Having Your Cake

We say have your cake and eat it too when having cake now means eating it. “Here, have some cake.” So ‘eat your cake and eat it too’? No wonder this phrase is lost on many before the user spouts an apocryphal story about Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution. To keep this phrase up-to-date we really should be saying keep your cake and eat it too. Ah, now that makes sense. You want to keep the decoration of the icing job on top, but you also want to cut into it and get to the cake. How’s that for some heavy descriptivist prescription?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the phrase was attested as far back as 1562:

What man
I trow ye raue
Wolde ye bothe eate your cake and haue your cake?

—The Proverbs & Epigrams of John Heywood

And it should stay there.

Because when it comes to language change and being understood, you can’t keep your cake and eat it to.

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Is the Word ‘Tangerine’ Racist?

Upon discovering that the word tangerine means ‘inhabitant of Tangier (Tanger in the Romance langauges, Ṭanjah /t̪ʕandʒa/ in Arabic)’, and that the term was used to refer to Sub-Saharan soldiers and slaves in Al Andalus as well as the fruit, it occured to me that the term might be racist, similar to the name nigger toes for Brazil nuts. (Sorry to type that out! But I’m just doing linguistics here.)

Luckily, that’s not the case. It turns out they are native to the area around Tangier, Morocco. (And it was originally an adjective, as tangerine orange.) So they are called ‘of Tangier’ because they were actually imported from there, not because of any racist connection between some appearance of the fruit and a misguided unappreciation of human diversity.

If We Had Kept Anglo-Saxon Month Names

After reading about the curious history of the word February and learning that some old guys really into Latin are the ones that made our months so hard to say (it’s always those guys), I thought I would look up what the names of our months would look like if those übernerds hadn’t inserted their massive quill pens into the natural course of spoken language. Not that I have anything against our months, that’s just how it happened, but I was curious what it might sound like if history had gone a different way.

So these are the months in Old English. You can click the link for their meanings and more info. They’re in the same order as our current calendar.
Æfterragēola
Solmōnaþ
Hrēþmōnaþ
Eastermōnaþ
Þrimilcemōnaþ
Ærralīþa, Midsumormōnaþ, Sēremōnaþ
Þrilīþa
Mædmōnaþ, Æfteralīþa
Weodmōnaþ, Hærfestmōnaþ
Winterfylleth
Blōtmōnaþ
Ærragēola

When we adjust for 1700 years of sound change we get the following. I assumed we’d drop the ‑month, as we’re OK to say May and June and Rethmonth and Soilmonth sound too hard to say in Modern English. If you disagree then tack the reduced pronunciation [mənt̪] on the end where necessary.
Afteryule
Soil
Reth
Easter
Threemilk
Erelithe*
Threelithe
Afterlithe**
Weed
Winterfull
Blot
Ereyule

*Midsummer, Sear
**Meadow
(For these I went with the option that created the most symmetry, cf. the -ember endings in a third of our months.)

We would start to pronounce some of these a little more contracted over time, but of course we would keep spelling them the same way (just like February and Wednesday).

[æf.tɚ.jʟ̩]
[sɔi.ʟ̩]
[ɹɛθ]
[i.stɚ]
[θɹi.mʟ̩k]
[eɚ.lɪθ]
[θɹiɫɪθ] ambisyllabic
[æf.tɚ.ɪθ]
[wid]
[wɪɾ̃ɚ.fʟ̩]
[blɑt]
[eɚ.jʟ̩]

It sounds so weird to say, “Last Weed I went to Chicago”, but that’s what we’d do. The same way we don’t think about soldiers when we talk about the month March, we wouldn’t be thinking about gardening. (We would be thinking about marijuana legalization! OK, jk. But if you said, “Last Weed I went to Seattle”, it might trigger people to start the puns. Although maybe we wouldn’t have the slang term weed if that was the name of a month. It might have sent us after slang terms that are less talked about. (You say the names of months a lot more than you talk about grass.))

We might still call the holiday Easter, or we’d vary it by saying Easterfest or Eastermas, or might veer to calling it Pasch [pæʃ] or just Passover. Saying, “Is Easter in Easter or Reth this year?” could get confusing, but I guess that hasn’t stopped us before.

And lastly, here’s my take on the idea behind each of the month names:
Æfterragēola get through winter
Solmōnaþ mud
Hrēþmōnaþ goddess
Eastermōnaþ goddess
Þrimilcemōnaþ the cows make a lot of milk now
Ærralīþa easy weather, Midsumormōnaþ partay, Sēremōnaþ omg it’s f-ing hot and my skin is burning off cause I’m from England
Þrilīþa that other month
Mædmōnaþ flowers, Æfteralīþa that was a crazy party or winter is coming
Weodmōnaþ ah my aching back, Hærfestmōnaþ food
Winterfylleth winter is coming
Blōtmōnaþ gods save us
Ærragēola get through winter

Beringia As Homeland, Not Just Bridge

This seems pretty reasonable and a fascinating suggestion nonetheless:

New-World Settlers Spent Millennia On Bering Land Bridge

So for milleniums (about 10 of them) humans hung out on a forested, unsubmerged Beringia. That means people lived there for anywhere from 2/3 as long to just as long as it’s been since the last ice age, or about as long as it’s been since the rise of agriculture. That’s a long time to call it a “bridge”.

It’s not Starostin and it’s not Greenberg, so those red flags can be set down.

Not too sure on computational phylogenetics. My first instinct is to think that it sounds like using computers to calculate something more complicated than just numbers, i.e. calling statistics social scientific reality. If the method can be trusted, Beringia standstill is a good explanation for the relationship between Na-Dene and Yeniseian. More on what genetics can and can’t tell us about language another time.

The Language Families

Na-Dene – Includes languages in Central Alaska and the Yukon, and Apache and Navajo.

Yeniseian – Small family in central Siberia, severely endangered, with the Ket language of 200 speakers the last one

FYI
Historical land bridges:
Beringia, Doggerland, Sundaland, SahulRama Setu

Current land bridges:
Isthmus of Panama, Sinai Peninsula

Is the Internet Finnished? The Name of Thor Revisted

While reading Snorri’s Edda, I was curious about the origin of one of Thor’s alternate names: Öku-Thor. The online version of The Prose Edda I was reading had a note that explained that the Öku part was borrowed from Finnish, as they had a similar thunder god, Ukko. That sound change just didn’t seem right. A look at Old Norse phonology made it seem like it shouldn’t have happened. I then thought that maybe a historical change in Finnish could account for the disparity. After an attempt to simply look up what Finnish probably sounded like in the Middle Ages, I found that there’s barely anything on the Internet about older forms of Finnish. A Google search for “historical stages of finnish” brings up only hits on government and theater. There is a Wikipedia page on the divergence of Finnic from Uralic, but not on the development of Finnish itself. I finally found a page on FrathWiki, a conlang and phonology wiki, that has many stages of Finnish, but I’m not sure about the quality of the source, translation, or transfer to wiki.

You might say that a change from [u] to [ø] over hundreds of years isn’t that big of a change, but Old Norse doesn’t show that kind of vowel shift (rotation, really). Also, as Finnish itself shows in its borrowings from Proto-Germanic, Finnish has not changed drastically since then, so borrowed words haven’t changed much. Which brings me to my next point: if Öku was borrowed into Old Norse from Old(?) Finnish then it would have followed the pattern usual of borrowings to be phonologically assimilated, resulting in either a form unrecognizable as foreign (and then subject to ON’s regular sound changes) or it would have violated the rules of Old Norse phonotactics and thus been more resistant to sound change, having rare environments to be selected. The latter case can be seen in words adopted into English like guacamole or chipotle. Then again, people may not recognize the foreign word, especially in the time before writing, and just impose their perception of the pronunciation on it. The problem with that hypothesis for Öku though is that Ukko/Uko does not seem to violate Old Norse phonotactics or present any sounds that Old Norse speakers would have had trouble with. That makes me wonder what the Old Finnish vowel was. Since the apparent sounds are in Old Norse, then, by the first hypothesis, it should follow Old Norse sound changes, one of which was not [u] → [ø].

We have a few options for what really happened:

  • The reverse [ø] → [u] happened from Old Finnish to Modern Finnish
  • The ‹u› in Ukko is actually centralized [ʉ] in Modern Finnish, as Wikipedia claims, and was so at the time Old Norse borrowed it, leading to the interpretation [ø]
  • The Old Finnish vowel was something other than [ø] or [u] or [ʉ], yet confusable by an Old Norse speaker for [ø]
  • It was borrowed from a minority dialect of Finnish
  • It was from the Estonian Uku, which gets the [u] at the end and might also have a historic form that would work
  • It was borrowed from another Finnic language or passed through an intermediate language
  • Ukko does, in fact, violate Old Norse phonotactics, possibly leading to some of the options below:
  • It’s some sort of hypercorrective metathesis: [o] and [u] switch Ukko → Oku, but the sound of [u] to the Old Norse ear triggers umlaut/fronting to [ø]
  • Öku is not the spelling from the manuscript, thus completely false, and the name came from simple metathesis Ukko → Oku, Öku then likely came to English through German Oku Öku
  • The Proto-Finnic form was *[uxko] and that did not match Old Norse phonotactics, leading to Öku
  • The Proto-Finnic form was *[βikːo] which led to Old Norse Öku, possibly by way of *[øko]
  • The borrowing was made long before Old Norse and was thus subject to Germanic sound changes
  • Öku was borrowed into Finnish from Old Norse or Germanic
  • It actually does come from áka ‘to drive’ and Cleasby-Vigfússon is wrong

Needless to say it looks like there needs to be some more work on the history of Finnish and/or it needs to be translated into English and/or it needs to be put on the Internet.