Bike blues

Trek FX 7.2Although public transport within Ann Arbor is quite alright for getting to and from the university on weekdays, it isn’t of much use for anything during the weekend, when the buses in my neighborhood run only once an hour. So, in spite of the snow and cold outside, I’ve gone shopping for a bike. I happen to live close to Wheels in Motion, one of Ann Arbor’s better bike shops, and the folks there were very helpful in finding me the right bike. They were also very patient and forgiving of my lack of American cycling vocabulary. It happened twice that they suggested a type of bike or piece of equipment to which I responded enthusiastically, only to realize when they showed the bike or item in question that it was something different than what I had thought. (Similar moments have occurred in other shops. For all my fluency in scientific and everyday English, it’s interesting to discover how many words I don’t know in other areas of the language.) Still, it didn’t take too long to settle down on the FX 7.2 by Trek. It’s a fitness bike, or at least so I’m told. Whatever its designation, it looks to serve me well on my daily commute to campus, as well as on the occasional 20- or 30-mile ride.

I picked up the bike Thursday evening. On Saturday, despite the freezing cold, I went ahead and biked to campus for the first time. First, though, I went for a short warm-up run to the grocery store. An elderly man there remarked it was quite cold for cycling, recalling he’d never ridden below 18 °F (-8 °C). I had just faced something like 5 °F (-15 °C), with wind chill in the negative F, so I beat him by a fair margin.

The three-mile ride to campus was not too bad as far as the cold went. In fact, there was one nasty hill that had me sweating as on a summer’s day by the time I reached the top. The downhill return would have been fun if the road surface were in better condition. As it was, it was something of a challenge to dodge cracks, potholes and patches of ice at 20 mph on an unfamiliar bike, with a freezing wind battering my eyes to tears.

Yesterday morning, with the temperature up to 11 °F (-12 °C), I took a slightly different route to avoid that hill and also to avoid the moderately heavy traffic on Saturday’s route. The attempt was successfull on both counts, although the quieter roads do mean poorer road conditions now that there’s been some snowfall again. The additional twisting and turning also increases the likelihood of me getting lost, especially cycling home in the dark — which didn’t take long to actually happen. I added an extra mile and a half to yesterday’s homeward journey by missing a turn and not recognizing an intersection later on where I could have fixed my initial mistake with minimal damage. I suppose it’s a good way to get to know the city a bit, but I’d rather do that in warmer weather. Note for tonight: check the map extra carefully before heading home.

Professor Harm tired cherry

Following up on the previous post and Mark Liberman’s Language Log post, I thought I’d delve a little deeper into the Babel Fish translation of the opening paragraph of the Leiden University newsletter article on the WNT going online. In Dutch, it goes as follows:

Met ingang van zaterdag 27 januari is het Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal (WNT) voor iedereen gratis op het internet te raadplegen. Is dit nieuws alleen van belang voor neerlandici, filologen en taalkundigen? “Magnifiek”, reageert Harm Beukers, hoogleraar geschiedenis van de geneeskunde.

I gave a translation in my previous post, which I will modify here slightly to be more literal:

As of Saturday 27 January, the Dictionary of the Dutch Language will be on the internet for everyone to consult for free. Is this news only important to scholars of Dutch, philologists and linguists? “Magnificent,” responds Harm Beukers, professor in history of medicine.

Altavista’s Babel Fish service gives the following translation, as already provided by Mark in his LL post:

As of Saturday 27 January the dictionary is for free consult language (WNT) for everyone of the Nederlandsche on the Internet. Is this news important only for neerlandici, philologists and linguists? “magnificent”, Harm tired cherry, hoogleraar history of medicine react.

Surprisingly, the type of quotation marks used around magnifiek matters to Babel Fish. I used double quotes, whereas Mark used single quotes, resulting in a slightly different translation:

  • “Magnifiek”, reageert Harm Beukers, hoogleraar geschiedenis van de geneeskunde. is translated as “magnificent”, Harm tired cherry, hoogleraar history of medicine react.
  • ‘Magnifiek’, reageert Harm Beukers, hoogleraar geschiedenis van de geneeskunde. is translated as ‘ magnificently, react Harm tired cherry, hoogleraar history of medicine.

Why is the capital M lost in both cases? Why is the closing quotation mark lost in the single-quotes case? Why is a space inserted after the opening quotation mark in the single-quotes case? Why does the position of react depend on the type of quotation marks?

Moving on to the rest of the text, it is clear that the old-style spelling of Nederlandsche is confusing. Using modern spelling (Nederlandse), the translation is better, but still not good: As of Saturday 27 January the dictionary is for free consult of the Dutch language (WNT) for everyone on the Internet.

The word neerlandici (scholars of the Dutch language) is left untranslated. The singular form, neerlandicus, is also unknown to Babel Fish. The word hoogleraar (professor), a rather common Dutch word and easy to translate, poses another problem.

Most puzzling is the transformation of the name Harm Beukers into Harm tired cherry. If I remove the rest of text, leaving only the name, it yields the same translation. Removing the first name, leaving only Beukers, results in a translation of tired cherry. This makes absolutely zero sense to me. A Google search on {“beukers” “tired cherry”} comes up empty, only adding to my wonder. Where did Babel Fish pull this from? [Update (January 24th, 2007): See the comments for a further discussion and a likely answer.]

On a related note, can anyone tell me what Beukers means as a last name? As a word, it is something like batterers or bashers, from beuken, to batter, to bash, but I doubt it means the same as a name. If no one knows, I’ll consult the WNT in a few days and see what I can find there.

[Update 2 (January 24th, 2007): Mark Liberman posted a follow-up on Language Log, adding his thoughts on Babel Fish’s handling of Beukers and hoogleraar and machine translation in general.]

World’s biggest dictionary goes online

This week’s Leiden University newsletter has a story on the Dictionary of the Dutch language becoming freely available online in a few days. I forwarded this report to Mark Liberman, co-creator and senior writer of Language Log, a weblog about language I have greatly enjoyed reading since I discovered it last year. Mark found the story interesting enough that he posted it on LL, expanding it a bit to make it a more entertaining read than I could ever do.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an English report on the WNT going online, so all the juicy details were lost on non-Dutch speakers. (Of which I’m sure there are many amongst the Language Log audience.) Not anymore, though, as I will provide a translation right here:

The Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal (WNT; Dictionary of the Dutch Language), will become freely available on the internet on Saturday, January 27, at Is this news important only to scholars of Dutch, philologists and linguists? “Magnificent,” responds Harm Beukers, professor in history of medicine.

The Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal is a record-breaking piece of work. It required 134 years of work, from 1864 to 1998. It contains hundreds of thousands of entries with definitions of Dutch words and more than one and a half million quotes from sources from between 1500 and 1976. The dictionary was published in 686 parts collected in forty volumes. This makes it a very complete account of nearly five centuries of Dutch language history.

On the other hand, this also makes it a bulky and even unwieldy dictionary; it is not one any person would readily have on their bookshelves. A trip to the university library or another scientific library is required to consult it. This situation improved when the dictionary was published on CD-ROM in 2000. (An incomplete edition, up to the W, was already published in 1995.) However, this CD-ROM edition had its own disadvantages, certainly compared to the online availability soon to be realized.

Useful sources
Professor Beukers is very happy the WNT will soon be available on the internet. Up to now, he had to cycle to the university library to do research. “There was the cd-rom, of course,” he says, “but I just never got around to buying it. The biggest advantage is that one can now consult the dictionary while writing a paper.” Rob Visser, professor in history of the natural sciences [and no relative of mine, –Ruud], is also delighted. “I only used the WNT sporadically, but if it becomes more easily accessible, I will certainly consult it more often. The WNT uses sources that are not always obvious for my area of work.” Visser recalls a student who quickly found a list of sources in the WNT they could use for their research on evolution.

Magnifying glass
Marietje van der Schaar, a researcher at the university’s philosophy department, also makes frequent use of the WNT and–because she often writes in English–the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the English equivalent to the WNT. Van der Schaar: “It is wonderful that the WNT will be available online. I have the OED at home, but I can only read it with the magnifying glass that came with it. It is important for me to know how certain words were used in the past, and these dictionaries provide a lot of information on the development of words like kennen and weten. In modern English there is no distinction between these words; both are translated as to know. The OED tells me there was a distinction in the past: to ken and to wit.”

All words in the online WNT can be looked up using the original 1863 spelling rules or modern rules. It is also possible to look for parts of words, like suffixes and prefixes, for word categories, like interjections and conjunctions, or for terms used in the definitions, like all words that have the term plant or ship in their definition.

Information outside the dictionary
An important advantage of the online WNT over the CD-ROM edition is that links could be added to information outside the dictionary. For instance, all words that have been published so far in the Etymologisch Woordenboek van het Nederlands (Etymological Dictionary of the Dutch Language), with the most recent developments in etymological research, are coupled to their equivalents in the WNT. Further links are available to similar words in Afrikaans, to figures of plants and animals, and to dialect charts. The source list of the online WNT was completely revised: it contains a large number of new works, which also turned out to be used for the printed WNT. This new source list allowed many entries in the WNT to be dated more accurately.

Using the online WNT will be free of charge. After a one-time registration as a user, the dictionary can be consulted wherever and whenever one wants to.

The newsletter article also contains two pieces of text set apart from the main body. The first piece explains how the WNT came to be:

Historical dictionary
The WNT is a historical dictionary. For every word, it lists the grammatical characteristics, the origin, the original meaning, and other meanings that developed over time. The WNT also gives derivations and compound words and information concerning usage in expressions and proverbs. Of particular note is the fact that the descriptions are fully based on an independent collection of source material: almost ten thousand literary and non-literary sources with millions of quotes. However, the WNT is also a historical dictionary in another sense.

New spelling rules
Matthias de Vries and Lammert te Winkel, the driving forces behind the WNT, created a new set of spelling rules to be used in the dictionary. These rules are appropriately known nowadays as the De Vries and Te Winkel spelling. In 1863, Te Winkel published De grondbeginselen der Nederlandsche spelling. Ontwerp der spelling voor het aanstaande Nederlandsch Woordenboek (The foundations of the Dutch spelling. Design for the spelling rules for the upcoming Dictionary of the Dutch Language). These rules soon became very popular and were adopted in Belgium already on November 21, 1863. De Vries and Te Winkel published the Woordenlijst voor de spelling der Nederlandsche taal (List of words for the spelling rules in the Dutch language) in 1866 to be used by the common man. The entire WNT was written according to these rules, surviving two spelling reforms before the WNT was completed in 1998.

In order to finish before 2000, the board of the Instituut voor Nederlandse Lexicologie (Institute for Dutch Lexicology), founded in 1967 and overseeing work on the WNT ever since, decided in 1976 that no words first used after 1921 would be added. Words like vacantiegeld and zappen are therefore absent.

The second additional bit of text compares the WNT to some other large dictionaries, but I’ll leave that out here, because for some reason my weblog refuses to display the table properly. Suffice it to say the WNT is of equal size to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the Deutsches Wörterbuch (DWB) by the Grimm brothers and the Dai Kan-Wa Jiten (DKWJ; a Chinese-Japenese dictionary) by Tetsuji Morohashi. It has been said the WNT is actually the world’s biggest dictionary; in terms of pages, that certainly seems to be true, but the OED contains more entries. As often with size comparisons, the winner depends on the exact definition of “biggest”.


Ik zocht in de universiteitsbibliotheekcatalogus naar een boek geschreven door ene P. Boissel en kwam daarbij een boek tegen van een 18e-eeuwse achternaamgenoot, F. Boissel, met de welluidende titel:

“Le cathéchisme du genre humain, dénoncé par le ci-devant Évêque de Clermont à la Séance du 5 Nov. 1789, de l’Assemblée Nationale; précédé d’un Discours sur les causes de la division, de l’esclavage et de la destruction des hommes les uns par les autres, et sur les moyens d’en garantir les générations futures; avec deux Adresses très-importantes à la Nation Franç̧oise, l’une en faveur de sa Constitution, l’autre contre les principales institutions de son nouveau régime ou gouvernement qui sont très-mauvaises, et avec quelques Opuscules relatifs au nouvel ordre de choses”

Dat is geen titel meer, dat is een samenvatting!

Laatste dagje

Voordat ik vrijdagmiddag terugvloog naar Nederland, heb ik nog een laatste wandeling gemaakt door Girona. Toevallig kwam ik daarbij nog een hoop moois tegen: de beeldengroepen die ‘s avonds bij de Goede Vrijdagprocessie zouden worden rondgedragen, stonden al in de buurt van de Catedral om te worden voorzien van bloemen en groen, en om nog een keertje te worden afgestoft. De processie zelf kon ik natuurlijk niet zien, maar deze beelden dus wel. Sterker nog, nu kon ik ze veel beter bekijken dan tijdens de processie het geval zou zijn geweest.

Inmiddels had ik onverwacht nog gezelschap gekregen in m’n appartement. Donderdag waren er twee Belgische jongens gearriveerd (informaticastudenten), waarvan de ene drie maanden stage kwam lopen in Girona en de ander slechts voor het Paasweekend mee was. Ze kwamen uit Wallonië en spraken geen Nederlands, dus ik kon m’n Frans weer eens oefenen. (Gelukkig spraken ze aardig Engels, want zo goed spreek ik nou ook geen Frans meer.)

Vrijdag gingen de Franse lessen nog even door. Bij de bus naar het vliegveld werd ik aangesproken door een Italiaanse student die voor een paar maanden in Frankrijk zat en daarvandaan op bezoek was in Spanje. Zijn Engels was ongeveer zo beroerd als mijn Frans, maar dat was nauwelijks een belemmering om toch een heel gesprek te voeren. Ook op het vliegveld heb ik nog met hem zitten praten, tot het tijd was om richting paspoortcontrole te gaan.

De vlucht terug was bijzonder rustig en bovendien vlot: we landden bijna een half uur eerder dan gepland. Helaas was het bijna de hele weg bewolkt, dus veel meer dan grote wolkendekens heb ik niet gezien.

Op het vliegveld stonden m’n ouders en zus klaar om me op te halen en het laatste stuk naar huis te brengen, waarmee mijn avontuur in Girona toch echt ten einde was gekomen.

Ik heb genoten.