Monday, 21 November 2016

Of crooks and crosiers

If you visited Iceland and asked someone what they called the smelling organ in the middle of their face, they'd tell you, nev. In Japan, it's hana. To Sar speakers in southern Chad it's kon, and among the Zuni tribe of the southwestern United States. it's noli. In fact, you could go to more than 1,400 places around the world, question speakers of more than 1,400 different languages, and hear 1,400 words that contain the sound "n." But all of them mean the same thing: nose.

So said the Washington Post last September.
Well   G O S H ... Given that N is the nasal consonant par excellence (if it's possible to achieve excellence in nasality. There are others, but N is the granddaddy of them all)...
<further_explanation type="egg-sucking for grannies">
Put the tip of your tongue behind your teeth and jam the body of the tongue against the roof of the mouth, then make a speech-sound. It'll come out of your nose and be something like [n]. That's what a nasal consonant is – not necessarily [n], that is, but a consonant formed by releasing air down the nose.
... it seems to me that the question should be Out of 7,000 languages in the world, why do only 20% of them include a nasal? Surely it's just contrary NOT to include one? (Natural languages aren't invented; they evolve. And whatever mixture of sounds and gestures is involved in referring unambiguously to a nose, a nasal consonant is the first thing one would expect.)

Morten Christiansen, author of the paper that occasioned that article was on Inside Science last week, and he gave another body-part example: in languages that have a word for breast, many have the sound [m] in its name. I found this as surprising as the nose example: that is, nugatorily. Take a tube (a length of plastic drainpipe would be ideal) and make the  noise you make when the doctor tells you to 'Say "Ah"' – a continuous noise – down it. Then shut-and-open the free end of the tube, imitating a brass player with a mute. That's the noise a baby makes: ma. It would be surprising if words for mammary in natural languages FAILED to include the sound [m].

But as the Professor says at the end of that interview, there's something going on but we don't know what (that's not verbatim, but it gives the gist: the interview occupies the last 5 minutes of the end of that programme). The examples I've given are cherry-picked for literary effect (alias "cheap laughs"). There's more to this than meets, and while some of it can be explained with reference to articulatory physics there is much that can't be. By chance, I have been thinking about the not unrelated phonesthesia (first discussed here), which is due for a revisit.

Tai Chi, as so often, started the hare. My teacher often refers to what I hear as "the croix" (which she often explains by referring to the inguinal crease*). I make my francophone assumption by analogy with other linguistic relics of France's imperial presence in the far east, such as the name for a Chinese (ritually important) pony-tail  – the queue. But maybe, I've since thought, it's a native Chinese word that happens to share the crucial sound..
This sparked off a not entirely irrelevant memory of a conversation I had about 5 years ago with a fellow chorister  – a German national, but with impeccable English; impeccable, but not up to the term "cruciate ligament". She pointed to her knee and used the word she knew – Kreuzband. Although my German was immeasurably inferior to her English, I could translate (or at least make pretty secure educated guess) on the basis of the /kr/ sound.
The title of this post cheats a bit. The words crook and crosier do share a reference to what Etymonline calls
perhaps related to a widespread group of Germanic kr- words meaning "bent, hooked". 
Presumably crochet, crouchback, and hundreds of other /kr/ words share this provenance; even, by a more indirect root, words like crotchet (that's an American quarter-note), half of which in French is une croche (the French care more about the image – a quaver looks much more hook-y than a crotchet). This recalls.... no, no time.

Anyway, cheating. The crosier is shaped like a crook not because of phonological relatedness but because it's symbolic of the role of the carrier as a pastor – it's interesting how much Christian imagery refers to sheep and shepherds: pastor (related to pasture), "Worthy is the lamb that was slain", "I am the Good Shepherd", "feed my lambs"... even the word congregation is derived ultimately from the Latin for flock: grex, -gis.
Anyway, that's enough for now. I have some serious word-bashing to do.


PS: A couple of clues:
  • Tangled thread leads to scarcity (6)
  • International security force tucked in to make a digression (11)

Update: 2016.11.23.22:00 – Added footnote and PPS.

* Investigation of inguinal crease will lead you into the sort of web-site that appeals to young men. who hanker after a six-pack, rather than to an old man with a Party Four.

PPS: And another clue – 
  • Show about the Spanish  – bit rude. (10)

Update 2017.01.20.11:15 – Added PPPS

PPPS: The answers: DEARTH. INTERPOLATE. and ... no, can't do it! [got it: INDELICATE].

Update 2017.01.22.13:45 – Corrected PPPS.

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