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Uncleftish Beholding (wikipedia.org)
188 points by BerislavLopac 35 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 76 comments

Full text archived here: https://groups.google.com/forum/message/raw?msg=alt.language...

"coalstuff" always makes me smile a bit because it is the literal etymology of "carbon".

Just as "waterstuff" ("Wasserstoff" in German) for "hydrogen" ("hudro" = water), and "sourstuff" ("Sauerstoff" in German) for "oxygen" ("oxys" = "sharp, acid").

Anyway. Also, "airplane' = "Flugzeug" in German = "Flying stuff". This is fun, actually. Flystuffs are outsending so much coaltwosourstuff that it is enharming the vapourball.

A 100% literal one-to-one translation yields a passage in Icelandic which would be considered good Icelandic: Flugvélar gefa frá sér svo mikinn koltvísýring að það skaðar gufuhvolfið.

“Vél” (machine) has an amazing history. It’s from the same roots as wheel, wile (as in cunning), and will. And some other proto-indo-european words that carry connotations of prophecy and bending the world to one’s will through divination and cunning and guile, and consecrating it to holiness. You know, with machines. Vélar. Crafted from thought and understanding of the deeper layers of the world.


My favourite one of those is https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/t%C3%B6lva : computer, from "number-witch".

Referenced in the game Signal From Tolva, and the essay "Hexing the Technical Interview".

Dutch for airplane is "vliegtuig", composed of "vlieg(en)" to fly, and "tuig" rig, gear which is reasonably a synecdoche for "machine".


I'm constantly frustrated by the diffuse ignorance of etymology, knowing where words - used to represent and describe - come from provides a surprisingly pleasant depth to everyday life.

In Danish nitrogen is "Kvælstof", or "Strangling stuff". From German: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Stickstoff#German

I'm guessing because Nitrogen gas will kill a flame?

Swedish optimizes that and leave out the "stuff", so we have "syre" and "kväve".

In French it's azote, meaning lifeless. I think many languages use a variation of this (based on the Greek roots) as well.

When you breath pure nitrogen, you suffocate without really noticing anything.

There have been suggestions that nitrogen could be used as a means of execution:


[NB Personally, I'm not in favour of executing anyone, but if you must do it why not do it so that it doesn't cause any suffering?]

Huh, I always had thought ‘zeug’ was ‘thing’ rather than ‘stuff’ (quantifiable vs. unquantifiable). (lighter, toy, plane, etc.)

But... it looks like I’m wrong and most of the time it refers to ‘stuff’.

"Zeug" makes more sense if you think of it as the English "gear" -- tools and equipment, the original etymology -- which is also uncountable. "Thing" isn't entirely wrong, but it's specifically a thing that is some sort of device that has utility. A Flugzeug can be thought or as flying equipment, Fahrzeug is driving equipment, and so on.

In Norwegian and Danish you'll have -tøy/-tøj words that came from Germanic via Old Norse: "fartøy" (vehicle or boat, as in "Fahrzeug"), "leketøy/legetøj" (toy; literally play-thing).

"Zeug" (or rather, its proto-Germanic ancestor) survives in English as "toy", funnily enough.

Thank you, now I don't have to explain it haha. I just want to add that in medieval times Zeug was also used to refer to arms and armor. Some cities still have a Zeughaus, nowadays usually a museum for plate armor etc.

The pejorative connotation wasn't there back then.

In Switzerland the term "Zeughaus" is still in use as the official term for an arsenal or armory.

In Swedish we also have "-tyg" and "-don" which is similar.

So we have far-tyg for faring-stuff on water, and for-don for faring-stuff on land.

Tyg on itself is fabric, like "stoff" is in German or Danish (in Danish stof is also drugs or matter in general).

"Gear" makes a lot of sense. "Zaumzeug" denotes the bridles used to control horses.

Etymology is just fascinating.

Not to mention "lekking", which still means "playing" in parts of northern England.

Hmm, "Zeug" is uncountable and without plural (like "stuff"), while "Ding" is countable and has a plural (like "thing"). I think I've seen "Flugzeug" rendered as "Flything", but "Flystuff" feels closer.

I wish German used Sonnestoff (sunstuff) for helium, Geldstoff (moneystuff) for gold, and Salzstoff (saltstuff) for sodium.

Also I think I heard that German-speaking "Pennsylvania Dutch" speakers in the US independently started calling an airplane a Flugschiff (flyship) when they first started seeing them.

That would make a lot of sense. "Sonnenstoff", with an extra "n", probably; it rolls of the tongue more easily.

Zeppelins are also called "Luftschiff", airship (giving rise to the usual German concatenations such as "Luftschiffahrtsmuseum" (airship transport museum)).

As a German ESL student, I found it hard to believe that "foodstuff" and its plural was a genuine expression and not a prank. Seems so much more German than Lebensmittel is ("Survival/Life tool/gear").

"Lebensmittel" more represents something like "Life implement" or "means of life".

Edit: Conceptually it maps almost exactly to Latin "nutrimentum", and hence, English "nourishment".

As such, I supposed we could construct some neo-latin from it to more closely approximate it, such as vitimentum or rather vitalimentum - but if you look closely at vitalimentum, you'll notice it contains "alimentum" as a substring, and, well:


Or just use victualia (from late Latin), which appears to be derived from victus (nourishment) and vīvō (live, survive).

In English this corresponds to victuals, and in German Viktualien of course¹.

1: E.g., as used in the name of Munich's Viktualienmarkt market square.

Have you come across the word "nutmeat", meaning the edible part of a nut? It's from two words with Germanic roots and thus might give you a similar feeling.


Now, I hadn't, and wow!

Conversely, I felt the same way about "flugzeug", "spielzeug", "werkzeug" etc.

Vice versa, you can confuse German speakers by claiming that you drink liquids out of a rock (German: "Stein").

In the Dutch language, carbon and nitrogen are referred to as koolstof (coalstuff) and stikstof (chokestuff), respectively.

I'm confused by the "stuff" suffix in English though; the Dutch "stof" can also be translated as "dust" or "matter". Matter probably has origins in French or Latin or something though.

Kool stuff!

"The worldken of this behaving, in all its manifold ways, is called minglingken."

Funny, the Dutch word for chemistry is "scheikunde", which would be more like "breakupken" ("scheiden" = to separate). Although I think "minglingken" sounds better...

Carbon is actually kulstof in Danish, a language Anderson was thoroughly familiar with.

I’ve learned that there is sort of an accidental Anglish that already exists. The Scots language (dialect?) is a partially-intelligible tongue spoken in Scotland that, due to the Normans not conquering Scotland right away, wasn’t subjected to contamination from Norman French. That’s obviously not the only difference, but it’s a perfect English-language example of that gray area between mutually intelligible and not quite mutually intelligible.

The sad part is that even many Scots don't know it's an independent, old language. They've been convinced that they simply speak 'bad' English.

Scottish English, Scots Gaelic, and Scots are three distinct tongues though.

The Scots leid branched off from Middle English tho, well after 1066. There’s plenty of French in the bonny north’s tongue. Scots Gaelic was the language untouched by the Normans, and quite a few words got transferred into Scots when the Gaelic-speaking populations were forcibly migrated into Scots areas.

Sure. My impression was that Scots and Middle English sort of co-evolved and fewer Norman loanwords made it all the way north, though obviously some did.

Scots Gaelic is another tongue entirely, with no direct Anglo-Germanic descent.

To be clear: Modern English and Scots share the same direct ancestor of Middle English. They’re both about the same age, they both diverged from Middle English.

The Romans made it all the way to Aberdeen, the Normans got up north no problem and did pretty well e.g. the De Brus family of Annandale neé Normany.

It is interesting to notice that when people want to sound official or authoritative (in business documents, for example) they tend to lean more on long, latin-derived words rather than the plainer, earthier words of Germanic origin.

That reminds me of what I think was a flaw in the computer-based adaptive GRE. "Adaptive" because it gives you harder questions when you're doing well, and easier ones when you're doing badly, thus allowing for the same measurement precision, if you will, with fewer questions.

My Spanish girl friend and I studied English vocabulary to prepare for the GRE, and took many old-fashioned paper based tests (non-adaptive) for practice, then later the actual (adaptive) one. Her result on the actual test was much worse than on the practice tests, by many standard deviations (only in the verbal section, not in the quantitative section).

Now, in English, the more difficult words are frequently the words of Latin origin (for example, "to lament" vs "to mourn"). However, those were often cognates of the equivalent Spanish words, thus easier for her. So, the hypothesis is that she got some questions wrong initially, and the algorithm decided to give her "easier" questions (with more Germanic words), which would be harder for her, though; while withholding the harder questions which she could have solved correctly.

Intriguingly, it might have gone the other way around (depending on whether you first got predominantly Germanic words, answered them wrong, and got even more of them, or first got predominantly Latinate words, answered them correctly, and got even more of them.)

Thus, if ETS tested the adaptive algorithm on native English speakers, the adaptive test might have lined up very well with the traditional test, validating it.

(Now we're coming to the intriguing part.) If they tested it also with Latinos/native Spanish speakers, it might well have been that the mean deviation (between adaptive and paper based result) was also very small, but the variance of the deviation larger: many large deviations to the upside, many large deviations to the downside.

I wonder whether that was ever researched in depth, and whether it could have been grounds for complaints (that members of some community had measurements that were "worse", but not in the sense of biased, but of "less precise", with more variance!)?

> I wonder whether that was ever researched in depth

Yes, it was. My wife studied linguistics and she has an MSc in Education, she has tens of books on grading and evaluating English learners, and GRE is a test that has been studied extensively. I don't have any reference at hand (on my mobile) but feel free to search on any education-related journal: you'll find tons of sudies.

You're hypothesizing an additional axis of question variation, "Romance-Germanic", in addition to the well-known axis "difficulty". Do we have any reason other than this anecdote to believe this other axis actually exists for GRE? Why wouldn't easy Romance questions be sorted in with easy Germanic questions?

One reason to believe it (or more specifically, to believe the correlation between the Romance-Germanic axis and the difficulty axis is not zero) is that easier / more common vocabulary is often Germanic and harder / more literary vocabulary is often Romance, as a result of the origins of social classes and an intentional desire to use Romance words (or straight-up import Latin words) among those of higher learning / standing. That's the claim of several comments in this thread.

Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers(1). ... It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one's meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.

Orwell (1946)

You can find lovely examples of this in The Lord of the Rings -- like the chapter "The Voice of Saruman" or how the language of the narrator modulates in describing Sam being tempted by the Ring versus his more down-to-earth thoughts. (IIRC. I don't have it handy to check.)

LoTR gets way more complicated than this, but you're right. There are very localized changes in language and dialogue throughout the book, and they're all intentional.

Note that the Rohirrim alliterate, for example (they're saxons!), and the elves don't.

I assume that's a fossil of the Norman invasion (1066) the way ordinary animals (cow, pig/swine) get transformed into fancy Romance words (beef, pork) when placed on the table. These kinds of linguistic scars can last a long time.

There's that, but also, Latin was the language of science throughout Western Europe until the 18th or 19th century; Euler, for example, published his papers in Latin, and if you browse the Mathematical Genealogy Project, you can see the transition from writing dissertations in Latin to writing them in local languages like German and Italian.

Nowadays, English occupies a similar position in much of the world — if you study a scientific or engineering discipline in a non-English-speaking part of the world, chances are excellent that you will also have to study English in order to read the literature in the field. To take an example you've worked on yourself, GCC's comments are in English, and so is the mailing list.

So it's quite common for people to use English loanwords in, for example, Spanish when discussing computers, video games, and so on.

Yes I remember in France in the 80s you had to translate all the technical words (stack, buffer, etc) into French equivalents in order to publish, even though we used the English words in conversation, email etc.

I know Latin was the language of science (later German until the late 1910s) as French was in diplomacy, but the contemporary significance of the use of latinate words is more of an English thing IMHO -- certainly more than in romance countries like Spain! There are some use of latinate endings in loan words in German but technical jargon (e.g. legal language) tends to simply be complex German words.

I gave long found it odd that English went through a phase of using Latin or Greek roots to construct a new word (e.g. television) while most people use their own language (e.g. Fernseh). Or jarringly, combine the two (e.g. "monolingual" -- yech)

The reason German, Polish, Russian etc. aren’t chock full of Latinisms, Hellenisms and even more French than is already the case is because of deliberate language reforms and coinings of “authentic, native” terms. Of the Germanic languages I believe Dutch is the only other national language to escape such reforms, which is why it, like English, still has many more loanwords than languages that didn’t go through this. Übersetzen is an obvious calque of traduction. I don’t know the geographic extent of it but French was the language of all upper class people over a huge portion of Europe for centuries, whether we're talking about the Russian nobility and haute bourgeoisie or the upper classes of all of what we would now call Belgium, not just those areas where they now speak French, or the Rhineland.

Television is the same kind of Greek-Latin hybrid as monolingual

Yes, I should not post while walking downtown. Thanks!

Funnily though, after Latin, German became the lingua franca (or should I say deutsche Zunge?) of natural sciences for a while, before English dethroned it in the second half of the 20th century.

That's an old and popular idea, but controversial in modern linguistics. See for example


which among other things points out that words like "beef" and "mutton" don't appear in English until centuries after the Conquest.

In Polish, killing an animal changes its gender instead: you can butcher a pig (_świnia_, feminine in Polish) but get "hog-meat" (_wieprzowina_, from _wieprz_, masculine).

Same with a cow being turned into "ox-meat" (krowa -> wołowina) and sheep -> "ram-meat" (owca -> baranina).

Makes sense, according to wikipedia

"Latin was used as the language of international communication, scholarship, and science until well into the 18th century, "

In medicine Latin and especially Greek terms are still ubiquitous of course, to the point where a classical education must be a huge leg-up in learning the terminology. Eg: I once astounded my medical student neighbour in halls at Uni by correctly guessing what a 'salpingogram' was, despite never having seen that word before.

Similarly, for (modern) Greeks a lot of opaque medical jargon that baffles most of us must be more or less plain speaking to them.

And then using latinized words also makes normal things sound more technical or scientific than they really are. For example you can say "let's implement business process improvements" or you can say "let's do things better."

Was going to link the Monty Python skit about words being comparatively woody or tinny (in relation to "earthy" words), but the rights holder has erased it from the internet.

Added: Well at least the script is available


Side note: can't edit the link above, but due to an ARC bug from more than a decade ago[0], HN does not correctly delimit it at the ">" (because they escape it a second time, but don't escape the escapes I guess, which causes the ">" not to match as a closing delimiter for the URI).

[0]: https://github.com/arclanguage/anarki/blob/03e329e9cec8ad456...

I am vaguely reminded of plans for spelling reform to make English look more like German, https://www.smart-jokes.org/english-spelling-reform.html.

A friend of mine who is a lawyer jokes about how the amount of money he make is directly proportional to the amount of Latin he uses. :)

This reminds me of what our exhausted, delirious minds used to come up with after too much language study in school. Absurd literal translation highlighting the oddities of the respective languages, ultimately a futile excercise and a sign that a break is overdue.

XKCD's "Up Goer Five" (written using only the 1000 most common English words) was no doubt inspired by this: https://xkcd.com/1133/

Not likely, since it uses tons of Romance vocabulary. For example, right at the top we can see

  problem [Greek]
Not all constrained writing exercises are directly inspired by one another!

Up Goer Five is most likely inspired by Randall Munroe's general fascination with Simple English Wikipedia:


Not at all; I'd rather say that "up goer five" is the exact opposite of "unclefish beholding". One uses common words to refer to advanced things; the other invents a new vocabulary to refer to things that already have plain names.

You might want to check Randall's "Thing Explainer": https://xkcd.com/thing-explainer/

I don't know who the audience is, or that anyone would want to read it more than once, but it's a unique marvel. Amazing and highly recommended!

One very grateful audience is non-native speakers learning English.

Well, I showed it to my friend who I was teaching English while she was teaching me Spanish (although her English was very good) - but even I had to already know what things he was talking about to understand what he was talking about, much less to find it funny, although it's still hard to read. I don't think it would be great for English learners, as the kind of English used is not what you'd want to learn! And he uses the wrong names for everything. Wouldn't another version be better for English learners that just used the normal terms for everything? (That would be awesome!) It's not like Dr Seuss, using a very limited vocabulary but calling things but their right name, which I imagine but be entertaining and useful for English beginners. But if Thing somehow helps people, great. :-)

> Wouldn't another version be better for English learners that just used the normal terms for everything? (That would be awesome!)

That is just a visual dictionary, and there are plenty of those around. https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/?field-keywords=visual+dictionary

Discussed at some time previously: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7671549

I love "bulkbits".

I use this text as a kind of informal test for my collaborators/phd students. If they can decipher most of it, then they are true hackers and good to go working on open problems. Otherwise, they will be assigned more menial tasks.


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