Book spine poem: Broken words

August 18, 2015

New books mean a new book spine poem, aka bookmash. This one has a language theme.

[Click to enlarge]

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stan carey - book spine poem - broken words spoken here

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The interstellar etymology of ‘mazel tov’

May 21, 2012

Mazal tov or mazel tov /’maz(ə)l toːv, tɒf/ is a Hebrew and Yiddish expression analogous to ‘congratulations’ or ‘good wishes’, though its literal meaning is closer to ‘good luck’.

Grammatically it functions mainly as an interjection (‘Mazel tov!’), and sometimes as a noun (‘a chorus of mazel tovs’). I see it in both forms online, and occasionally in films and books, but it’s not part of my idiolect or culture, so corrections or clarifications are welcome.

Popular on celebratory occasions such as weddings and Bat and Bar Mitzvahs, the phrase derives from modern Hebrew mazzāl ṭôb. Mazal (Hebrew) or mazel (Yiddish) refers to a star, constellation, luck or fortune; ṭôb means ‘good’, from ṭyb ‘to be(come) good’.

Mazel tov hats at a Bat Mitzvah

The American Heritage Dictionary says mazel tov comes from Mishnaic Hebrew and ultimately from Akkadian, one of the earliest written languages: manzaltu, mazzaztum meant ‘position of a star’, from izuzzu ‘to stand’. The related words Mazzaroth and mazalot have to do with astronomical constellations or the zodiac in Kabbalistic astrology.

Israeli linguist Guy Deutscher, author of Through the Language Glass, touches briefly on these connections in The Unfolding of Language, his 2005 book on how language evolves. The following passage is from its short introduction to Semitic languages and their cultural history:

Their political star may have waxed and waned, but for a good part of 2,000 years, Mesopotamian emperors, from Sargon in the third millennium BC to Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar in the first, would lay claim to the title ‘King of the Universe’, ruling over ‘the four corners (of the earth)’. More stable than the power of the sword, however, was the cultural hegemony of Mesopotamia over the whole region. The Akkadian language shaped the dominant canon for much of the Near East in religion, the arts, science and law, and was used as a lingua franca, the means of diplomatic correspondence. Petty governors of provincial Canaanite outposts, mighty Anatolian kinds, and even Egyptian Pharaohs wrote to one another in Akkadian. Language across the Near East also borrowed many scientific and cultural terms from Akkadian, a few of which may even be recognized by English speakers today. The Jewish expression mazel tov ‘good luck’, for example, is based on the Hebrew word mazal ‘luck’, which was borrowed from the Akkadian astrological term mazzaltu ‘position (of a star)’.

Although I have little interest in horoscopes, I like how mazel tov preserves a reminder of celestial bodies’ significance in traditional conceptions of human fate and fortune. English retains a similar link in written in the stars, thank your lucky stars, and star-crossed (‘ill-fated’).

The last of which brings us nicely to schlimazel, from Yiddish shlimazl ‘someone prone to bad luck’ – hence Schlimazeltov!, a short documentary about the concept of luck in London’s Jewish community.

Schlimazel may have somehow developed into shemozzle/schemozzle ‘muddle, melee, brawl’, but the etymology is uncertain. WordReference says shemozzle is “suggested by late Hebrew šel-lō’-mazzāl ‘of no luck’.”

[image adapted from Wikimedia Commons]

Bookmash: Forest of symbols

April 24, 2012
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Forest of symbols

The forest of symbols,
The eye beguiled:
Tree of smoke
Through the language glass,
Everything you know
Lost in translation.

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With thanks to the authors: Victor Turner, Bruno Ernst, Denis Johnson, Guy Deutscher, Zoë Heller, and Eva Hoffman; and to Nina Katchadourian, whose Sorted Books project was my original inspiration for this.

More of these, and links to other people’s, in the bookmash archive. Cross-posted on Tumblr.

Update:

Lafcadio De La Foret writes: “If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to live with aphasia, I’ve found the words that explain it best to me. And it’s compiled by just stacking six books.”


Book review: Through the Language Glass

June 21, 2011

Whether and how our languages shape our thoughts, perceptions and worldviews is a perennially vexed subject. (For starters, what do we mean by shape and thoughts?) Known as linguistic relativity or the Whorfian or Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the nature and extent of this influence have proved difficult to establish. Traditionally, some philosophers made grandiose claims about it, but the currency of such claims plummeted in the 20th century.

Linguist Guy Deutscher, in a NYT Magazine article titled “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” says that with “Science and Linguistics” (PDF), Benjamin Whorf “seduced a whole generation into believing that our mother tongue restricts what we are able to think”. I don’t know if Whorf deserves so much responsibility, or blame, for whole-generational seduction,* but here’s a pertinent excerpt from his influential essay:

Formulation of ideas is not an independent process, strictly rational in the old sense, but is part of a particular grammar, and differs, from slightly to greatly, between different grammars. We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds — and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds.

Despite linguistic relativity’s fall from academic favour, it persists – thrives, even – in the popular imagination. In his new book Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, Deutscher looks at how valid it really is and what conclusions may be drawn about it. Sifting through a weight of data and theories, he describes several ways in which a weak form of linguistic relativity seems to obtain – colour perception, gender, and spatial orientation – and puts the case that language can influence our thoughts and thought patterns not radically, but more significantly than is sometimes acknowledged.

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