Yan tan tethera pethera pimp — an old system for counting sheep

November 27, 2013

If any lightfoot Clod Dewvale was to hold me up, dicksturping me and marauding me of my rights to my onus, yan, tyan, tethera, methera, pimp, I’d let him have my best pair of galloper’s heels in the creamsourer.
—James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

Though I grew up in the countryside, I’m not of direct farming stock, which may be why I learned of yan tan tethera only quite recently (courtesy of @vencut2 on Twitter). It’s an old counting system used traditionally by shepherds in parts of the UK, and also in knitting and fishing and so on, or by children for their own amusement.

stan carey - herd of sheep in Ireland, spring 2009 - yan tan tethera

Metheradik (=14) sheep in the west of Ireland (photo by Stan Carey)

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Scottish words for snow

August 27, 2013

I’ll assume readers know that the “Eskimos have X words for snow” idea is essentially a myth and a hackneyed journalistic trope. So I won’t elaborate on it here, except to note that the claim is so notorious in linguistic circles that it gave rise to snowclone, a handy term for this kind of clichéd phrasal template.

It turns out, though, that there are quite a few words for snow (and, OK, ice) in Scotland.* Ian Preston sent me a recent photo he took of an art installation in the lobby of the Cairngorm Funicular Railway, republished here with his permission:

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Pronouns, humans, and dormice

July 23, 2013

The kinds of things relative pronouns refer to in modern English can be divided roughly as follows:

that – things and people

which – things, but not normally people

who – normally people, not things, sometimes animals or human-like entities (“animate but not human”, says Robert Burchfield; “having an implication of personality”, says the OED)

When it comes to relative pronouns, animals often aren’t accorded the same grammatical status as people. We’re more likely to say The crow that was here than The crow who was here, though of course it varies with the speaker, type of animal, and context.

Dormouse in a house

So I was struck by a line in last week’s Galway Advertiser reporting the recent entry of the dormouse to Ireland’s ecology (we already have the wood mouse and house mouse):

Dormice are woodland animals, who nest in shrubs and hedgerows, particularly those containing hazel (as their name suggests) or brambles.

I haven’t looked into it, but I’d bet that of references to dormice in equivalent contexts, at least 95% would use that or which rather than who.

Not everyone supports this extended use of who, but it is defensible; the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage quotes lines by John Updike (“the hamster who had died”) and Stanley Kauffman (“Tonto is his cat, whom he walks on a leash”) showing its literary acceptability.

Dormice of the world, welcome to Ireland – and to the Grammatical Who Club.

[image source]

Climbing Croagh Patrick, the holy mountain of Mayo

July 19, 2013

Photos, for a change. Last weekend three old friends and I climbed Croagh Patrick, a mountain in County Mayo in the mid-west of Ireland. (Croagh is an anglicisation of cruach, Irish for stack.)

The Reek, as it’s also known, has a cone-shaped peak that dominates the surrounding skyline. You can see it in the distance here on the road to Westport town, our home base for the day.

stan carey - croagh patrick mountain climb - road to westport, county mayo

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Timber, temples, and “ligging” a hedge

March 3, 2013

A few short passages from The Shining Levels: The Story of a Man Who Went Back to Nature, John Wyatt’s classic memoir of his time working in England’s Lake District. First, on how to “lig” a hedge, which the OED says is an old – and now dialectal – word for lie. (See etymology of lie.)

It was a pleasure to watch Joe ‘lig’ a hedge; for the work was his pride and joy. Hedges around where we were are a wild mixture of hawthorn, hazel, ash and holly. Laying a hedge is necessary when it grows too tall and shows gaps. Bough undergrowth is cut away, leaving the bare upright stems which are then cut only part-way through near the butt, then pulled over and layed [sic] in neat lines, occasionally being pinned firm with hazel stakes. The tools for the job are a pair of leather hedging mitts, one very sharp bill-hook, and a stone to whet it with at regular intervals.

Later one evening Wyatt and a friend are smearing a homemade concoction on tree trunks in order to attract moths for study. The substance is “a mixture of demerara sugar, a drop of ale, treacle, and a good lacing of rum”; the dialogue is similarly rich:

When we reached the first tree, George pulled the lid off his jar, and said, ‘By gow, lad, this smells about ten ‘orse power!’ He dipped in his spatula and tasted it. ‘And it tastes better than t’best Cumberland rum-butter!’

I didn’t believe it, so had to try it myself.

‘Th’art reet!’ I agreed.

Wyatt sought to convey his sense of the everyday sublime while living and working in the woods, surrounded as he was by so much natural beauty. Here, he adds a short and unexpected etymological note:

The word ‘temple’ comes from the root ‘tem’, to cut – a forest clearing. The inspiration of those who made civilization’s first temples and churches all over the world, was the forest. You can see it in the pillars, the arched roofs, the decorated ceilings. For the gods walk in the forest.

The American Heritage Dictionary 5th edition, in its appendix of Proto-Indo-European roots, says *tem- had a suffixed form *tem-lo- from which we get “Latin templum, temple, shrine, open place for observation (augury term < ‘place reserved or cut out’), small piece of timber.” It’s a gratifying connection.

Most animals bark a little

May 7, 2012

In The Hidden Life of Dogs, anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas reports what she has learned about dog behaviour and psychology from watching different breeds in diverse environments and social situations. I like the observations she makes about the communicative aspects of barking and sniffing:

[O]nly the pugs took much interest in the human life around them, so only the pugs barked. Of course, most animals bark a little – which is to say that if surprised and puzzled simultaneously, most animals, including human beings, make a short, sharp call; the call is “Huh?” in our species. Highly domesticated dogs make an art of their puzzlement and bark insistently, alerting others to unexplained events. But not the huskies, who didn’t bark at human-generated sounds or happenings any more than they barked at birds in the sky, and surely for the same reason: the doings of the birds and the people lacked significance for them.

Is it true that most animals make such a sound? It depends on what’s meant by animals, I suppose: mammals or non-aquatic vertebrates may be closer to what was meant, but I still don’t know how true it is.

In any case, by the author’s reckoning I myself have, on occasion, barked in puzzled surprise, and maybe you have too. I don’t know if there’s another verb for when people make this sound. Huh is a good phonic approximation but it doesn’t lend itself naturally to inflection. Yelping is usually high-pitched and is associated more with pain. I’m open to suggestions of existing words or invented ones.

Marshall Thomas continues:

In contrast, the dogs took an unlimited interest in each other. When a dog returned after a brief absence, the others would quietly surround him and investigate him for scent – the scents of his own body, which would show his state of mind and probably a great deal more as well, and the scents of the place he had been, which he carried on his fur. They’d smell his lips and his mantle, his penis, his legs and his feet. Seldom, if ever, would they investigate his anus or anal glands, evidently because the information therefrom has to do with a dog’s persona but not with his travels. The dogs would investigate me too, particularly if I had been away a long time. They paid special attention to my legs from the knees down, as if I had been wading through odors.

“Wading through odours” is a lovely, memorable description, evoking the dog’s sensorial surroundings with appropriate emphasis on smell. What a rush of stimuli it must be for a dog to go exploring outside, where – save a minuscule stationary layer above the ground – the air is more subject to turbulence and so constitutes a fluctuating “garden of exotic flora and fauna”, to use a phrase from Lyall Watson’s book Jacobson’s Organ.

Humans’ sense of smell is puny by comparison, and our visual sense may have crowded the field in recent history, but our noses are still capable of delivering intense and subtle effect, sometimes transporting us instantly to another time and place. Most of us need hardly a moment’s thought to list many smells that give us particular pleasure; other smells might even make us bark.


Related items: I’ve written before about word recognition in dogs and the claims made for their command of human language. On Tumblr I posted another passage from Marshall Thomas’s very enjoyable book, which includes the marvellous phrase cynomorphic substitute; you can read chapter one of Watson’s book on smell and pheromones online; and finally, here’s a fun drawing by Lili Chin of a Boston terrier’s body language.

Do dogs get a ruff deal, linguistically speaking?

July 7, 2011

Galway had its first Dog Expo this summer. I don’t have a dog, but I went with a friend who does. It was all fine fun until they started putting hats and boots on the dogs and catwalking them around the stage to bad dance music. Somewhat less silly was a tricks competition in which close communication between humans and dogs led variously to modest success, rewards, confusion, and disappointment.

Contrived acts aside, the communicative bond between the two species has long fascinated humans. I read Man Meets Dog (1950) by Konrad Lorenz lately and thought the following passage worth posting:

It is a fallacy that dogs only understand the tone of a word and are deaf to the articulation. The well-known animal psychologist, [Viktor] Sarris, proved this indisputably with three Alsatians, called Harris, Aris and Paris. On command from their master, ‘Harris (Aris, Paris), Go to your basket’, the dog addressed and that one only would get up unfailingly and walk sadly but obediently to his bed. The order was carried out just as faithfully when it was issued from the next room whence an accompanying involuntary signal was out of the question.

It sometimes seems to me that the word recognition of a clever dog which is firmly attached to its master extends even to whole sentences. The words, ‘I must go now’ would bring Tito and Stasi [an Alsatian and an Alsatian/Chow crossbreed, respectively] to their feet at once even when I exercised great self-control and spoke without special accentuation; on the other hand, none of these words, spoken in a different connection, elicited any response from them.

Lorenz describes a report from Annie Eisenmenger, who co-illustrated the book, about her Schnauzer, Affi. Supposedly, Affi recognised the words Katzi, Spatzi, Eichkatzi (diminutives of kitten, sparrow, squirrel) and Nazi, which was the name of Eisenmenger’s pet hedgehog and had “no political meaning in those days”.

Imagine: Nazi the hedgehog. Anyway, Affi reacted differently to these words, for example running from tree to tree at the sound of Eichkatzi; and, upon hearing Nazi, rushing to a rubbish heap where a hedgehog lived.

Lorenz writes that Affi “knew the names of at least nine people, and would run across the room to them if their names were spoken. She never made a mistake.” This is a second-hand anecdote, but Lorenz says he is confident of its truthfulness. Stressing the crucial difference between the behaviour of an animal in the lab and that of one who is free to accompany its human companion, Lorenz adds:

With the dog, one is seldom given the chance of achieving high feats of word recognition in the laboratory, since the necessary interest is lacking . . . . Every dog-owner is familiar with a certain behaviour in dogs which can never be reproduced under laboratory conditions. The owner says, without special intonation and avoiding mention of the dog’s name, ‘I don’t know whether I’ll take him or not.’ At once the dog is on the spot, wagging his tail and dancing with excitement, for he already senses a walk. Had his master said, ‘I suppose I must take him out now,’ the dog would have got up resignedly without special interest. Should his master say, ‘I don’t think I’ll take him, after all,’ the expectantly pricked ears will drop sadly, though the dog’s eyes will remain hopefully fixed on his master.

This subtlety of understanding is a far cry from the Far Side cartoon in which Gary Larson pokes fun at the tendency some people exhibit to harangue their dogs at complicated length:



Many animals-and-human-language stories are of the YouTube Wunderhund variety: crude phonetic imitation. Others emphasise vocabulary. Some dogs can recognise hundreds of words, but to claim that this means a dog is as intelligent or linguistically advanced as a two-year-old human is pretty silly and meaningless, I think, and unfair to both dogs and people. It implies a facile interpretation of human and animal intelligence, an impoverished misinterpretation of language, and, for good measure, a hopeless anthropocentrism.

The comparison is misleading because it isolates one modest parameter — vocabulary, or perhaps just recognition of aural stimuli — and omits many other relevant ones. Syntax, for example, is a different matter altogether. I don’t think dogs do grammar, whereas kids begin to employ it from a very early age.

Dogs are intelligent animals and very sensitive to people’s cues, but the degree to which they understand our utterances is easily overstated and difficult to settle. A discussion at the Straight Dope Message Board shows how divided common opinion is. (The chat is also worth browsing for some of the anecdotes, if you’re into that sort of thing.)

Do you own or know a dog, and if so how highly would you rate its inter-species communication skills?

Edit: Arnold Zwicky has posted a Wondermark cartoon on the subject, followed by a short discussion, at his language blog.


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