The Universe of Discourse

Mon, 06 Jul 2020

Useful and informative article about privately funded border wall

The Philadelphia Inquirer's daily email newsletter referred me to this excellent article, by Jeremy Schwartz and Perla Trevizo.

Wow!” I said. “This is way better than the Inquirer's usual reporting. I wonder what that means?” Turns out it meant that the Inquirer was not responsible for the article. But thanks for the pointer, Inquirer folks!

The article is full of legal, political, and engineering details about why it's harder to build a border wall than I would have expected. I learned a lot! I had known about the issue that most of the land is privately owned. But I hadn't considered that there are international water-use treaties that come into play if the wall is built too close to the Rio Grande, or that the wall would be on the river's floodplain. (Or that the Rio Grande even had a floodplain.)

He built a privately funded border wall. It's already at risk of falling down if not fixed, courtesy of The Texas Tribune and ProPublica.

[Other articles in category /tech] permanent link

Wed, 24 Jun 2020

Geeking out over arbitrary boundaries

Reddit today had this delightful map, drawn by Peter Klumpenhower, of “the largest city in each 10-by-10 degree area of latitude-longitude in the world”:

Equirectangular map of the
world, divided into squares, each 10 degrees in latitude and
longitude.  Most of the squares have a settlement marked, usually a
large city such as Moscow, London, or New York.  But many of the
settlements are much smaller, especially in Micronesia (Kiritimati,
Bora Bora, Fa'a'a) and the polar regions (Nizhneyansk, Utquiagvik,
(Click to enlarge.)

of Philadelphia and environs, with the 40th parallel marked in purple,
passing through its northern regions

Almost every square is a kind of puzzle! Perhaps it is surprising that Philadelphia is there? Clearly New York dominates its square, but Philadelphia is just barely across the border in the next square south: the 40th parallel runs right through North Philadelphia. (See map at right.) Philadelphia City Hall (the black dot on the map) is at 39.9524 north latitude.

This reminds me of the time I was visiting Tom Christiansen in Boulder, Colorado. We were driving on Baseline Road and he remarked that it was so named because it runs exactly along the 40th parallel. Then he said “that's rather farther south than where you live”. And I said no, the 40th parallel also runs through Philadelphia! Other noteworthy cities at this latitude include Madrid, Ankara, Yerevan, and Beijing.

Anyway speaking of Boulder, the appearance of Fort Collins was the first puzzle I noticed. If you look at the U.S. cities that appear on the map, you see most of the Usual Suspects: New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Dallas, Houston. And then you have Fort Collins.

a small region,
six squares wide by two high, including most of the continental US.
The cities in the north six squares are: Seattle, Boise, Fort Collins
(Colorado), Winnipeg (Canada), Chicago, New York.  In the south
squares the cities are San Jose, Los Angeles, Cuidad Juárez (Mexico),
Dallas, Jacksonville, Philadelphia.

“Fort Collins?” I said. “Why not Denver? Or even Boulder?”

Boulder, it turns out, is smaller than Fort Collins. (I did not know this.) And Denver, being on the other side of Baseline Road, doesn't compete with Fort Collins. Everything south of Baseline Road, including Denver, is shut out by Ciudad Juárez, México (population 1.5 million).

Eastern and central China, three boxes
wide and four tall.  The cites in order from right to left in rows
are: 1. Baotou, Hohhot, Shenyang; 2. Chengdu, Beijing,
Shanghai; 3. Chongqing, Shenzhen, Taipei; 4. Ho Chi Min City
(Vietnam), Wenchang, Quezon City (Philippines).

There is a Chinese version of this. The Chinese cities on the map include the big Chinese cities: Shanghai, Beijing, Chongqing, Shenzhen, Chengdu. Shenyang. A couple of cities in Inner Mongolia, analogous to the appearance of Boise on the U.S. map. And…

Wenchang. What the heck is Wenchang?

It's the county seat of Wenchang County, in Hainan, not even as important as Fort Collins. China has 352 cities with populations over 125,000. Wenchang isn't one of them. According to the list I found, Wenchang is the 379th-largest city in China. (Fort Collins, by the way, is 159th-largest in the United States. For the 379th, think of Sugar Land, Texas or Cicero, Illinois.)

Since we're in China, please notice how close Beijing is to the 40th parallel. Ten kilometers farther north and it would have displaced Boise — sorry, I meant Hohhot — and ceded its box to Tianjin (pop. 15.6 million). Similarly (but in reverse), had Philadelphia been a bit farther north, it would have disappeared into New York's box, and yielded its own box to Baltimore or Washington or some other hamlet.)

Opposite to the “what the heck is?" puzzles are there “what the heck happened to?” puzzles. Some are easier than others. It's obvious what happened to Seoul: it's in the same box as Shanghai. The largest missing U.S. city is Phoenix, which you can probably guess is in the same box as Los Angeles.

But what the heck happened to Nairobi? (Nairobi is the ninth-largest city in Africa. Dar Es Salaam is the sixth-largest and is in the same box.)

What the heck happened to St. Petersburg? (at 59.938N, 30.309E, it is just barely inside the same box as Moscow. The map is quite distorted in this region.)

What the heck happened to Tashkent? (It's right where it should be. I just missed it somehow.)

Map of the southern tip of South
America.  There is a west box, containing the very end of Tierra del
Fuego, and an east box.  The tiny Falkland Islands straddle the
boundary between the two boxes, with their capital city, Stanley, in
the eastern box. There are some boxes where there just isn't much space for cities. Some of these are obvious: most of Micronesia; notoriously isolated places like Easter Island, Tristan Da Cunha, and St. Helena; other islands like Ni‘ihau, Saipan, and Bermuda. But some are less obvious. We saw Wenchang already. Most of West Falkland Island is in the same box as Río Gallegos, Argentina (pop. 98,000). But the capital, Stanley, (pop. 2,460) is on the East Island, in the next box over.

Map of a tiny corner of the
African Guinea Coast, just below the Equator.  About 96% of the box is
ocean, but a little snippet of Gabon intrudes at the northeast corner,
and Port-Gentil happens to be in it. Okay, enough islands. Some of those little towns, alone in their boxes, are on the mainland and (unlike, say, Ittoqqortoormiit) in places where people actually live. But they just happened to get lucky and be the only town in their box. Gabon isn't a big part of Africa. Port-Gentil (pop. 136,462) isn't the largest city in Gabon. But it's on the mainland of Africa and it's the largest city in its box.
An even tinier corner of South
Africa, just south of Durban.  This time less than 1% of the box
contains land, with Port Shepstone marked. Durban is just barely in
the next box north. I think my favorite oddity so far is that Maputo (population 2.7 million) would have won in its box, if Durban (population 3.7 million) were 13 kilometers farther south. But Durban is at 29.9°S, and that means that the largest settlement in Africa east of 30°E that is also south of 30°S is Port Shepstone (pop. 35,633).

M. Klumpenhower, creator of the original map, has a vexillology- and geography-themed YouTube channel.

[ Addendum: Reddit discussion has pointed out that Clifden (pop. 1,597) , in western Ireland, is not the largest settlement in its box. There are two slivers of Ireland in that box, and Dingle, four hours away in County Kerry, has a population of 2,050. The Reddit discussion has a few other corrections. The most important is probably that Caracas should beat out Santo Domingo. M. Klumpenhower says that they will send me a revised version of the map. ]

[ Thanks to Hacker News user oefrha for pointing out that Hohhot and Baotou are in China, not Mongolia as I originally said. ]

[ Addendum 20200627: M. Klumpenhower has sent me a revised map, which now appears in place of the old one. It corrects the errors mentioned above. Here's a graphic that shows the differences. But Walt Mankowski pointed out another possible error: The box with Kochi (southern India) should probably be owned by Colombo. ]

[Other articles in category /geo] permanent link

Fri, 12 Jun 2020

Malicious trojan horse code hidden in large patches

This article isn't going to be fun to write but I'm going to push through it because I think it's genuinely important. How often have you heard me say that?

A couple of weeks ago the Insurrection Act of 1807 was in the news. I noticed that the Wikipedia article about it contained this very strange-seeming claim:

A secret amendment was made to the Insurrection Act by an unknown Congressional sponsor, allowing such intervention against the will of state governors.

“What the heck is a ‘secret amendment’?” I asked myself. “Secret from whom? Sounds like Wikipedia crackpottery.” But there was a citation, so I could look to see what it said.

The citation is Hoffmeister, Thaddeus (2010). "An Insurrection Act for the Twenty-First Century". Stetson Law Review. 39: 898.

Sometimes Wikipedia claims will be accompanied by an authoritative-seeming citation — often lacking a page number, as this one did at the time — that doesn't actually support the claim. So I checked. But Hoffmeister did indeed make that disturbing claim:

Once finalized, the Enforcement Act was quietly tucked into a large defense authorization bill: the John Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2007. Very few people, including many members of Congress who voted on the larger defense bill, actually knew they were also voting to modify the Insurrection Act. The secrecy surrounding the Enforcement Act was so pervasive that the actual sponsor of the new legislation remains unknown to this day.

I had sometimes wondered if large, complex acts such as HIPAA or the omnibus budget acts sometimes contained provisions that were smuggled into law without anyone noticing. I hoped that someone somewhere was paying attention, so that it couldn't happen.

But apparently the answer is that it does.

[Other articles in category /law] permanent link

Thu, 11 Jun 2020

Middle English fonts and orthography

In case you're interested, here's what the Caxton “eggys” anecdote looked like originally:

Screenshot of a portion of a page from Caxton's _Eneydos_,
  transcribed below.  The font is a dense “black letter” style, with
  thick vertical strokes and angular shapes.


In my dayes happened that
certain marchaȗtes were in a ship in tamyse for to haue
sayled ouer the see into zelande / and for lacke of wynde thei
taryed atte forlond. and wente to lande for to refreshe them
And one of theym named Sheffelde a mercer cam in to an
hows and axed for mete. and specyally he axyd after eggys
And the goode wyf answerde.that she coude speke no fren-
she. And the marchaȗt was angry. For he also coude speke
no frenshe. But wolde haue hadde egges / and she understode
hym not/ And thenne at laste a nother sayd he wolde
haue eyren/ then the good wyf sayd that she understod hym

It takes a while to get used to the dense black-letter font, and I think it will help to know the following:

  • Except at the end of a word, the letter ‘s’ is always written as the “long s” , ‘ſ’, which is easy to confuse with ‘f’ .

    Compare the ‘f’ and ‘s’ in “frenshe” (line 9) or “wyf sayd” (line 11).

  • Some of the ‘r’s are the “rounded r”, ‘ꝛ’, . which looks like a ‘2’. But it is not a ‘2’, it is an ‘r’.

    Examples include “for” (line 2) and “after” (line 6).

  • In “marchaȗtes” (line 2), the mark above the ‘ȗ’ is an abbreviation for letter ‘n’ (it's actually a tiny ‘n’), so this word is actually “marchauntes”. Similarly “marchaȗt” in line 8 is an abbreviation for “marchaunt”. I have written about this kind of abbreviation before: Abbreviations in medieval manuscripts.

[Other articles in category /IT/typo] permanent link

Wed, 10 Jun 2020

The two-bit huckster in medieval Italy

The eighth story on the seventh day of the Decameron concerns a Monna Sismonda, a young gentlewoman who is married to a merchant. She contrives to cheat on him, and then when her husband Arriguccio catches her, she manages to deflect the blame through a cunning series of lies. Arriguccio summons Sismonda's mother and brothers to witness her misbehavior, but when Sismonda seems to refute his claims, they heap abuse on him. Sismonda's mother rants about merchants with noble pretensions who marry above their station. My English translation (by G.H. McWilliam, 1972) included this striking phrase:

‘Have you heard how your poor sister is treated by this precious brother-in-law of yours? He’s a tuppenny-ha’penny pedlar, that's what he is!’

“Tuppeny-ha’penny” seemed rather odd in the context of medieval Florentines. It put me in mind of Douglas Hofstadter's complaint about an English translation of Crime and Punishment that rendered “S[toliarny] Pereulok” as “Carpenter’s Lane”:

So now we might imagine ourselves in London, … and in the midst of a situation invented by Dickens… . Is that what we want?

Intrigued by McWilliam's choice, I went to look at the other translation I had handy, John Payne's of 1886, as adapted by Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin in 2004:

‘Have you heard how your fine brother-in-law here, this two-bit huckster, is treating your sister?’

This seemed even more jarring, because Payne was English and Ó Cuilleanáin is Irish, but “two-bit” is 100% American. I wondered what the original had said.

Brown University has the Italian text online, so I didn't even have to go into the house to find out the answer:

‘Avete voi udito come il buono vostro cognato tratta la sirocchia vostra, mercatantuolo di quattro denari che egli è?’

In the coinage of the time, the denier or denarius was the penny, equal in value (at least notionally) to !!\frac1{240}!! of a pound (lira) of silver. It is the reason that pre-decimal British currency wrote fourpence as “4d.”. I think ‘-uolo’ is a diminutive suffix, so that Sismonda's mother is calling Arriguccio a fourpenny merchantling.

McWilliam’s and Ó Cuilleanáin’s translations are looking pretty good! I judged them too hastily.

While writing this up I was bothered by something else. I decided it was impossible that John Payne, in England in 1886, had ever written the words “two-bit huckster”. So I hunted up the original Payne translation from which Ó Cuilleanáin had adapted his version. I was only half right:

‘Have you heard how your fine brother-in-law here entreateth your sister? Four-farthing huckster that he is!’

“Four-farthing” is a quite literal translation of the original Italian, a farthing being an old-style English coin worth one-fourth of a penny. I was surprised to see “huckster”, which I would have guessed was 19th-century American slang. But my guess was completely wrong: “Huckster” is Middle English, going back at least to the 14th century.

In the Payne edition, there's a footnote attached to “four-farthing” that explains:

Or, in modern parlance, ‘twopenny-halfpenny.’

which is what McWilliam had. I don't know if the footnote is Payne's or belongs to the 1925 editor.

The Internet Archive's copy of the Payne translation was published in 1925, with naughty illustrations by Clara Tice. Wikipedia says “According to herself and the New York Times, in 1908 Tice was the first woman in Greenwich Village to bob her hair.”

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Mon, 08 Jun 2020

More about Middle English and related issues

Quite a few people wrote me delightful letters about my recent article about how to read Middle English.


  • Paul Bolle pointed out that in my map, I had put the “Zeeland” label in Belgium. Here's the corrected map:

    A map of
a small portion of Europe, with London at the west, a squiggly
purple line proceeding eastward along the River Thames to the sea,
stopping off in “Forland” on the eastern coast of Britain near
Margate, and preparing to make a short run straight east across the
North Sea to Middelburg in the Netherlands.

    I was so glad I had done the map in SVG! Moving the label was trivial.

  • I had said:

    The printing press was introduced in the late 15th century, and at that point, because most books were published in or around London, the Midlands dialect used there became the standard, and the other dialects started to disappear.

    But Derek Cotter pointed out the obvious fact that London is not in the Midlands; it is in the south. Whoooops. M. Cotter elaborates:

    You rightly say modern English comes largely from the Midlands dialect, but London isn't in the Midlands, as your map shows; it's in the South. And the South dialects were among the losers in the standardisation of English, as your Caxton story shows: we now say Northern "eggs", not Southern "eyren". William Tyndale from Gloucestershire, Shakespeare from Warwickshire, and Dr Johnson from Staffordshire were influential in the development of modern English, along with hundreds of aristocrats, thousands of prosperous middle class, and millions of migrating workers.

  • I had been puzzled about schuleth, saying:

    “Schuleth” goes with ‘ye’ so it ought to be ‘schulest’. I don't know what's up with that.

    Derek Cotter explained my mistake: the -st suffix is only for singular thou, but ye here is plural. For comparison, consider the analogous -t in “Thou shalt not kill”. I knew this, and felt a little silly that I did not remember it.

Regarding Old English / Anglo-Saxon

Regarding Dutch

  • brian d foy pointed me to this video of a person trying to buy a cow from a Frisian farmer, by speaking in Old English. Friesland is up the coast from Zeeland, and approximately the original home of the Anglo-Saxon language. The attempt was successful! And the person is Eddie Izzard, who pops up in the oddest places.

  • I had mentioned a couple of common Middle English words that are no longer in use, and M. Bolle informed me that several are current in Modern Dutch:

    • Middle English eke (“almost”) is spelled ook and pronounced /oke/ in Dutch.

    • Wyf (“woman”) persists in Dutch as wijf, pronounced like Modern English “wife”. In Dutch this term is insulting, approximately “bitch”. (German cognates are weib (“woman”) and weibliche (“female”).)

    • Eyren (“eggs”). In Dutch this is eieren. (In German, one egg is ei and several is eier.) We aren't sure what the -en suffix is doing there but I speculated that it's the same plural suffix you still see only in “oxen”. (And, as Tony Finch pointed out to me, in “brethren” and “children”.) M. Bolle informs me that it is still common in Dutch.

Regarding German

  • My original article was about schuleþ, an old form of “shall, should”. Aristotle Pagaltzis informed me that in Modern German the word is spelled schulden, but the /d/ is very reduced, “merely hinted at in the transition between syllables”.

    One trick I didn't mention in the article was that if a Middle English word doesn't seem to make sense as English, try reading it as German instead and see if that works better. I didn't bring it up because it didn't seem as helpful as the other tricks, partly because it doesn't come up that often, and mainly because you actually have to know something. I didn't want to be saying “look how easy it is to read Middle English, you just have to know German”.

  • Tobias Boege and I had a long discussion about the intermutations of ‘ȝ’, ‘y’, ‘g’, and ‘gh’ in English and German. M. Boege tells me:

    I would just like to mention, although I suppose unrelated to the development in England, that in the Berlin/Brandenburg region close to where I live, the dialect often turns "g" into "y" sounds, for example "gestern" into "yestern".

    This somewhat spreads into Saxony-Anhalt, too. While first letter "g"s turn into "y"/"j", internal ones tend to become a soft "ch". The local pronunciation of my hometown Magdeburg is close to "Mach-tte-burch".

    and also brought to my attention this amusing remark about the pronounciation of ‘G’ in Magdeburg:

    Man sagt, die Magdeburger sprechen das G auf fünf verschiedene Arten, aber G ist nicht dabei!

    (“It is said, that the Magdeburgers pronounce the ‘G’ in five different ways, but none of them is /g/!”)

    The Wikipedia article provides more details, so check it out if you read German.

    It occurs to me now that the ‘G’ in Dutch is pronounced in many cases not at all as /g/, but as /ɣ/. We don't really have this sound in English, but if we did we might write it as ‘gh’, so it is yet another example of this intermutation. Dutch words with this ‘g’ include gouda and the first ‘G’ in Van Gogh.

  • Aristotle Pagaltzis pointed out that the singular / plural thou / ye distinction persists in Modern German. The German second person singular du is cognate with the Middle English singular thou, but the German plural is ihr.

Final note

The previous article about weirdos during the Depression hit #1 on Hacker News and was viewed 60,000 times. But I consider the Middle English article much more successful, because I very much prefer receiving interesting and thoughtful messages from six Gentle Readers to any amount of attention from Hacker News. Thanks to everyone who wrote, and also to everyone who read without writing.

[Other articles in category /lang] permanent link

Fri, 05 Jun 2020

You can learn to read Middle English

In a recent article I quoted this bit of Middle English:

Ȝelde ȝe to alle men ȝoure dettes: to hym þat ȝe schuleþ trybut, trybut.

and I said:

As often with Middle English, this is easier than it looks at first. In fact this one is so much easier than it looks that it might become my go-to example. The only strange word is schuleþ itself…

Yup! If you can read English, you can learn to read Middle English. It looks like a foreign language, but it's not. Not entirely foreign, anyway. There are tricks you can pick up. The tricks get you maybe 90 or 95% of the way there, at least for later texts, say after 1350 or so.

Disclaimer: I have never studied Middle English. This is just stuff I've picked up on my own. Any factual claims in this article might be 100% wrong. Nevertheless I have pretty good success reading Middle English, and this is how I do it.

Some quick historical notes

It helps to understand why Middle English is the way it is.

English started out as German. Old English, also called Anglo-Saxon, really is a foreign language, and requires serious study. I don't think an anglophone can learn to read it with mere tricks.

Over the centuries Old English diverged from German. In 1066 the Normans invaded England and the English language got a thick layer of French applied on top. Middle English is that mashup of English and French. It's still German underneath, but a lot of the spelling and vocabulary is Frenchified. This is good, because a lot of that Frenchification is still in Modern English, so it will be familiar.

For a long time each little bit of England had its own little dialect. The printing press was introduced in the late 15th century, and at that point, because most books were published in or around London, the Midlands dialect used there became the standard, and the other dialects started to disappear.

[ Addendum 20200606: The part about Midlands dialect is right. The part about London is wrong. London is not in the Midlands. ]

With the introduction of printing, the spelling, which had been fluid and do-as-you-please, became frozen. Unfortunately, during the 15th century, the Midlands dialect had been undergoing a change in pronunciation now called the Great Vowel Shift and many words froze with spelling and pronunciations that didn't match. This is why English vowel spellings are such a mess. For example, why are “meat” and “meet” spelled differently but pronounced the same? Why are “read” (present tense) and “read” (past tense) pronounced differently but spelled the same? In Old English, it made more sense. Modern English is a snapshot of the moment in the middle of a move when half your stuff is sitting in boxes on the sidewalk.

By the end of the 17th century things had settled down to the spelling mess that is Modern English.

The letters are a little funny

Depending on when it was written and by whom, you might see some of these obsolete letters:

  • Ȝ — This letter is called yogh. It's usually a ‘y’ sound, but if the word it's in doesn't make sense with a ‘y’ try pretending that it's a ‘g’ or ‘gh’ instead and see if the meaning becomes clearer. (It was originally more like a “gh-” sound. German words like gestern and garden change to yesterday and yard when they turn into English. This is also why we have words like ‘night’ that are still spelled with a ‘gh’ but is now pronounced with a ‘y’.)

  • þ — This is a thorn. It represents the sound we now write as th.

  • ð — This is an edh. This is usually also a th, but it might be a d. Originally þ and ð represented different sounds (“thin” and “this” respectively) but in Middle English they're kinda interchangeable. The uppercase version looks like Đ.

Some familiar letters behave a little differently:

  • u, v — Letters ‘u’ and ‘v’ are sometimes interchangeable. If there's a ‘u’ in a funny place, try reading it as a ‘v’ instead and see if it makes more sense. For example, what's the exotic-looking "haue”? When you know the trick, you see it's just the totally ordinary word “have”, wearing a funny hat.

  • w — When w is used as a vowel, Middle English just uses a ‘u’. For example, the word for “law” is often spelled “laue”.

  • y — Where Middle English uses ‘y’, we often use ‘i’. Also sometimes vice-versa.

The quotation I discussed in the earlier article looks like this:

Ȝelde ȝe to alle men ȝoure dettes: to hym þat ȝe schuleþ trybut, trybut.

Daunting, right? But it's not as bad as it looks. Let's get rid of the yoghs and thorns:

Yelde ye to alle men youre dettes: to hym that ye schuleth trybut, trybut.

The spelling is a little funny

Here's the big secret of reading Middle English: it sounds better than it looks. If you're not sure what a word is, try reading it aloud. For example, what's “alle men”? Oh, it's just “all men”, that was easy. What's “youre dettes”? It turns out it's “your debts”. That's not much of a disguise! It would be a stretch to call this “translation”.

Yelde ye to all men your debts: to him that ye schuleth trybut, trybut.

“Yelde” and “trybut” are a little trickier. As languages change, vowels nearly always change faster than consonants. Vowels in Middle English can be rather different from their modern counterparts; consonants less so. So if you can't figure out a word, try mashing on the vowels a little. For example, “much” is usually spelled “moche”.

With a little squinting you might be able to turn “trybut” into “tribute”, which is what it is. The first “tribute” is a noun, the second a verb. The construction is analogous to “if you have a drink, drink!”

I had to look up “yelde”, but after I had I felt a little silly, because it's “yield”.

Yield ye to all men your debts: to him that ye schuleth tribute, tribute.

We'll deal with “schuleth” a little later.

The word order is pretty much the same

That's because the basic grammar of English is still mostly the same as German. One thing English now does differently from German is that we no longer put the main verb at the end of the sentence. If a Middle English sentence has a verb hanging at the end, it's probably the main verb. Just interpret it as if you had heard it from Yoda.

The words are a little bit old-fashioned

… but many of them are old-fashioned in a way you might be familiar with. For example, you probably know what “ye” means: it's “you”, like in “hear ye, hear ye!” or “o ye of little faith!”.

Verbs in second person singular end in ‘-st’; in third person singular, ‘-th’. So for example:

  • I read
  • Thou readst
  • He readeth
  • I drink
  • Thou drinkst
  • She drinketh

In particular, the forms of “do” are: I do, thou dost, he doth.

Some words that were common in Middle English are just gone. You'll probably need to consult a dictionary at some point. The Oxford English Dictionary is great if you have a subscription. The University of Michigan has a dictionary of Middle English that you can use for free.

Here are a couple of common words that come to mind:

  • eke — “also”
  • wyf — “woman”

Verbs change form to indicate tense

In German (and the proto-language from which German descended), verb tense is indicated by a change in the vowel. Sometimes this persists in modern English. For example, it's why we have “drink, drank, drunk” and “sleep, slept”. In Modern German this is more common than in Modern English, and in Middle English it's also more common than it is now.

Past tense usually gets an ‘-ed’ on the end, like in Modern English.

The last mystery word here is “schuleth”:

Yield ye to all men your debts: to him that ye schuleth tribute, tribute.

This is the hard word here.

The first thing to know is that “sch-” is always pronounced “sh-” as it still is in German, never with a hard sound like “school” or “schedule”.

What's “schuleth” then? Maybe something do to with schools? It turns out not. This is a form of “shall, should” but in this context it has its old meaning, now lost, of “owe”. If I hadn't run across this while researching the history of the word “should”, I wouldn't have known what it was, and would have had to look it up.

But notice that it does follow a typical Middle English pattern: the consonants ‘sh-’ and ‘-l-’ stayed the same, while the vowels changed. In the modern word “should” we have a version of “schulen” with the past tense indicated by ‘-d’ just like usual.

“Schuleth” goes with ‘ye’ so it ought to be ‘schulest’. I don't know what's up with that.

[ Addendum 20200608: “ye” is plural, and ‘-st’ only goes on singular verbs. ]

Prose example

Let's try Wycliffe's Bible, which was written around 1380ish. This is Matthew 6:1:

Takith hede, that ye do not youre riytwisnesse bifor men, to be seyn of hem, ellis ye schulen haue no meede at youre fadir that is in heuenes.

Most of this reads right off:

Take heed, that you do not your riytwisnesse before men, to be seen of them, else you shall have no meede at your father that is in heaven.

“Take heed” is a bit archaic but still good English; it means “Be careful”.

Reading “riytwisnesse” aloud we can guess that it is actually “righteousness”. (Remember that that ‘y’ started out as a ‘gh’.)

“Schulen“ we've already seen; here it just means “shall”.

I had to look up “meede”, which seems to have disappeared since 1380. It meant “reward”, and that's exactly how the NIV translates it:

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

That was fun, let's do another:

Therfore whanne thou doist almes, nyle thou trumpe tofore thee, as ypocritis doon in synagogis and stretis, that thei be worschipid of men; sotheli Y seie to you, they han resseyued her meede.

The same tricks work for most of this. “Whanne” is “when”. We still have the word “almes”, now spelled “alms”: it's the handout you give to beggars. The “sch” in “worschipid” is pronounced like ‘sh’ so it's “worshipped”.

“Resseyued” looks hard, but if you remember to try reading the ‘u’ as a ‘v’ and the ‘y’ as an ‘i’, you get “resseived” which is just one letter off of “received”. “Meede” we just learned. So this is:

Therefore when you do alms, nyle thou trumpe before you, as hypocrites do in synagogues and streets, that they be worshipped by men; sotheli I say to you, they have received their reward.

Now we have the general meaning and some of the other words become clearer. What's “trumpe”? It's “trumpeting”. When you give to the needy, don't you trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do. So even though I don't know what “nyle” is exactly, the context makes it clear that it's something like “do not”. Negative words often began with ‘n’ just as they do now (no, nor, not, never, neither, nothing, etc.). Looking it up, I find that it's more usually spelled “nill”. This word is no longer used; it means the opposite of “will”. (It still appears in the phrase “willy-nilly”, which means “whether you want to or not”.)

“Sothely” means “truly”. “Soth” or “sooth” is an archaic word for truth, like in “soothsayer”, a truth-speaker.

Here's the NIV translation:

So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.

Poetic example

Let's try something a little harder, a random sentence from The Canterbury Tales, written around 1390. Wish me luck!

We olde men, I drede, so fare we:
Til we be roten, kan we nat be rype;
We hoppen alwey whil that the world wol pype.

The main difficulty is that it's poetic language, which might be a bit obscure even in Modern English. But first let's fix the spelling of the obvious parts:

We old men, I dread, so fare we:
Til we be rotten, can we not be ripe?
We hoppen alwey whil that the world will pipe.

The University of Michigan dictionary can be a bit tricky to use. For example, if you look up “meede” it won't find it; it's listed under “mede”. If you don't find the word you want as a headword, try doing full-text search.

Anyway, hoppen is in there. It can mean “hopping”, but in this poetic context it means dancing.

We old men, I dread, so fare we:
Til we be rotten, can we not be ripe?
We dance always while the world will pipe.

“Pipe” is a verb here, it means (even now) to play the pipes.

You try!

William Caxton is thought to have been the first person to print and sell books in England. This anecdote of his is one of my favorites. He wrote it the late 1490s, at the very tail end of Middle English:

In my dayes happened that certayn marchauntes were in a shippe in Tamyse, for to haue sayled ouer the see into zelande, and for lacke of wynde thei taryed atte Forlond, and wente to lande for to refreshe them; And one of theym named Sheffelde, a mercer, cam in-to an hows and axed for mete; and specyally he axyed after eggys; and the goode wyf answerde, that she coude speke no frenshe, And the marchaunt was angry, for he also coude speke no frenshe, but wolde haue hadde ‘egges’ and she understode hym not. And theene at laste another sayd that he wolde haue ‘eyren’ then the good wyf sayd that she vnderstod hym wel.

A “mercer” is a merchant, and “taryed“ is now spelled “tarried”, which is now uncommon and means to stay somewhere temporarily.

I think the only other part of this that doesn't succumb to the tricks in this article is the place names:

A map of
the route described in the paragraph, with London at the west, a
squiggly purple line proceeding eastward along the River Thames to the
sea, then stopping off in “Forland” on the eastern coast of Britain
near Margate, and preparing to make a short run straight east across
the North Sea to Middelburg in the Netherlands.

Caxton is bemoaning the difficulties of translating into “English” in 1490, at a time when English was still a collection of local dialects. He ends the anecdote by asking:

Loo, what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte, ‘egges’ or ‘eyren’?

Thanks to Caxton and those that followed him, we can answer: definitely “egges”.

[ Addenda 20200608: More about Middle English. ]

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Wed, 03 Jun 2020

Weirdos during the Depression

Lately I've been rereading To Kill a Mockingbird. There's an episode in which the kids meet Mr. Dolphus Raymond, who is drunk all the time, and who lives with his black spouse and their mixed-race kids. The ⸢respectable⸣ white folks won't associate with him. Scout and Jem see him ride into town so drunk he can barely sit on his horse. He is noted for always carrying around a paper bag with a coke bottle filled with moonshine.

At one point Mr. Dolphus Raymond offers Dill a drink out of his coke bottle, and Dill is surprised to discover that it actually contains Coke.

Mr. Raymond explains he is not actually a drunk, he only pretends to be one so that the ⸢respectable⸣ people will write him off, stay off his back about his black spouse and kids, and leave him alone. If they think it's because he's an alcoholic they can fit it into their worldview and let it go, which they wouldn't do if they suspected the truth, which is that it's his choice.

There's a whole chapter in Cannery Row on the same theme! Doc has a beard, and people are always asking him why he has a beard. Doc learned a long time ago that it makes people angry and suspicious if he tells the truth, which is he has a beard because he likes having a beard. So he's in the habit of explaining that the beard covers up an ugly scar. Then people are okay with it and even sympathetic. (There is no scar.)

Doc has a whim to try drinking a beer milkshake, and when he orders one the waitress is suspicious and wary until he explains to her that he has a stomach ulcer, and his doctor has ordered him to drink beer milkshakes daily. Then she is sympathetic. She says it's a shame about the ulcer, and gets him the milkshake, instead of kicking him out for being a weirdo.

Both books are set at the same time. Cannery Row was published in 1945 but is set during the Depression; To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, and its main events take place in 1935.

I think it must be a lot easier to be a weird misfit now than it was in 1935.

[ Sort of related. ]

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Sun, 31 May 2020

Reordering git commits (not patches) with interactive rebase

This is the third article in a series. ([1] [2]) You may want to reread the earlier ones, which were in 2015. I'll try to summarize.

The original issue considered the implementation of some program feature X. In commit A, the feature had not yet been implemented. In the next commit C it had been implemented, and was enabled. Then there was a third commit, B, that left feature X implemented but disabled it:

  no X     X on     X off

    A ------ C ------ B

but what I wanted was to have the commits in this order:

  no X     X off     X on

    A ------ B ------ C

so that when X first appeared in the history, it was disabled, and then a following commit enabled it.

The first article in the series began:

I know, you want to say “Why didn't you just use git-rebase?” Because git-rebase wouldn't work here, that's why.

Using interactive rebase here “to reorder B and C” will not work because git-rebase reorders patches, not commits. It will attempt to apply the BC diff as a patch to A, and will fail, because the patch is attempting to disable a feature that isn't implemented in commit A.

My original articles described a way around this, using the plumbing command git-commit-tree to construct the desired commits with the desired parents. I also proposed that one could write a git-reorder-commits command to automate the process, but my proposal gave it a clumsy and bizarre argument convention.

Recently, Curtis Dunham wrote to me with a much better idea that uses the interactive rebase UI to accomplish the same thing much more cleanly. If we had B checked out and we tried git rebase -i A, we would get a little menu like this:

    pick ccccccc implement feature X
    pick bbbbbbb disable feature X

As I said before, just switching the order of these two pick commands doesn't work, because the bbbbbbb diff can't be applied on the base commit A.

M. Dunham's suggestion is to use git-rebase -i as usual, but instead of simply reversing the order of the two pick commands, which doesn't work, also change them to exec git snap:

    exec git snap bbbbbbb disable feature X
    exec git snap ccccccc implement feature X

But what's git snap? Whereas pick means

run git show to construct a patch from the next commit,
then apply that patch to the current tree

git snap means:

get the complete tree from the next commit,
and commit it unchanged

That is, “take a snapshot of that commit”.

It's simple to implement:

    # read the tree from the some commit and store it in the index
    git read-tree $SHA^{tree}

    # then commit the index, re-using the old commit message
    git commit -C $SHA

There needs to be a bit of cleanup to get the working tree back into sync with the new index. M. Dunham's actual implementation does this with git-reset (which I'm not sure is quite sufficient), and has some argument checking, but that's the main idea.

I hadn't know about the exec command in a git-rebase script, but it seems like it could do all sorts of useful things. The git-rebase man page suggests inserting exec make at points in your script, to check that your reordering hasn't broken the build along the way.

Thank you again, M. Dunham!

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Sat, 30 May 2020

Missing moods in English

Rob Hoelz mentioned that (one of?) the Nenets languages has different verb moods for concepts that in English are both indicated by “should” and “ought”:

"this is the state of the world as I assume it" vs "this is the state of the world as it currently isn't, but it would be ideal"

Examples of the former being:

  • That pie should be ready to come out of the oven
  • If you leave now, you should be able to catch the 8:15 to Casablanca

and of the latter:

  • People should be kinder to one another
  • They should manufacture these bags with stronger handles

I have often wished that English were clearer about distinguishing these. For example, someone will say to me

Using git splurch should fix that

and it is not always clear whether they are advising me how to fix the problem, or lamenting that it won't.

A similar issue applies to the phrase “ought to”. As far as I can tell the two phrases are completely interchangeable, and both share the same ambiguities. I want to suggest that everyone start using “should” for the deontic version (“you should go now”) and “ought to” for the predictive verion (“you ought to be able to see the lighthouse from here”) and never vice versa, but that's obviously a lost cause.

I think the original meaning of both forms is more deontic. Both words originally meant monetary debts or obligations. With ought this is obvious, at least once it's pointed out, because it's so similar in spelling and pronunciation to owed. (Compare pass, passed, past with owe, owed, ought.)

For shall, the Big Dictionary has several citations, none later than 1425 CE. One is a Middle English version of Romans 13:7:

Ȝelde ȝe to alle men ȝoure dettes: to hym þat ȝe schuleþ trybut, trybut.

As often with Middle English, this is easier than it looks at first. In fact this one is so much easier than it looks that it might become my go-to example. The only strange word is schuleþ itself. Here's my almost word-for-word translation:

Yield ye to all men your debts: to him that ye oweth tribute, pay tribute.

The NIV translates it like this:

Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes

Anyway, this is a digression. I wanted to talk about different kinds of should. The Big Dictionary distinguishes two types but mixes them together in its listing, saying:

In statements of duty, obligation, or propriety. Also, in statements of expectation, likelihood, prediction, etc.

The first of these seems to correspond to what I was calling the deontic form (“people should be kinder”) and the second (“you should be able to catch that train”.) But their quotations reveal several other shades of meaning that don't seem exactly like either of these:

Some men should have been women

This is not any of duty, obligation, propriety, expectation, likelihood, or prediction. But it is exactly M. Hoelz’ “state of the world as it currently isn't”.


I should have gotten out while I had the chance

Again, this isn't (necessarily) duty, obligation, or propriety. It's just a wish contrary to fact.

The OED does give several other related shades of “should” which are not always easy to distinguish. For example, its definition 18b says

ought according to appearances to be, presumably is

and gives as an example

That should be Barbados..unless my reckoning is far out.

Compare “We should be able to see Barbados from here”.

Its 18c is “you should have seen that fight!” which again is of the wish-contrary-to-fact type; they even gloss it as “I wish you could have…”.

Another distinction I would like to have in English is between “should” used for mere suggestion in contrast with the deontic use. For example

It's sunny out, we should go swimming!

(suggestion) versus

You should finish your homework before you play ball.


Say this distinction was marked in English. Then your mom might say to you in the morning

You should¹ wash the dishes now, before they get crusty

and later, when you still haven't washed the dishes:

You should² wash the dishes before you go out

meaning that you'll be in trouble if you fail in your dish washing duties.

When my kids were small I started to notice how poorly this sort of thing was communicated by many parents. They would regularly say things like

  • You should be quiet now
  • I need you to be quiet now
  • You need to be quiet now
  • You want to be quiet now

(the second one in particular) when what they really meant, it seemed to me, was “I want you to be quiet now”.

[ I didn't mean to end the article there, but after accidentally publishing it I decided it was as good a place as any to stop. ]

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Addendum: optical illusion

[ Previously ]

John Gleeson points out that my optical illusion (below left) appears to be a variation on the classic Poggendorff illusion (below right):

A circle, with the
center marked.  A shortest-distance path is drawn in blue between two
blue points on the same radius, and in red between two red points on different
radii.  The blue path goes straight from one blue point to the other.
The red path goes from one point straight to the origin,
then straight to the other point. A narrow gray rectangle,
with a black line proceeding from the upper left to disappear behind
it, and parallel red and blue lines emerging from behind it to
continue to the lower right.  It appears that if the black line were
extended it would coincide with the blue one, but a second version of
the diagram, where the gray rectangle has been rendered
semitransparent, reveals that the blak line actually coincides with
the red one. By Fibonacci. - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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Fri, 29 May 2020

Infinite zeroes with one on the end

I recently complained about people who claim:

you can't have a 1 after an infinite sequence of zeroes, because an infinite sequence of zeroes goes on forever.

When I read something like this, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the ordinal number !!\omega+1!!, which is a canonical representative of this type of ordering. But I think in the future I'll bring up this much more elementary example:

$$ S = \biggl\{-1, -\frac12, -\frac13, -\frac14, \ldots, 0\biggr\} $$

Even a middle school student can understand this, and I doubt they'd be able to argue seriously that it doesn't have an infinite sequence of elements that is followed by yet another final element.

Then we could define the supposedly problematic !!0, 0, 0, \ldots, 1!! thingy as a map from !!S!!, just as an ordinary sequence is defined as a map from !!\Bbb N!!.

[ Related: A familiar set with an unexpected order type. ]

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