John Maidment's Blog

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Tuesday 10 June, 2008

View of the city of Vitoria
from an eighteenth-century print,
by Bartolomé Benito de Casa.


Basque days of the week

I have made a number of visits to the Basque country, specifically to the city of Vitoria-Gasteiz and very beautiful it is. On one visit I came across a puzzling fact about Basque, which I haven't yet been able to unravel.  It involves the names of the days of the week, which have somewhat surprising literal meanings.   Here they are:

    Means literally
Monday Astelehen week first
Tuesday Astearte week mid
Wednesday Asteazken week end
Thursday Ostegun five day ?
Friday Ostiral ?
Saturday Larunbat four day one
Sunday Igande resurrection

If anyone can dispel my perplexity, I would be enormously grateful. I was reminded of this puzzle by coming across the Chambers Dictionary entry for the word jingo (as in By Jingo!), while looking up another word.  One putative derivation for jingo is the Basque word jainko meaning "god".  I can't think of any other English words derived from Basque.

Monday 9 June, 2008



Loe Bar and a welcome arrival

As the weather yesterday was the best of the year so far, with cloudless skies and a gentle breeze, your intrepid blogger perpetrated a trek from Helston to Loe (rhymes with shoe) Bar.  This is a walk of about 6 miles through woodland, much of it in the grounds of Penrose House, and along the shores of a freshwater lake called Loe Pool, or more sensibly, simply The Loe, as the word derives from the Cornish logh, which means "lake, pool, inlet", and is the Cornish version of the Irish or Scots Gaelic loch.

The Loe is the result of the formation of Loe Bar, which dammed up the outflow of the the River Colber, which runs through Helston.  No-one is quite sure when and how the sandbar was formed, but one theory is that the mouth of the river was silting up, when, sometime in the 13th century, the job was completed by a violent storm, or maybe a series of them. Since that time, each year there was a ceremony to mark the cutting of a channel through the bar, to prevent the lake rising too far and causing flooding in Helston town.  There is now a permanent drainage channel which does the job.  At the right time of the year and the right time of the day, The Loe is a favourite spot for birdwatchers.  Yesterday, however, there were only a few seabirds and some swans on the far shore of the lake.

You will notice from the picture below that, despite the beautiful weather, there is no-one in the sea.  The waters here are extremely dangerous and treacherous, and there are notices all over the place warning folk to keep out of the sea.  Yesterday, fortunately, people seemed to be heeding the warning, which is not always the case.


Foxgloves at The Loe


Loe Bar, looking south towards Halzephron


Loe Bar, fresh water on the left, salt on the right


Summer's here! The first courgette flower.

Wednesday 28 May, 2008




Going APE again

My post of 11 May on alveolar plosive elision (APE) prompted Adriana Díaz to write from Argentina.  Among other things, Adriana says:

In the case of 'handle', 'postal', and hurtle' I notice that, if the scwha is elided, the alveolar plosives are followed by the lateral in one case and a nasal in the other and these, in turn, acquire syllabic value. Maybe there's something there?

This is of course right.  One cannot go APE preceding a syllabic consonant.  At least, I know I can't.  But this makes it only the more mysterious that the [t] in whistle, castle, soften etc. has completely disappeared and that it has only happened to [t]and not to [d].

The syllabic nature of the following consonant is, however, not the whole story.  APE is not possible, I think, in handling etc, even when the following consonant is not syllabic.  So, is it the case that a following sonorant consonant, syllabic or not,  blocks APE?  The answer is: no.  Consider phrases like:

  • hand lotion

  • round London

  • last November

  • most likely

APE is possible in all these cases, and many, many thousands like them.  More needs to be said about APE, obviously.  But now it's time for a cup of tea.

Tuesday 27 May, 2008




Borrowings from Gaelic

I seem to be stuck in Gaelic mode at the moment.  I was musing on words that have been borrowed into English from Irish and Scots Gaelic.  Apart from the obvious words which refer to things Irish and Scottish, there are quite a few more general words that have their origin in Gaelic.  Examples are:

  • banshee from Irish bán sí meaning "female fairy"

  • galore from Irish go leor meaning "enough, plenty"

  • gob from Irish gob meaning "beak"

  • slogan from Scots Gaelic, apparently from sluaigh gairm meaning "army cry"

The last of these has always bothered me a bit.  If the original phrase meant "cry of the army" (i.e. war cry), then the Gaelic should have been gairm sluaigh, and it's hard to see how slogan could be got from that.  Another rather comical thing about this word is that a now-extinct version of it was slughorn(e).  This word was mistakenly taken as the name of an ancient musical instrument by the poet Chatterton, and, following him, by Robert Browning.

I have, on and off for quite a few years, wondered about the rather old-fashioned English slang word smashing (= wonderful, great,  It's not really easy to see how a word meaning to break into pieces came to be a word of approval, but that is what all the dictionaries I have looked at seem to suggest.  I wonder if it is too fanciful to think that it derives from the Irish is maith sin [ɪs ma ʃɪn] (literally: is good that). You never know.