Ben Crowder

Archive: Languages

Ogham alphabet chart

Apparently I’m in a language-chart-making mood. This time, though, the nerdiness quotient jumps dramatically, with an Ogham alphabet chart. Ogham is a medieval alphabet used for Primitive Irish and Old Irish and a few other languages. Very obscure, but also very cool, as you can see:

It can be written both vertically and horizontally. The red letters are the transliteration (according to manuscript tradition), the grey letters in brackets are the pronunciation, and the italicized words are the names of the letters. Some of the forfeda (the last group) changed meanings over the course of time, so I’ve included both. (I haven’t included pronunciations for the forfeda, though, mostly because none of my source materials did and I didn’t want to assign incorrect values.)

Coptic Latin

I was googling around for information on Latin vowel shifts (to see if the shift from adalter to adulter was unique or if the a to u shift happened with other words, too) and came across the Omniglot page on Coptic Latin. My first thought was, what the heck? (Mostly since I’ve studied both Coptic and Latin, and Coptic doesn’t have really anything to do with Latin. Greek, yes. But Latin?)

Turns out it’s a modern mashup of the Coptic script and the Latin language, invented by David Biliot to help his students start learning Catholic Latin (which I’m guessing is just another name for Church Latin or ecclesiastical Latin). Interesting idea. And, you know, there’s precedence for this sort of thing, since Coptic itself was a mashup of the Greek script (with modifications) and the Egyptian language.

Here’s the sample text from Omniglot’s page (which I’ve retyped using two different fonts, the second of which I find a bit more readable):

Transliteration: Omnes homines dignitate et jure liberi et pares nascuntur, rationis et conscientiae participes sunt, quibus inter se concordiae studio est agendum.

Book of Mormon word frequency charts

Because I’m a language nerd who loves the Book of Mormon, I’ve put together a few charts showing the top 400 words by frequency in the Book of Mormon in Spanish, French, German, and Italian.

(There are two pages, which is why you only see 150 words here.)


For each language I downloaded the text from and removed the HTML tags, then ran a modified version of my friend Chad’s text cleaner script to get a sorted list of the words by frequency (lowercased so I wouldn’t get duplicate words). I then recapitalized the words (proper names for all four languages, and with German I also capitalized the nouns as they’re used in the text) and put it all into InDesign.

My rule of thumb was that I want this to show the words as they appear in the text, so I haven’t consolidated variant forms, and in French I’ve kept the elided articles separate. Basically, if you want to read the Book of Mormon in any of these languages, these lists will show you what words appear and the forms they appear in.

I’m passingly familiar with these languages but I’m nowhere near fluent, so if any of you happen to spot errors, let me know.

The Iliad

Today’s release: Ἰλιάς, an EPUB/Kindle edition of Homer’s Iliad in ancient Greek (as part of my Originals series). The EPUB edition looks better than the Kindle edition, at least in iBooks and Digital Editions, but the Kindle edition is pretty usable as well. Enjoy.


A fun word nerd find: the French word jour, meaning “day” (as in “bonjour”), comes from the Latin word diurnus, meaning “daily.” It’s the adjectival form of dies, the Latin word for “day.” Incidentally, in spite of the similarities, our English word day is “in no way related to Latin dies,” according to the OED. (It is very much related, however, to the German tag.)

Speaking of the OED, their March 2011 update added OMG, LOL, IMHO, BFF, TMI, and others to the dictionary. That’s noteworthy in itself (and being a descriptivist, I’m glad to see them there), but this bit surprised me:

As is often the case, OED‘s research has revealed some unexpected historical perspectives: our first quotation for OMG is from a personal letter from 1917; the letters LOL had a previous life, starting in 1960, denoting an elderly woman (or ‘little old lady’; see LOL n./1); and the entry for FYI [FYI phr., adj., and n.], for example, shows it originated in the language of memoranda in 1941.

1917! I had no idea.

Other new additions: to heart (as a verb, as in “I heart etymology”) and smack talk. It’s about time.


In my mental wanderings in the shower this morning, I got to thinking about the word “concessions.” The main meaning — based off “concede,” which means “to withdraw, give way, yield, grant, etc.” — is fairly straightforward. People make concessions all the time in business, politics, you name it.

But what about hot dogs and nachos at baseball games? We call them concessions as well, but it wasn’t really clear what churros and cotton candy have to do with withdrawing or yielding. Even with my a-little-too-hyper imagination I couldn’t come up with any explanations that didn’t involve digestion, and seriously, who names their food places after digestion? (Other than people with an economic death wish, of course.)

So I turned to the OED, the source of most etymological wisdom. And voila, definition 4b had my answer: “A right or privilege granted by a commercial organization to an individual or company, esp. to market certain goods.”

Aha. The stadium makes a concession to the hot dog guy to let him sell his wares at the games. That makes more sense. It’s an odd choice of words, sure, but there you have it.

Grimms’ Tales (1812/1815)

For a few years now I’ve wanted to publish the first German edition of the Grimms’ fairy tales, and today that wish comes true. The Kinder- und Hausmärchen was originally published in two parts, one in 1812 and one in 1815. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published several more editions of the tales during their lifetimes, adding new stories (lots) and removing others (not quite as many).

Anyway, you can read the tales online or download the EPUB or Kindle editions.

Sir Gawain

Today’s release is a reader’s edition of Sir Gawain and the Grene Knyght, an old Middle English poem. The text comes from Project Gutenberg, but I’ve stripped out all the notes, leaving just the poem.

You may notice that there’s no EPUB or PDF edition, just a “web edition.” EPUB readers ignore most CSS declarations, which makes it nigh impossible to get good looking poetry. Until the EPUB readers clean up their act, then, I’m only going to use EPUB for straight prose. Sorry.

Real web browsers, though, can format things nicely. In fact, with the CSS nth-child rule, I even get line numbers for free. It’s lovely. And plain web pages are more open and accessible — you don’t need an EPUB reader — while still being reflowable, which you don’t get with PDF.

I’m just doing these web editions as pages in WordPress, uploading them with md2wp, a Python script that uses the same source files as my md2epub script.

I’ve also made a web edition of the Mother Goose tales and have a few more new texts coming up as well.

Ruby glosses

A while ago I came across the CSS3 Ruby spec, but it seemed to only apply to East Asian texts. Then today I ran across it again (see User Agent Man’s post) and realized it’s perfect for glossing texts.

For example, here are the first few verses of the Chapter 2 exercise in Bennett’s An Introduction to the Gothic Language:

  1. In ( in, into ) dagam ( days ) Hērōdis ( of Herod ) þiudanis ( king ) qēmun ( came (3 pl.) ) Iōsēf ( Joseph ) jah ( and, also ) Maria ( Mary ) in ( into ) Bēþlahaím ( Bethlehem ) .
  2. jah ( and, also ) jáinar ( there, yonder ) gabar ( bore (3 sg.) ) Maria ( Mary ) Iēsu ( Jesus ) .
  3. jah ( and, also ) haírdjōs ( herdsmen ) wēsun ( were (3 pl.) ) jáinar ( there, yonder ) ana ( on, upon, in ) akra ( field )

The syntax:

    <rp> (</rp>
    <rt>in, into</rt>
    <rp>) </rp>
    <rp> (</rp>
    <rp>) </rp>
    <rp> (</rp>
    <rt>of Herod</rt>
    <rp>) </rp>

Kind of verbose, though. If I end up using this a lot, I’ll probably write a preprocessor that lets me use abbreviated syntax — something like this:

In::(in, into) dagam::(days) Hērōdis::(of Herod)

Sidenote: I was originally using a combining macron for the macrons (U+0304), but Georgia doesn’t do the combining correctly. Times New Roman does, though. Weird. I ended up just going with the precomposed characters. Oh well.

Original Mother Goose

Today’s book release: Charles Perrault’s 1697 French edition of Histoires ou Contes du temps passé, avec des moralités: Contes de ma mère l’Oye, more commonly known as the Mother Goose tales. It’s available in PDF, ePub, and Kindle formats.

The collection contains eight stories including “La Belle au bois dormant” (Sleeping Beauty), “Le Petit Chaperon rouge” (Little Red Riding Hood), and “La Barbe-Bleuë” (Bluebeard).

This book marks the beginning of a series of fairy tale and folk tale collections that I’ll be publishing. (The original 1812/1815 German edition of the Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen is next and is almost done.) Future books in this series will include the Arabian Nights (including Galland’s original French translation), the eight-volume Russian collection by Alexander Afanasyev, Hans Christian Andersen’s stories, and Joseph Jacobs’ English fairy tales, among others. (And while there will certainly be an emphasis on the earliest editions of these tales, I’ll also be publishing English translations.)

If you know of any pre-1923 fairy/folk tale collections you’d like to see in this series, let me know.


I’ve wanted an easy way to create and share flash card sets (mostly for language study) but wasn’t really happy with any of the existing solutions out there. Enter Cardiff, a web-based flash card engine I’m working on:


Use arrow keys to flip cards and move through the deck: Demo


I’ve only tested it in Chrome and Safari, so your mileage may vary with Firefox (which is the new IE) and the other browsers.

Anyway, it’s functional (although there are still a few bugs) and the setup is simple (for geeks — you just put text files in the directory with the Cardiff files, which is super easy if you’re used to running your own web server, but pretty hard if you’re not). And there’s sort of a mobile mode, but it’s broken at the moment.

The app I didn’t release

Update: A donation came in today from a generous benefactor, so I’ll be releasing the app after all (in the near future).

Update 2: I ended up deciding not to release the app (and refunded the donation). It was a fun proof of concept and introduction to iPhone coding, but that’s about it.

For the last six months I’ve been working on Hwaet, an Old English dictionary app for the iPhone. It’s based off Bosworth & Toller (digitized by the Germanic Lexicon Project), and I also got permission from the Labyrinth Library to include their collection of Old English texts.

The app works (it’s fully functional). The dictionary’s there (although there’s still a bit of work to be done cleaning up the imported definitions — mostly errors from the digitization as far as I can tell), some of the texts are there (and I wrote a script that made it super easy to import the rest), and the project was going quite well.

So why am I not going to release it?

Mostly because I wanted it to be a free app. Apple requires developers to pay $100/year (and that’s a totally legitimate cost, considering what you get in return for it — I’m not complaining about the fee), and since I won’t be writing commercial apps anytime soon, I can’t justify spending $100/year on it. Especially not with a baby on the way.

Maybe someday I’ll write a web-based mobile version, but in the meantime, here’s what Hwaet looked like:

Don Quijote ePub (Spanish)

Today’s book release: Don Quijote en español. It’s available in both ePub and Kindle formats.

Formatting poetry for ebook readers is an exercise in frustration. Each reader ignores its own selection of CSS styles, which makes cross-platform formatting much harder than it needs to be.

A word about Stanza: it nails the user experience of reading, but oh my goodness, formatting ebooks for it is like spending time in Dante’s ninth circle. (It ignores almost every CSS style known to man.) I’ve given up on trying to get things to look good in Stanza.

And because I want to live a happy life, I’m going to avoid publishing books that have poetry in them until the ebook readers repent and start letting book designers have more control over the output. It’s just not worth it.

Egges or eyren

I’ve been reading up on the history of publishing, and in George Parker Winship’s book William Caxton & His Work, I found this little gem of a quote (from Caxton’s prologue to the Eneydos, and I’ve obviously retained the original spelling):

In so muche that in my dayes happened that certayn marchauntes were in a shippe in tamyse, for to haue sayled ouer the see into zelande and for lacke of wynde, thei taryed atte forlond, and wente to lande for to refreshe them; And one of theym named sheffelde, a mercer, cam in-to an hows and axed for mete; and specyally he axyd after eggys; And the goode wyf answerde, that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry, for he also coude speke no frenshe, but wolde haue hadde egges and she vnderstode hym not. And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren then the good wyf sayd that she vnderstod hym wel. Loo, what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte, egges or eyren?

English is still changing, as all live languages do, but my mind’s a-tickling with curiosity about what it was like back when the language was in the middle of the linguistic earthquake that eventually brought us the English we speak today.

It’s hard to imagine. The printing press and television and the Internet have solidified English (and most other written languages too, I suppose) so that even dialects you’d expect to have become wildly different — Indian English or Jamaican English, for example — are still pretty close to the standard. (By which I mean American/British English.)

Speaking English in the time of Caxton, when “comyn englysshe that is spoken in one shyre varyeth from a nother,” sounds like walking on jello. Go a few miles from home in any direction and it’s almost as if you’re in another country. Always a foreigner. Kind of unsettling, but then again that’s coming from someone whose home country covers almost four million square miles of mutually understandable dialect — which also happens to be the current lingua franca, no less. For people who speak fringe languages, it’s perfectly normal.

Makes me wonder if the people in those small minority-language pockets have a stronger, tighter feeling of home than I do, because they’re so few in number. Maybe so. But it could work the other way, too — I can feel at home almost as easily in San Francisco or New York or Houston or Seattle as I do here in Utah, and surely there’s some strength in belonging to something massive.

Or maybe it’s the same, and home is home no matter how big or how small. That’s my bet.

Crime & Punishment ePub (Russian)

My second book release for today is Преступление и наказание (Crime & Punishment). This is an ePub edition of Dostovesky’s novel (which I love) in the original Russian.

This marks my first attempt at creating an ePub from a text in a non-Roman script (Cyrillic), and I was pleasantly surprised at how well it all went. I should note that Stanza displays the book just fine, but I haven’t yet tested it in iBooks.

Note: In Stanza, the Russian hyphenation settings (which seem to only work if you have justification on, by the way) hardly hyphenate any words at all, so they’re basically useless.

I designed the cover in Photoshop. There’s a higher resolution version available on Flickr.

And no, I don’t read Russian. Yet.

Vulgate: Matthew

One of my new projects: Typesetting a reader’s edition of the Clementine Vulgate. Instead of waiting till the whole thing is done, however, I’m going to be publishing it one book at a time, starting with Matthew:

Why the Vulgate? Because I like Latin.

I’m planning to continue this one-piece-at-a-time thing with a few other projects (Old English texts and a German edition of the Grimms’ fairy tales).

In other bookmaking news, I’m about halfway done typesetting a reader’s edition of the Pearl of Great Price. The Mormon Digitization Project is coming along nicely, too. We’re almost done with Joseph Smith as Scientist and will be doing The Life of Heber C. Kimball next.

Using Dropbox for language learning on the iPhone

Turns out you can use Dropbox to get language learning material easily onto your iPhone. (I’ve yet to find a decent flash cards app for the iPhone. True, this isn’t exactly a flash card sort of thing, but it’s similar. Roughly. :)) It ends up looking like this:


And here’s how to do it:

  1. Make an HTML file with the material you want as reference, styled for the iPhone, with the CSS inline in the file. You can preview it in your browser to get it to look the way you want to. Here’s a sample file: LatinConjugations.html (Note: it’s not perfect yet. The content doesn’t go all the way across to the right edge of the screen.)

  2. When you have your file ready to go, put it in your Dropbox folder.

  3. Open the Dropbox app on your iPhone and voila! There it is. (Dropbox’s syncing is almost instantaneous. It’s sync bliss.)

Advantages: it’s easy to get the file on once it’s made, and Dropbox’s integration with pretty much everything is seamless. The Dropbox iPhone app also lets you save files for offline viewing, which is handy if you’re frequently out of reception/wifi range.

Disadvantages: you have to know HTML, and it takes time to prepare the files. (It would be fairly easy for someone to write an app that generated files like this, however.)

If you’ve got other methods, tell us about them in the comments. (And this is by no means the only way to do this. I just happen to love Dropbox with an undying passion. ;))

Lowercasing it

I usually write proper English, but IMing seems to be my one exception. Punctuation? Mostly optional (well, final periods and such — I still use commas and even a healthy dash of semicolons). Capitalization? Hardly necessary. Full sentences? Meh.

And yet my emails and even text messages remain in proper English, adorned with perfect punctuation and capitalization and the like. What gives?

I’ve been thinking about it, and my guess is that it’s because IM is a real-time conversation (synchronous, since I love using fancy-schmancy lingo :P), where email and text messages aren’t necessarily so (asynchronous). As a result, email and texts are more like written English, where instant messages become more like spoken English in all of its messy glory. ;)

Does this bother the OCD editor inside of me? Not really. I used to be a prickly stickler about proper English, but my undergraduate training (I was an English linguistics major) made me realize that a living language is far more organic than I realized, and for it to stay alive, it has to have breathing room. That means room for different styles, including some sans caps and puncts. will txting n im destroy english 4 good? LOL no


Latin declensions chart WIP

I’m starting to do some more language-related design work and thought I’d post a sample. This is part of a Latin declensions chart:

Latin Declensions WIP

The colored part prints out darker, by the way, so it’s not quite as bright as it seems here.

Anyway, there’ll be more soon. (And in all sorts of cool languages like Gothic and Old Irish and Middle Welsh. I’m giddy. :)) I plan to focus on basic grammatical charts, though I might do some simple vocab lists and short texts as well. We’ll see — if you have any ideas or requests, let me know. Oh, and the final charts will be released for free in PDF, of course.

Update: I’ve finally finished the chart. :) It’s available on the Latin charts page. Enjoy!

Moroni’s international promise

I like languages. I also really like the Book of Mormon (if you haven’t noticed :)). Now, it just so happens that the Book of Mormon is translated into lots of languages (and I’m pretty sure that list is old, because there was a new Cambodian translation in 2004 or 2005 or so). Over a hundred, in fact.

So, for the past few years I’ve been collecting translations of Moroni 10:3–5 (since it’s one of our flagship passages of scripture). It’s been up on my old site, but I just barely moved it over to here and figured I’d give it a little shout-out while I was at it: Moroni 10:3–5

Right now I’m at 58 languages. There’s obviously still a bit left, including the harder languages like Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Urdu, Persian, Armenian, Cambodian, Amharic, etc. (By “harder” I mean harder to type, since I have to hunt and peck at the character palette. Latin alphabet-based languages are a lot easier. But I think the harder ones are more fun. :)) And eventually I’ll go back in and add in the publication info (since many of these languages have more than one edition of the Book of Mormon) and the missing book titles (like on Palauan, Papiamento, and Pohnpeian).

Anyway, if any of you want to type up the text for a language that isn’t listed here, that’d be awesome — just email it to me and make sure you say what language it is. Thanks!

Beyond dabbling

I found this quote a long time ago in a festschrift for Thomas O. Lambdin and absolutely love it:

…Prof. Lambdin simply does not dabble in his languages. He attacks them, not only with zeal (though that is always present), but with a plan, to conquer them. First, learn the basic grammar as it is commonly understood (or misunderstood), some basic vocabulary; read some texts. Then, like a linguistic pathologist, take the language apart: scrutinize the lexical bones, particularly those idioms, usually associated with the most common verbs, that present obstacles in every language; analyze the morphological muscles, render them unformidable; track down the syntactical tendons, overlooked by others. Meanwhile, put most of the dictionary on flash cards and commit it to memory. Now read the best of the literature like a native, until boredom sets in from lack of challenge, and it’s time to move on. The number and range of languages that have been subjected to this process is remarkable: there are the Semitic languages, of course; but also Berber, Finnish, Turkish, Swahili, Hindi, Chinese, and some fifty or sixty others, it seems…. And when called upon to transmit his knowledge and understanding, another side of his extraordinary linguistic ability came into play; as a teacher of language, he is simply the best. It is one thing to be able to learn languages; it is quite another to describe them with such clarity that others are able to gain a similar understanding. Occasionally, an available grammar would meet with his approval and be used. But more often, he would find the grammars too frustrating; if he did not feel comfortable with a language after going through a given grammar, he would not expect his students to. So he would write his own, a clear report of the dissection process described earlier, the morphology and syntax broken down into easily comprehended lessons, the vocabulary glossed in such a way that the words really do have meaning, and exercises, lots of exercises, written to ensure that the grammar and vocabulary make sense and are remembered, so that by the time the first texts are encountered, the language is an old friend, not a dimly perceived, refractory set of vaguely familiar forms.

(For the astute, yes, I did already post this two years ago, but that’s forever and a day and this quote really deserves repeating.)

Six feet under

You know how people talk about taking languages that’ll be useful? Meh. Usefulness is seriously overrated. ;) This morning I decided to continue my longstanding academic tradition of studying fringe languages by registering for Syriac and Ugaritic next semester. And I’m giddy with excitement.

You see, my freshman year I took Latin and Coptic, both semesters. Then after my mission I took Middle Egyptian and Greek, then Old English, and then Middle English. And this semester I’m taking Welsh. Not all of these are completely Davy Jonesed (and Welsh is thriving), sure, but even so, there’s something seriously awesome about studying languages no one else cares about. Aye, it warms the cockles of my heart. (Here you go, in case you were wondering. I know I was.)

Catching up on stuff

First off, thanks for all the feedback on the magazine. My inbox is sagging at the seams with responses, overwhelmingly positive ones for the most part. The print edition should be ready for orders by the middle of next week, which’ll be nice because great as online stuff is, print is still so much more delectable. I’ll have more news on this later. And be sure to check out the news page (and RSS feed) on the Mormon Artist site itself, since, you know, that’s really where I ought to be announcing stuff about the magazine. :)

In other news, I’m back in classes for the first time in a year and a half — I’m taking Welsh and Playwriting, and they’re both a lot of fun so far. (Had to write a ten-page play by today. We got our titles and actors by random selection, mine being “Into the Oven” (one of the titles I’d suggested) with Denzel Washington, Angelina Jolie, and Zooey Deschanel starring in it. Hypothetically, of course. And I really shouldn’t say this on my blog, but I am gaga over Zooey. I try to keep my celebrity crushes to a minimum, since they’re effectively pointless, but yeah, Zooey’s so attractive it drives me crazy. And I’ll stop talking like a teenage girl now. :P)

And on a related note (to the playwriting, not to Zooey, though I sure wouldn’t mind talking more about her ;)), I’m directing a play (Ben Phelan’s “The Sword Without, and Terror Within”) for this next New Play Project set of shows. We had our directors’ meeting tonight and will be holding auditions next Tuesday and Thursday from 7–9pm each night in the HFAC. (Exact location to be determined. I’ll announce it again when we get closer.) And the shows will be performed in October. Fun times.

Back to the books

I graduated a year and a half ago, and since that time I haven’t taken any classes. That’s going to change this Tuesday. Now that I’m full-time, you see, I get free tuition, and I can take up to six credits a semester. Being addicted to learning and all, I plan to take full advantage of this boon. :)

The problem, though, is that there are so many classes I want to take. I took a lot of just-for-fun classes during my undergrad years, but let’s face it: there are tons and tons of really cool classes at BYU. The list keeps growing longer. (And if you have any good recommendations, I’m fine with it growing even longer, so leave them in the comments. :))

For this semester I’ve settled on two classes, Welsh 101 and Playwriting 1, both of which look like they’ll be a lot of fun. I’m excited. I miss being in class. I don’t really miss midterms or finals, but the exhilaration of learning makes it worth it. Mmm. I get little wavelets of goosebumps just thinking about it…

Divide and conquer

I haven’t done a very good job of keeping up with this blog lately, have I. :) As it happens, I got a little, um, distracted, but I’m happy to report that the distraction has left as abruptly as it came, and life is now back to normal again.

It isn’t just blogging that I’ve been slacking off on these past two weeks — it’s pretty much everything. So I’ve written next to nothing, hardly even been myself. I’ve got to figure out how to prevent this in the future…

Anyway, today I decided that I need to consolidate my writing projects, because there are too many of them — twelve or so plays, seven or eight novels, a handful of stories that want to be novellas, etc. — and without focusing on one at a time, I’ll never get anywhere. So, I’ve decided to give myself a few blanket categories to work within, and inside each category I’ll only work on one thing at a time. Here are the categories (for now):

1. Short fiction. This’ll be short stories, basically. I thought about taking one of the stories I’ve started and finishing it, but I feel like I want to start afresh — particularly because most of my stories to date have been fantasy of one sort or another, and I’d like to write something realistic. And religious.

2. Long fiction. I’ll try to alternate projects between fantasy and realistic, but that may or may not work. Anyway, the novel I’ll be working on for the time being is Rupert’s Umbrella Adventures. (It’s YA fantasy.)

3. Short play. This is my New Play Project category. :) My first project is to finish revising Alchemy so I can get it out for more feedback and see if I’ve fixed the problems that cropped up in the current draft. Then I’ll start writing a play to submit to the next NPP show, “Long Ago and Far Away.” (I have till June 3, and I want to submit three or four different plays, but so far all of my ideas have been for the other sets this year. Grr.)

4. Long play. I started writing a play tentatively called The Color of Love for Script Frenzy at the beginning of the month, but it pretty much went nowhere. (I have two or three pages of dialogue and that’s it.) The milieu of the play — a BYU student ward — is one I know quite well, and it should be a fun play to write. (And no, it won’t be like Singles Ward. If I’m lucky I might even be able to redeem the genre. :P)

5. Nonfiction. This’ll be my book/essay category. For now, the book I think I want to write is one on how to write a grammar text, particularly for dead languages. In other words, how do you teach a language through a book, without being boring and monotonous? So I’ll be researching pedagogical methods of language instruction, particularly focused on doing it through a book and not through a class or audio or anything else. But I’m free to change the focus if my research shows that my current idea is too restrictive or something. :)

6. Music. The oddball category, I’ll admit. It’s pretty much here purely to get me writing music more often. I’m going to start out by trying to write an arrangement of “I’ll Go Where You Want Me to Go” for the violin and piano.

Anyway, I’m not entirely sure that dividing things up this way will work, but it seems to be the way my brain organizes them, so we’ll see. I’m also going to set goals for these projects, both long-term and weekly, so that I don’t let lots of time slip by without getting anything done.

I reserve the right to change any and all of this. :P

Reductio ad absurdum

So, this guy named Ammon Shea just spent a year reading the whole Oxford English Dictionary. The whole thing. He’s writing a book about it, but he’s also posting to the Oxford University Press blog about it, and a couple days ago he posted Absurd Entries in the OED:

Absurd Entries is the name that I gave to a certain class of definition that I would come across every so often when reading the OED. They are rarer than the mistakes, and considerably more fun to read. These are the extremely rare moments when the OED does something that is so inexplicable that you have to close the book and check the cover to make sure that it is indeed the same book that you thought. I have decided, without giving too much thought to the matter, to divide them into two separate categories: “Blatant Disregard for the Reader’s Level of Education” and “What Were They Thinking?”

Some gems:

For instance, trondhjemite is defined as “Any leucocratic tonalite, esp. one in which the plagioclase is oligoclase”. I have my doubts as to whether anyone has ever thought to themselves “I wonder what trondhjemite means?” But if someone did, and went to look it up in the OED, it seems unlikely that this definition would clear things up much.
In a rather unconventional bit of lexicography the word scindapse has no definition at all, but there is a nice little etymology which informs the reader that it comes from a Greek word which means “a ‘thingumbob’, a what-d’ye-call-it.”

For further reading on the OED, see K.M. Elisabeth Murray’s Caught in the Web of Words (a biography of James Murray, the editor of the OED) and Simon Winchester’s books The Professor and the Madman and The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Of small islands

Just a quick bit of news: my brother Daniel got his mission call today, and he’s going to (drum roll) Hong Kong! :) He’s the next missionary to serve since I got back from Thailand. And he’s serving in Asia! I mean, sure, it would’ve been splendidly celestial if he’d gotten called to my beloved Thailand, but Hong Kong is pretty darn close. Mmm. Already I feel like my connection to my mission has been forged anew merely by association. The memories are flooding back… This is awesome. I’m excited.

Oh, and now I have a good motivation to learn Cantonese. :P

Path of least resistance

On days when I’m tired (like today), it seems like designing is a whole lot easier than writing. Drafting out the new stake leadership directory went smoothly, but even just the thought of writing was enough to make me want to take a nap. (Which is what I would do if I had time…) Not sure why that is.

Speaking of design, I just rediscovered, a site with Thai fonts. The SIPA collection is my favorite so far — not only do the fonts work in Photoshop and all, but they even have beautiful OpenType alternates. I’m in heaven. :)

Riverglen game plan

Yesterday morning I was browsing through my copy of Tales Before Tolkien, and I happened to notice the Recommended Reading section at the back, which I’d never seen before.


You see, that section lists early fantasy writers and their works (William Morris, E. Nesbit, Lord Dunsany, Walter de la Mare, John Buchan, etc.), and almost all of the books and stories mentioned are pre-1923. Out of copyright. Fair game. Mmm. :)

So, I’ve decided that Riverglen Press will have one line focusing on early fantasy — a trend I’ve already started with Phantastes and the upcoming A Voyage to Arcturus. I’m very, very excited about this.

The other two main areas I see Riverglen Press publishing in, by the way, are classics (like A Christmas Carol and Jekyll & Hyde) and language-related books (both grammars, like the Old Icelandic Primer, and actual texts, like Beowulf).

I plan to work on at least one book in each of the three main categories at any given time. Right now I’m finishing up A Voyage to Arcturus in the fantasy line, and I’ve let Pride & Prejudice slip to the back burner in the classics line but I could easily bring it back. As for the language line, I’m feeling like either a Latin text (Augustine?), Grimm in German, or Afanasyev’s collection of Russian tales. (I do plan to publish lots of fairy tales in all sorts of languages, by the way. Lang, Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Perrault, the Arabian Nights, etc.)

Now if only I had more time… :)

Project Cymru update

Back in May, I decided to start digitizing the Welsh Book of Mormon (Llyfr Mormon), dubbing the endeavor Project Cymru. It was going along pretty well for a while, but then I got bogged down over the summer and kind of forgot about the project. I did (and still do :)) have two volunteers helping me, so we made some headway, but overall the project’s been hibernating pretty tightly.

Not for much longer, though. I’m working on getting a spit-and-barbed-wire version of Unbindery up soon so we can do the OCR clean-up easily, and even get more people to help out. Once that happens, it won’t take long to finish the text. And then I’ll be typesetting it into three different versions: one similar to the original Welsh text, one versified (ala the Doubleday edition of the English Book of Mormon), and a parallel English-Welsh text.

Here’s a page from the versified 1 Nephi:

Project Cymru 1

And here’s a page from the parallel edition:

Project Cymru 2

This’ll be Unbindery’s maiden voyage. Humble beginnings, but she’ll go far. :)

Books of Babel

I checked out some books on Hebrew and Arabic today, and as I was leafing through the Hebrew one at dinner (Hebrew for Biblical Interpretation by Arthur Walker-Jones), I realized something: I really want to publish language books. Both books about the languages and texts in the languages.

You see, as I browse through the books out there, a lot of them don’t feel like they do things the right way. I’m not saying I know what the “right way” is, but I think there’s often room for improvement — particularly among the less common languages (like Gothic) where most of the grammars were written in the 1800s and early 1900s. And so I want to write introductory grammar books for dead languages. And live ones, too, but there’s more available material for them, so it’s less pressing. (Seeing as there isn’t a whole lot of market for, say, Middle High German grammar texts, I’m not planning to get any money out of them. They’ll be freely available online, probably with print-on-demand hard copies through Lulu at cost.)

The other half of the coin is actual texts. I’ve done an edition of Beowulf, but that’s about it so far. Project Gutenberg has a nice list of foreign-language texts (like Don Quijote), but it’s not as long as I’d like. Getting texts that I’m sure are public domain will be the hard part. But not insurmountable. :) (Luckily my tastes run towards the older books, which are generally more likely to be public domain.)

Seven habits

Tagging has two meanings in the blogosphere: the tags that categorize a post (whether internal or for some site like Technorati), and tag-you’re-it questionnaire thingies. I have to admit that most of the time I try not to see who got tagged on posts like the latter, because I’m clearly not culpable if I didn’t see it (right?) — but alas, this time I looked. :P And, since it would be the one time I got tagged, here I am. (Granted, this does give me a ready-made post topic for the day. Can’t complain there.)

The tagline as received: “6 habits, things I like to do, or things about myself.”

The tagline as reinterpreted by Ben in order to change the course of history: “7 habits: two good, two bad, three you wish you had.” :)

The answers:

  1. Good: I don’t eat sweets very often. There were times when I did, but I just don’t like the way I feel afterwards, so I prefer fruit and nuts and that sort of thing.

  2. Good: I get up at 5:00 each morning. Granted, the last week or so I’ve been sleeping in because of this cold, but 5 a.m. is the habit, and I’ll be going back to it as soon as this cough vanishes.

  3. Bad: I bite my nails. I try not to, but duh, it’s a habit. :P

  4. Bad: In a similar vein, when I’m thinking hard, I often find myself pulling at my eyebrows without realizing it. But even so, the eyebrow-less patch on my right eyebrow is from a childhood accident, not from any frenetic mental activity. (Maybe my brain is trying to symmetrize the patch on the left. I knew there was a reason for this habit…)

  5. Wish: I used to study Latin for half an hour each morning. I wish I still did that. (Or studied any language that regularly.)

  6. Wish: I keep meaning to write for a certain amount of time each morning (half an hour to an hour), but thus far it’s sporadic at best. There was a short spurt where I managed to do it, but I didn’t hit the magic 21 days and so all my momentum evaporated.

  7. Wish: Compliment people more often. Especially girls. ;)

The tagged: aye, there’s the rub. Those who don’t want to be tagged will murmur ancient curses at me in Old Church Slavonic under their breath, and those who do want to be tagged but who I didn’t name will feel neglected and hurt. So, in a weak attempt to please everyone, here’s the deal: if you want to be tagged, you’re tagged, with my full authority and blessing — whatever that means. And if you don’t want to be tagged, why in the heck did you ever think I would tag you? You’re clear.

Are we good? :)

Deux cents francs

I picked up my French copy of Les Misérables on a whim just a few minutes ago, and as fate would have it, opened directly to my favorite passage. Now, I didn’t immediately recognize the passage, seeing as my French comprehension is still a bit on the slow side. :) Not to mention that I’ve barely cracked open this particular edition. So it was extremely unlikely that I’d open to this passage, let alone recognize it. Anyway, here it is:

Cependant monseigneur Bienvenu s’était approché aussi vivement que son grand âge le lui permettait. — Ah! vous voilà! s’écria-t-il en regardant Jean Valjean. Je suis aise de vous voir. Eh bien, mais! je vous avais donné les chandeliers aussi, qui sont en argent comme le reste et dont vous pourrez bien avoir deux cents francs. Pourquoi ne les avez-vous pas emportés avec vos couverts? Jean Valjean ouvrit les yeux et regarda le vénérable évêque avec une expression qu’aucune langue humaine ne pourrait rendre.

And here’s the English, courtesy of Project Gutenberg’s copy of Isabel Hapgood’s translation:

In the meantime, Monseigneur Bienvenu had advanced as quickly as his great age permitted. “Ah! here you are!” he exclaimed, looking at Jean Valjean. “I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?” Jean Valjean opened his eyes wide, and stared at the venerable Bishop with an expression which no human tongue can render any account of.

One of the most beautiful moments in literature, this brief episode has taught me volumes about charity and what it really means to be Christian. Yet another reason why I love books. :)

Veni, vidi, vicipaedia

Today is J.R.R. Tolkien’s birthday. He’d be 115 today, actually, which mainly makes me wonder why I wasn’t paying attention when his eleventy-first birthday happened back in 2005. ~sigh~

To verify the year, I went to Wikipedia’s Tolkien page. And then curiosity got the better of me and I thought I’d see what else happened on January 3 and who Tolkien shared a birthday with (Victor Borge, Mel Gibson, and Martin Galway were the only ones I recognized).

And then I saw something I’d never noticed before, but which made my heart do a little dance for joy: in the Languages sidebar on the left sat a quiet little link that read “Anglo Saxon.” No way, I thought.


Sure, there are only about a thousand content pages, and this is reconstructed Old English and not authentic, but wow, it’s still cool. Take the page for Nīwu Englisc sprǣc, for example. (That’s “English” for us moderners.) Lots of juicy Old English.

And of course I now started wondering what other languages Wikipedia has been translated into that don’t necessarily serve any purpose, whether because they’re dead or because they’re made up. There’s Latin (17,678 articles!), Sanskrit, Pali, Old Church Slavonic, Gothic, Klingon, and a heck of a lot of other ones. Oh, and Esperanto, but even though it’s a created language, I wouldn’t really say it fits into the same category as the rest of these. (See the List of Wikipedias page for the full list.)

So what? For me, being a full-fledged linguaphile, no explanation is necessary. Yes, many of these languages are dead. Yes, they are arcane. Yes, only weird people study them. :P

But Wikipedia’s sort of helping bring them back, even if it’s just one or two puffs of the breath of life. Each of these pages has the language being used, and that’s a beautiful thing. Whether Low Saxon or West Frisian or Irish or Scots Gaelic (you can see where my linguistic interests lie :), and no, not all of these languages are dead), it’s very, very cool to see freely accessible texts that you can look at. Ever wanted to learn Walloon? There’s almost ten thousand articles you can read.

I’m very much of the persuasion that diving in and reading texts in a foreign language is an excellent way to learn how to read that language (and to learn vocabulary), and here you have corpora (some rather substantial) for hundreds of languages. Including most of those Tolkien studied. (Yes, there was a connection after all. :))

The tower of Google

I know, I know, four posts in one day is a bit OCD, but this is too cool to let sit around. In Google Talk (and Gmail chat as well, of course), you can add translator bots as “friends,” and then you just open a chat window with them and type away, and they’ll translate what you type for you. For example, add and start chatting with the bot, and whatever you type will come back in Italian. Here’s French:

Google Talk

True, machine translation isn’t ideal, but this isn’t a bad step at all, and it’s right where you need it when you’re chatting with someone in another language. Brilliant. (And thanks to Rikker for the heads-up on this.)

Absences and fond hearts

Tomorrow my arm’s getting amputated.

You see, BYU library’s power outage starts first thing tomorrow morning, and it’s going to black out over half the library — everything from the main entrance south. I work in the north end, so that won’t be a problem, but what will be a problem is that the fifth floor is now off-limits. My beautiful, adored fifth floor, with literature and languages and art and everything good in life — separated for two whole weeks! Life isn’t fair. ;)

True, they’re moving circulation to one of the security desks, and they will be paging books, so I suppose I’m not completely cut off from my bread and water. But half the joy is browsing the shelves, because half the time I don’t specifically know what I’m looking for. It’s all about serendipity.

Today at work one of my colleagues had me navigate a French search engine, and I realized that it’s been too many months since I seriously studied any languages. I took the Aeneid last winter semester, but that ended in April. And it’s now December. Eight months is just a little bit too long.

And so on my way out of work, I found myself on the fifth floor, that blessed sanctuary of the soul, trying to get my last fix before this two-week fast. My original intent was to find some books on French and German vocab, since that’s where I could use the most work at the moment. I ended up with a German grammar, a book on reading German, a book of essays on Old English in memory of Bruce Mitchell (a prominent OE scholar), a survey of Old Irish literature, and a grammar of Irish. Mmm…

Now I just need to accidentally break my leg so I can stay home for a few weeks and just read all day… :P

(Having the library closed for two weeks really isn’t that bad, though, for several reasons. First, I have 50 books checked out. Second, Provo Library is a block away. Third, I have 900 books in my apartment, since I knew a day like this would come and I’d need at least a year’s worth of book storage.)

A Narnian birthday

Goodness, I completely forgot that today is C.S. Lewis’s birthday! (Thanks to Bruce Edwards for the reminder and also for the tribute he wrote.)

So, C.S. Lewis. He’s my favorite author, one who has influenced me in so many ways I can hardly keep track of them all. It was because of Surprised by Joy that I started studying Latin on my own each morning. It was largely because of reading Lewis that I wanted to become a writer. My childhood was Narnia, and both the feeling they evoked — the Sehnsucht Lewis talked about, the longing for (a heavenly) home, the knowledge that there’s more to life than meets the eye — and the Christian symbolism got etched deep into my heart. Later in life I branched out and began reading his apologetic works, his letters, his literary criticism. Sure, I didn’t agree with everything he said, but the resounding majority rang true to me — and still does. I keep coming back to his books over and over and over again. The way he writes often gives me goosebumps. I’ve recently noticed, too, just how much of him is in my writing, both fiction and non. He is my mentor, the way George MacDonald was to him. (But alas, the analogy falls apart there, since my feet are far, far too small to fit into either Lewis’s shoes or MacDonald’s. But I can’t wait to find Lewis’s “successor,” so I can read their books. :)) Oh, and Shadowlands is one of my favorite movies.

To celebrate, I think I’m going to dip into Lewis’s letters for a while after work today. Mmm. :)

The buddy system

Time for another random scattering.

First, I was walking through campus yesterday and overheard a guy on a cell phone saying, “I’ll give you her phone number. Do you have a pen and pencil?” (Inscribing notes on the wooden exteriors of pencils is actually a highly efficient storage system, I’ve heard. :P)

Second, whenever a guy calls another one “buddy,” regardless of intentions for camaraderie and bonding and what have you, it always seems to me that it’s an assertion of superiority. It’s what dads call their sons, and that senior/junior relationship gets brought to the forefront whenever someone says it. I said it to my roommate once and realized that I was using it to place him beneath me without even knowing it. So I don’t go by the “buddy” system anymore. ;)

Third, yesterday I overheard another fragment of a cell phone conversation, where the guy said, “Yeah, it’s forty grand dollars.” And I realized that “grand” doesn’t mean thousand, it means thousand dollars. Interesting.

Fourth, on a completely non-linguistically related note, I have an inexplicable fear of really tall guys deciding to use the stall next to me. It’s just creepy.

Possible insanity

So, a comp lit fit has struck me. With my new biblical Hebrew study in the mornings, the modern languages were feeling neglected, and that just couldn’t be. To remedy it, then, I’ve taken up a new schedule, this one fairly lightweight but hopefully the benefits will be more than chaff. My longterm goal (and this could be very longterm) is to read French, German, Italian, and Spanish fluently. (I’m interested in other modern languages, too, but I want to be really good at these, since they’re the major ones. And yes, Arabic too, but it’s later down the road. :))

Here’s how it’ll work: I spend ten minutes a night (just before I write in my journal and go to bed) reading from a book in the langue du jour, except instead of du jour it’s du week. :P This week it’s Italian, reading Dante’s Commedia, starting with the Inferno. Next week it’ll be French, reading Molière’s Le Misanthrope. After that, the Brothers Grimm in German. And for the last language of the cycle, Gabriel García Márquez’s Crónica de una muerte anunciada in Spanish. And then back to Italian, and so on and so forth.

At this point I should make it clear that I don’t actually know most of these languages. I’ve dabbled in all of them, and I know a smattering of each, but I’ve never formally studied them, and so I’m basically just winging it. Ordinarily this would be a dangerous thing. :) But you see, this won’t be the last time I read Dante in Italian, and so I’m seeing this mainly as an exercise to get some regular reading in and pull myself up by my (nonexistent) bootstraps. It’s okay if I don’t understand everything. I don’t expect to. But with a dictionary in hand and supplementary grammar study on the side, I can understand quite a bit, and just immersing myself in the literature will get me some bonus knowledge for free. And because I’m not going to be writing a dissertation based on my reading of these texts, or anything like unto it — no scholarly output, that is — it doesn’t matter if I read something wrong. I’ll read it again, and by then I’ll be really good at reading the language, and I’ll pick up all the nuances I missed the first time round.

Yes, this is kind of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants. And yes, in a way it’s terrifying. But at the same time, what do I have to lose? Sure, Dante’s hard. Sure, Grimm is grim. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Sure, I don’t know these languages, at least not well. But you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. This’ll be fun. I’ll learn a lot, get some good experience with original texts, and eventually be able to say that I learned Italian by reading Dante. :)

The phonological raincloud

I started reading an introduction to Hebrew a couple hours ago. (I’ve decided that my half-hour of language study each morning will be dedicated to Hebrew for the next couple of months. I’m itching to read the Old Testament in the original.) Now, the book looked nice at the outset, but somehow I overlooked one fault that bothers me about a lot of language texts.* It’s the phonological transcriptions.

You see, most language texts try to use descriptions that make sense to the layperson, and so they give you such piffle as “it’s a long e,” but you don’t know if they mean an [i:] or an [e:] or something else entirely. It’s a muddle. I do of course try to interpret their meaning into something understandable — something precise — but usually I just feel like I’ve wandered into a phonological raincloud. I want IPA. I want precision, with clear, linguistic descriptions that don’t overlap. Is that really too much to ask?

Now, I do realize that most language texts are not aimed at linguists, and that’s okay. But the least they could do — this should be mandatory across the board — is include IPA so there’s no kerfuffle about what on earth they mean. I’m sorely tempted to take up writing languages texts if only to fix this remedy. Or at least to issue addenda to existing texts to explain it clearly.

Speaking of phonology and phonetics and such, any language learner who’s serious about their stuff really should learn the basic phonological descriptions, because it makes a huge difference in coming to terms with the sounds of a new language. And if you don’t have the sounds down, it’s rather hard to make the language stick. To really succeed at it, you have to drink the language down whole, and that means sounds, vocab, grammar and syntax, culture, and all the other trappings that come with being human.

Anyway, I’m going to spend some time in the library tomorrow trying to find a decent Hebrew grammar. With IPA. :)

  • I promise I’m not nearly as ornery as this plethora of pet peeve posts makes me look. :)

Lingua franca

It’s way late and I really ought to be in bed, but I just got back from dinner at my family’s. But then again, I’ll be with them forever, so I guess staying quite that long on Sunday nights isn’t entirely necessary. :P Anyway, my first impulse was to write a post about how I feel crushed by the inexorable weight of all I need to do, with hardly any time to do it all in, but I’m not going to. (Especially because that sentence just said it all. ;))

Instead, I’ll talk about my trip yesterday to Pioneer Book. Got a set of the History of the Church for only $20, which wasn’t bad. Also got Parley P. Pratt’s autobiography. Started reading it today and really like it. Beyond that, I got an English translation of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, a copy of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, a Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native. Good stuff.

While there, I stumbled across a Biblia Hebraica, and I was so tempted to buy it, but it was a hefty $30 and that would have limited my other purchases, so I decided to forgo it for the moment and try to find a cheaper edition. Perusing through the foreign language works (mostly German, French, and Spanish), I was seriously hoping to find some of Goethe’s works in the original German, or maybe even the Brothers Grimm. No luck.

But you see, whenever I get these hankerings for reading old books in the original, I have the backup plan of just typesetting them myself. I’m sure I can find Goethe in German online, and I already know where Grimm is located. And there’s got to be online (and out-of-copyright) copies of Les Miserables in French, Don Quixote in Spanish, The Divine Comedy in Italian, and Crime and Punishment in Russian, for example. I can’t imagine there not being a copy. (The trick is finding one that was published before 1923 so I don’t have to worry about copyright issues. But even if there aren’t any online, it’s rather easy to find a pre-1923 copy in a library somewhere and then put in some work to digitize it.)

There’s just something about original texts that makes me giddy. I could’ve (should’ve?) majored in comparative literature. Still might do a master’s in it. (And one of these days I need to look up the usage guides for “master’s” because I never know whether to capitalize it and whether to leave the apostrophe in. And here I am, an English Language graduate. Fie on me.)

Anyway, I haven’t done much of my own typesetting lately (everything I’ve done has been for hire), with my last project being A Christmas Carol over Christmas break, I think. Too long. And so I plan to start typesetting something — anything! — in a foreign language (I’ll do the Welsh Book of Mormon once I finish cleaning up and versifying the text, but it’s taking a while). Maybe Crime & Punishment in Russian. That’d be cool. Eventually I want to publish scads and scads of texts, in Old English and Middle English and Latin and Greek and Coptic and Ethiopic and Old Norse and Spanish and French and German and Italian and Russian and Portuguese and Swahili and Arabic and Hebrew and Sanskrit and the list could go on and on and on forever and ever and ever. :P (Like, typesetting foreign texts is almost always more fun than going on dates on Friday nights. Single female readers of this blog, you may now proceed to lynch me. ;))

And before I wrap up, here are a few other projects I’m considering down the line: a bilingual Hebrew/English psalter, the Welsh Mabinogion, Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werther, and of course whatever else strikes my fancy along the way. If only I had more time! (Not to mention that I’d also like to typeset English works — mostly classics — and my own books once I write them.) This post is never going to end if I don’t stop now and hit publish, and it needs to end because last night I went to bed at midnight. Woke up and started getting ready for my shower, then looked at the clock. 12:41. Went back to bed, and the next thing I knew it was 6:37, which was bad because stake bishops’ meeting started at 7:00. Late nights are not my friends. Goodnight, world.

Yea, yea, nay, nay

In the quintessential example, the hammer slams against the wood and a flurry of typographical marks (#@!%^&@!) flies into the air as the nail breathes a sigh of relief when it realizes it’s safe for at least another few seconds, and the finger calls ER while shaking its head and vowing never again to sign up for a job like this. The pay just isn’t worth it.

It’s those typographical marks I want to talk about. In English, we have a whole cast of swear words, starting with the mild, innocuous, accountant-type fellows all the way up to the filthy, monstrous maggots of speech, dripping with vile poison and staining everything they touch.

I think everyone would agree that these latter blokes are the enemies of polite society and probably should be avoided. (Granted, there are those who disagree, but in general it’s not considered good manners to drop the f-bomb in public.) But what about the former? Like wolves in sheep’s clothing, we have a numerous host of cuss words in disguise.

For example, there’s darn and dang, cousin to the theological verb denoting separation from God; there’s heck, a slightly tamer place with fewer accordions and hooves, just outside Dante’s nine rings; there’s gosh, which is not a contraction of galosh, contrary to common belief :P, but is, like golly, a euphemism for “God”; there’s jeez, which is a contraction of “Jesus”; there’s zounds (admittedly falling out of use), which comes from “God’s wounds”; there’s crikey, which is a euphemism for “Christ”; there’s “Jiminy Cricket” for “Jesus Christ”; and there are plenty of others.

Now, all of these are theological in nature, and most expletives seem to fall into either this category or into that of bodily functions. We won’t go there, of course, but it’s an interesting delineation. Spirit and body.

But that’s a topic for another post. What I want to get at here is this: is it wrong to use words like gosh and darn? What about “goodness gracious” and “good heavens”? Do all of the milder religious expletives necessarily connote blasphemy?

Of the mild theological “swear words,” I think most of the ones I just listed have lost their bite, so to speak — in a way they’re almost completely different words, regardless of what they once were. I’ve never felt like I’ve lost the Spirit because I said dang or heck, at any rate. I do shy away from jeez, because for some reason it strikes closer to the bone for me, but that may just be my own taste. I mean, how many of us knew where jeez came from? If we didn’t know, then we’re almost certainly not using it blasphemously. (The problem is when you do know, then every time you hear or say it, your subconscious is thinking about where it came from. Sorry to ruin it for y’all. I recommend you use “hobblestock” instead. I doubt anyone’s using that yet. :P)

As for the bodily function expletives, I generally try to avoid them entirely — “crap,” “fart,” the works. (And I do apologize for writing them here, even though most of you won’t be offended in the least by them, but I know some are more sensitive to this sort of thing. My use of them here is purely scientific/linguistic. And you won’t see them on this blog again.) They seem, to my ear, crude and earthy. I see the logic defending their use — that bodily functions are natural and that we can’t mystify them lest we create some kind of fence around them that — but they’re not my cup of tea. Herbal tea, that is.

At the same time, even though I’m comfortable saying gosh and heck, I think it’s perfectly fine if someone were to choose to abstain from saying those words. And if I knew they didn’t use them, then I would do my best to refrain from saying them while in their company. Higher standards are rarely a bad thing.