February 02, 2008

Pot-pourri

That's French for olla podrida, and it means "hodge-podge", by extension from the original meaning of "dish made from different kinds of meat cooked together in a stew". The NYT happy-face etymology is a fast-speech form of "pot pour rire", i.e. "just-for-fun pot", though some empiricists with no sense of humor (or concern for readers' sensibilities) insist that the base meaning of pot pourri is really "rotten pot".

Anyhow, whether just-for-fun or somewhat-bacterially-decomposed, here goes.

Here's a geographical quiz question. This is a place where certain real-estate transactions are restricted to speakers of the local majority language, and where kindergarten teachers can be fired for speaking a minority language on school premises, even outside of class. Are we talking about ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, or suppression of the Kurds in Turkey, or local anti-immigrant statutes in the U.S.? No, this is the heart of multicultural Europe. OK, then, it's some local right-wing reaction to North African immigrants, right? No, the minority language in question is French, and the location is a suburb of Brussels, where Francophones have been around since their language was called Vulgar Latin. (Delphine Schrank, "Belgians Limp Along, Hobbled by Old Language Barriers", Washington Post, 1/30/2008).

Across the Atlantic, the authorities in Ridley Township are apparently still thinking about whether their obscenity statutes apply to profane roof-top taunts aimed at the FAA via passing airliners, but meanwhile, another transportation-related free speech issue is simmering in Virginia. Or maybe I should say, "free expression issue", since what state law HB1452 says is: "No person shall display upon or equip any motor vehicle with any object or device that depicts, represents or resembles human genitalia". As you might expect, the controversy has been an enormous boost to the TruckNutz industry. (Kerry Dougherty, "World-Famous Truck-Hitch Bill is Well-Meaning - But Still Nuts", Virginian-Pilot, 1/17/2008).

And in other East Coast news, I've been informed that the use of yo as a gender-neutral pronoun was prefigured in the devotional practices of Yoism, which bills itself as "The world's first open-source religion". This is discussed in Yo FAQ II -- but before you click on the link, I have to warn you that Yoism is apparently also "The world's first religion that auto-plays loud Steven Colbert clips on its web pages", so you might want to turn the sound off on your computer before you click here. Yoist usage rules for the pronoun "yo"are explained (a similar warning applies) here. An apostle of Yosism, writing under the name of Dan Kriegman, has conveyed to me the theory that a Yoist at JHU "spread the meme to some friends studying urban language in the Baltimore school system, and they in turn inadvertently contaminated their student population with it".

[Jason Eisner writes:

"No person shall display upon or equip any motor vehicle with any object or device that depicts, represents or resembles human genitalia." Human? I suppose TruckNutz (like handbrakes) may coincidentally "resemble" human genitalia. But surely they're intended to evoke *dog* genitalia, what with the truckz being on all fourz? And as for what they "depict" or "represent," isn't it mythical *truck* genitalia?

Well, the advertising features squirrels. But the law's use of the word "resembles" covers most (mammalian) bases, I think, though perhaps via unconstitutional vagueness, since it might be taken to prohibit, say, the Edsel's grille or the Jaguar's hood ornament.]

[Update 2/12/2008 -- a francophone reader from Canada writes:

n your February 2 LANGUAGE LOG posting you refer to a suburb of Brussels where "francophones have been around since their language was called Vulgar Latin": this is quite incorrect. While Brussels (and indeed Flanders and everything South and West of the Rhine) was Vulgar Latin-speaking at the time of the fall of the Roman Empire, the region was wholly germanicized in the wake of the Great Invasions: while French was widely known and used as an L2 by Flemish elites throughout the Middle Ages, the vernacular remained (dialectal) Dutch: this is true of the Brussels region as well: it is only during the latter part of the the nineteenth-century, in the wake of industrialization and French-only schooling, that French became the L1 of a majority of the city's inhabitants. There is thus no continuity whatsoever between the Vulgar Latin once spoken there and the French now spoken there: the latter is a transplanted idiom, indeed one which is much younger than such transplanted languages as American English or Canadian French.

I wonder. There's no question that Brussels is in the middle of a Flemish-speaking area, but the Wikipedia article claims that

Research in the city's archives shows that Dutch was by far the most widely used language in both the population and the local administration until the French occupation (17931815), even though French had been the language of the local governors since the Burgundian era.

Obviously this is a highly politicized history -- but it does seem that there have been some French speakers around the area for a long time.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 2, 2008 07:16 AM