Wednesday, 30 November 2011

a plumber with aplomb

We need a plumber. We need someone to find the leak in our water pipe that is costing us money. And wasting water. As we were discussing who would be appropriate for the job, it occurred to me to hope he would deal with the problem with aplomb.

I wondered, 'Why did that word pop into my head?'

And then I realised my subconscious was at work, thinking of the etymological roots of these two words.

But what does acting with aplomb have to do with plumbing? I thought they must have some connection to the old Latin word for lead, because a plumb line is a line with a lead weight on the bottom. Gravity pulls such a line straight and shows where the vertical is. Here's the origin of plumb.

Coincidentally, at dinner tonight we were discussing whether ancient Romans died young from lead poisoning because they used lead pipes to transport water, and one family member maintained that lead is not soluble in water. Here's some information about the role of lead poisoning in the fall of the Roman Empire.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says this about the word plumber:
c.1100, "a worker in any sort of lead," from O.Fr. plummier (Fr. plombier), from L. plumbarius "worker in lead," properly an adj., "pertaining to lead," from plumbum "lead" (see plumb). Meaning shifted 19c. to "workman who installs pipes and fittings" as lead water pipes became the principal concern of the trade. In U.S. Nixon administration (1969-74), the name of a special unit for investigation of "leaks" of government secrets. Plumbing "water pipes" is first recorded 1884.
And about aplomb:
"assurance, confidence," 1828, from Fr. aplomb (16c.), lit. "perpendicularity," from phrase à plomb "poised upright, balanced," lit. "on the plumb line," from L. plumbum "(the metal) lead" (see plumb), of which the weight at the end of the line was made.

Monday, 28 November 2011

As I was browsing Slavenka's blog I noticed a word usage that is new to me - murmuration, as a collective noun for a flock of starlings.

Nancy Friedman, on her blog, Fritinancy, quotes the OED on this usage: “one of many alleged group terms found in late Middle English glossarial sources, but not otherwise substantiated”.

Starlings are a pest species here in Melbourne, and to me the noise they make when settling for the night is more of a cacophany than a 'murmuration'. When they gather in nearby date palm trees around sunset, you can't hear yourself think. But maybe their flight involves a more pleasing and restful sound. After all, the Free Merriam Webster Dictionary defines murmuration this way:
: the act of murmuring : the utterance of low continuous sounds or complaining noises murmuration of the crowds — A.E.Richardson> murmuration of prayer — Frederic Prokosch>
The photos linked on Slavenka's blog of a gigantic flock over Gretna in Scotland (reported in The Mail), and the Fritinancy link to a Vimeo clip of a flock over Ireland, are simply amazing.

In case you don't want to follow those links, here is the Irish clip:

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Australia's indigenous languages

I've just come home from attending a talk by Dr Rachel Nordlinger about Australia's indigenous languages. She presented the Margaret Lyttle 4th Annual Oration at Preshil School in Kew.

Like most Australians, I am appallingly ignorant about the wealth of languages that existed here before the arrival of Europeans. And about the languages that still exist today.

If I remember correctly, Dr Nordlinger said there were about 700 to 800 languages here when Europeans arrived about two hundred and twenty years ago. As is the case in most places around the world, some languages could be grouped together and were so similar as to be classed as dialects, but even allowing for this, there were about 260 entirely separate languages.

When she said this, I recalled an old map, one I bought many years ago. It was published by the Aboriginal Advancement League, in 1971, and showed 500 'Key Aboriginal Tribes'. The indigenous children in my class spent many enjoyable hours transforming it from a black line-drawing into a colorful celebration of the diversity of indigenous cultures in Australia.

Dr Nordlinger explained that in the indigenous view of things, language is seen as a property of the landscape, so that people who lived in a particular place spoke the language of that area. This contrasts with the European vision of language as an aspect of a cultural group, whereby speakers can move to a new place and take their language with them. A person is defined by the language they speak as well as by the place they live. (I'd love to read more about this.)

Another thing I didn't know was that indigenous children would routinely grow up in a multilingual environment, due to the traditional practice of marrying outside the kin group. (I might not have understood this well, as I don't know much about traditional marriage rules.) For instance, a child might hear her uncle speaking one language and his wife speaking another, and her own mother might speak a third language. Grandfather might speak a fourth language. All these people would understand each others' languages as well.

Throughout human history it has been the norm for people to speak more than one language.

However, we are in an age where languages are disappearing at a disturbing rate, and it is estimated that by 2050 there might not be any indigenous languages spoken in Australia. This is a reflection of a world trend. (I've posted about this previously.)

All humanity suffers when a language dies, because each language represents a different way of seeing the world. On the other hand, I suppose there have been many language 'deaths' over the millennia, and I guess new ones do emerge.

But I can't help wondering why languages are disappearing at such a terrible rate at the moment, and whether this accelerating loss will become unstoppable. I hope not.

Here's an article from The Age about Dr Nordlinger's work.