se) casaram.
Spanish: María se casó con Juan./Juan se casó con María./Juan y María se casaron.
Romanian: Maria s-a căsătorit cu Ion./Ion s-a căsătorit cu Maria./Maria şi Ion s-au căsătorit.

* Japanese 結婚 (kekkon) is also interesting. The first character is pronounced ketsu/musubu and means to tie; the second is pronounced kon and goes back to a pledge, but interestingly its left part represents a woman. Two people that pledge to tie the knot. Pretty picture. It's just lamentable that this knot is currently severed way too often.