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Month: March 2022

Of the saintly and sinister: words for the left-handed

Of the saintly and sinister: words for the left-handed

A couple of years ago, when I was still living in North Yorkshire but shortly to be moving further south, I attended a function at one of the final services conducted by my mother (an ordained priest in the Church of England) in a rural parish church. Afterwards, over a goodly spread of finger-food (what in clerical circles is commonly referred to as a bun-fight), I was in conversation with one of my mother’s then parishioners, a local farmer, who was much interested in my studies in linguistics. He tasked me with sourcing the etymology of an unusual local term – cuddy-wifter, which I was told refers to a left-handed person. I’ll propose an etymology of this specific term later, but first let’s have a short discussion of terms for “left hand” across languages.

A close-up of the left hand of a bronze statue. The hand is a polished golden colour, in contrast to the rest of the statue which is a dark brown colour.
Rarely has the left hand been portrayed in such good light

Firstly, it is important to note that many languages do not really make use of such ego-centric terms as “left” or “right” much, if at all. In these languages instead speakers opt for a geocentric system, locating and orienting objects and themselves by their relationship to either the points of the compass or in some cases the landscape. This has been most famously documented in a number of Paman languages of Queensland, Australia. For example, a speaker of Guugu Yimidhirr might refer to their nagaalngurr “east side” or guwaalngurr “west side” rather than to their left or right. Aspects of this conception of space are also found widely in languages across the Pacific and beyond.

And where languages do have a term for “left”, they very frequently differ on what the term should be. Even only looking at the Indo-European family we find a multiplicity of terms: besides English left we find forms as clì or ceàrr in Scottish Gaelic; izquierdo in Spanish; majtë in Albanian; levyj in Russian; chap in Persian: and bau in Sylheti. So many different words, and these languages are all related!

From whence then English left? We can find cognates in nearby parts of West Germanic, such as West Frisian lafter/lofter and Dutch lucht/luft, but none further afield meaning “left”. These forms derive ultimately from a term meaning “palsy, paralysis”, which might perhaps derive from a Proto-Indo-European verb *lewp- “peel, break” which would also through another derivation gives the English verb lop. A similar pattern appears to hold in closely related German links which, though it doesn’t appear directly related and is of somewhat unclear etymology, the Icelandic form linur meaning “weak, feeble” indicates likely a similar semantic development.

On the other end of the scale, terms for the left hand or left-handedness can often end up taking on other meanings. Notably, this has happened twice in English borrowing from two different Romance languages, Latin and French. In the case of the Latin term sinister, it now refers to someone or something that is seen as being shadowing and potentially malicious. In the case of the French term gauche (ultimately derived from the same root as English walk), it instead refers to a lack of fashionability and perhaps a degree of awkwardness.

We can therefore draw two main conclusions from the above. Firstly, the concepts “left” and “right” are not essential to how we as humans conceptualise ourselves and the wider world; many languages do without, and those which have words for them seem to be happy to churn out old forms for new ones (compare e.g. the near-universal agreement on a form deriving from something like *mātēr for “mother” in the various Indo-European languages mentioned above). Secondly, there is a clear tendency for the left hand to carry a negative connotation, either directly due to being the non-dominant hand for most people (as indicated by the various etymologies referring to physical weakness in Germanic) or through some more cultural taboos (as seen by the development of the Romance terms sinister and gauche in English).

What then of cuddy-wifter? Well, the exact origin is not given specifically in any source I could find, but with a bit of digging uncovers the following. The “wifter” part is easier to pin down, as at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary (the pre-eminent source on English etymology) “wift” comes up sometime in the 16th century as a verb meaning something like “to turn aside” or “to drift”, which, going by the pattern set by the above data, seems a reasonable source (at least in part) for a term for “left hand”.

The cuddy part is the more problematic element. Cuddy is an affectionate form of Cuthbert, the pre-eminent saint of the North-East of England, and crops up in a number of terms from the region, notably cuddy ducks to refer to the eider ducks said to have been particularly beloved by the saint, as well as the ponies used in the many coal mines of the area, which were referred to simply as cuddies. However, the connection with the saint seems suspect from the off, as there doesn’t appear to be any kind of source which would attest to the saint being left-handed. Certainly, the Venerable Bede, that great chronicler of Anglo-Saxon England, makes no mention of anything of the kind, in contrast to his willingness to comment on much else of the saint’s physical characteristics.

a single eider duck drake floating on the surface of the sea
Can you blame Cuthbert really?

There also exists a sense of “cuddy” meaning “a stupid fellow” which perhaps would tie into the negativity often associated with left-handedness. However, the OED only provides examples from the mid-nineteenth century and appears to derive from the “pony” usage (in a similar manner to the development of ass more broadly in English), which does somewhat problematise this as an etymology. In particular, the structure of cuddy-wifter this would require seems oddly-formed, akin to something like ass-drifter, and the timespan of a century for this form to arise and spread south of the Tees, well outside the coalfield regions where the pit-pony was a fact of life, is probably a bit of a stretch.

Perhaps then we should look elsewhere for a source. Old English appears to provide no obvious sources, so perhaps we should look to Celtic for an origin. And a tantalising hint we find: Welsh chwith “left” or “wrong” and Irish and Scottish Gaelic ciotach “left-handed” or “clumsy” (there’s that negativity again), pointing to a Proto-Celtic *skittos, which to my mind looks like it might have a relationship at some point with English skew, though that is far from proven at this stage. I would propose, then, that this word was borrowed into a northern variety of English (perhaps from Cumbric, the extinct Celtic language of Cumbria) as something like *cwithy~*cuthy, and then later on it was folded into the cuddy form, with no actual direct connection with the saint at all.

So, while admittedly I haven’t been able to come up with a definite answer to that question I was set at that bun-fight a couple of years ago, I can at least tell a story rich in history and culture, revealing much both of the linguistic landscape of Britain and of our historic attitudes towards those who are left-handed.

Word games

Word games

You have very certainly heard about Wordle, the viral word game by powerlanguage, recently bought by the NYT. In the original game, a 5-letter English word is secretly chosen every day, which players attempt to guess in 6 tries. Each guess is answered by colored cues: green for “correct letter in the correct place”, orange for “correct letter in the wrong place”, gray for “incorrect letter”. The concept of wordle is not new, and resembles games such as Jotto, Lingo, and mastermind.

 A sample game of Mastermind.
A sample game of Mastermind.

While some may have been annoyed by the endless stream of three-color square emojis reporting players’ success and inundating social media I have been delighted by the productivity displayed by the many variants: in hello wordl, play an endless number of games; in dordle, quordle, octodle guess several words at once; in squardle, play in two dimensions; in nerdle, guess a mathematical formula; in absurdle, the games does its best to get away from your guesses, etc.

Quordle lets you play 4 games at once
Quordle lets you play 4 games at once

Some derived games transform the game mechanics, but the simplest variation is to switch the vocabulary (have you tried queerdle or lordle of the rings?) or the language. Indeed, wikipedia already references more than 40 wordle language variants. If I believe my social feeds, many linguists have found that they were able to play in languages that they didn’t speak, provided that they had some intuitions of the phonotactics and orthographic sequences. I was however quite disappointed to see that many versions retained the English-centric 1-letter:1-unicode-character, and avoided diacritics altogether, leading to strange impoverished typography — this is the case for example of the French wordle, “le mot”.

 

The French wordle accepts "meler", but not "melez"
The French wordle accepts “meler”, but not “melez”

 

While playing variants, I realized that a wordle is only as good as its word list: some games rely on lexicons which contain only citation forms (infinitives for French verbs) and exclude the many others inflected forms, leading to a frustrating game experience. For example, in Le Mot, one can play mêler (or more exactly, meler) “to mix”, but not meles “(you) mix”. It happens that well curated words lists including inflected variant is a Surrey Morphology Group specialty: lexicons and dictionnaries are a common product of language documentation, and as its names indicates, researchers at the SMG have a particular focus on morphology. We have been maintaining open inflectional databases since the 90s. After discussion, we agreed collectively to start by producing two wordle-like games, corresponding to the two main lexicons in the SMG databases, respectively the Dictionary of Archi and the Nuer Lexicon.

Nuerdle interface
SMG wordle in Nuer: Nuerdle

The Nuer language, or Thok Nath, is a West Nilotic language spoken by approximately 900,000 to two million people in South Sudan and Ethiopia, as well as in diaspora communities throughout the world. The SMG has created an interactive online dictionary for it. From this lexicon, I have extracted 6218 words, mostly verbs and nouns, with a few other part of speech represented. All targets are taken from this set of words. However, using only the lexicon would risk rejecting a lot of words the speakers might know, even though they are not documented in the lexicon. Thus, I also extracted all of the words from the Nuer translation of the Bible1. This led to a total lexicon of 13476 words2.

Archidle interface
SMG wordle in Archi: Archidle

Archi is a Daghestanian language of the Lezgic group spoken by about 1200 people in Daghestan. At the SMG, we created a dictionary of Archi, with entries in Russian, English, and Nuer (both orthographic and phonetic forms), from which I extracted 3626 words for our wordle puzzle. For now, we do not have any more words for Archi, but we are working on it. In the game, we have ignored the stress diacritics, which might not be intuitive enough for speakers.

Two Nuer Keyboards. On the left, from a mobile app. On the right, our keyboard.
Nuer keyboards: from a mobile app (left), or from our wordle game (right).

In order to create the SMG wordles, I started from the open source code of the replayable version, hello wordle. In order to keep the game closer to its original, I removed the replayable function. However, I did keep the option to play a range of word length from 4 to 7 letters. Each day, you can thus play 4 games in each language.  A main challenge was that the Nuer orthography comprises diacritics, which required rewriting large parts of the game, as it previously assumed that each letter could be written with a single character. Another difficulty came from the fact that neither language has a unique, widely used, keyboard layout. For Nuer, we created one based on a mobile keyboard, which we extended to include more diacritics.

Two Cyrillic Keyboards. On the left, standard Russian layout. On the right, our keyboard for Archi.
Cyrillic keyboards: Russian keyboard from a mobile app (left), or Archi keyboard from our wordle game (right).

In both cases, we strove to make the game playable by learners, linguists, and curious people who do not speak Archi or Nuer. For this reason, we made the default word length 4 letters rather than 5, to make the game easier. Moreover, we added short English definitions for all words in our lexicons, with links to their full definitions in our resources. Words in Nuer from the bible are not always present in our Nuer lexicon, and hence, some words in Nuer can appear without translations. Finally, in order to help beginners get started, we provide a few example words of the correct length each day, hidden by default, which can be used to start playing.

Ri̱et: "word" in Nuer
A word played in Nuerdle, with translation in the margin

Besides learning the languages, scouring the dictionary, or using the words given as hints daily, how can you get better at the Nuer or Archi wordle ? It helps to pay attention to the frequency of each letters, and try to play words with frequent letters, in order to reduce the pool of potential words quickly. For the English wordle, some have calculated the optimal starting word. Rather than risk spoiling the game, I provide below the relative frequencies of each of the 5 most frequent letters, for each position (1 to 7) in Nuerdle and Archidle words. This should give an idea of frequent letters at each position. The colors are assigned according to overall frequency in the lexicon, with light greens more frequent than dark blues. Each bar represents the frequencies of the five most frequent letters in a word position (from 1 to 7), ignoring the other, less frequent letters. Each stacked colored bar’s height, between two white lines, represents the letter’s frequency: eg in Nuer, a word in our lexicon starts with k around 10% of the time, and with around 12% of the time. If there is some interest, a future blog post could explore further the frequent sequences and letter patterns in either languages.

Frequency of each character in Nuer words in our lexicon, per positon
Frequency of each character in Archi words in our lexicon, per positon

Finally, since this is a morphology blog, I would like to draw your attention to the interesting way in which English acquired a new -dle suffix. The original game is called wordle, a combination of the creator’s last name Wardle, and of word. As the game became viral, the apparent suffix has come to mean “game in the wordle family” (or maybe “online guessing game”). Interestingly, even though the most obvious decomposition of wordle seems to be word+le, the productive suffix is -dle, not -le. Could this be because the family resemblance in the new words is more obvious by keeping more common material ? Isn’t analogy mysterious? In any cases, after hesitating with ri̱etle (from ri̱et “word”+le, in Nuer) and č’atle (from č’at, “word” in Archi), we settled instead on calling our games Archidle and Nuerdle.

 

  1. excluding words starting with a capital, in order to avoid proper names. []
  2. If you want to suggest missing Nuer words, the Nuer lexicon has a module for suggestions ! []