Friday, August 23, 2002

HIATUS. Language hat is going to spend the next week on the West Coast. Regular blogging will be resumed in September. Ciao, poka, and be seein' y'all...
Update. I'm making a quick internet check while my brother is off on some errand, and (realizing I probably won't get a chance to blog on Sunday, when I return, very late, to NYC) I wanted to wish my loyal readers a Happy New Year for 7511, as of September 1!
THIS IS AN EX-LANGUAGE! Cornish has been made an official language of the U.K. Now, I'm as big a fan of obscure languages as you'll find; I even have a book of Cornish place names. But this is ridiculous. Irish is one thing; there are actual native Irish speakers left, and unlikely as it is that the language can be preserved for long, I understand the desire of the Republic of Ireland to try. But Cornish! I don't care how many people enjoy playing around with it and speaking it to each other at meetings (I love the fact there are three rival versions, by the way), it's kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisibile!! (Via Billy Blogs.)

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

SAWBUCK. Avva has recently learned this slang term for a ten-dollar bill, and in the discussion on his site it turns out that various English-speakers consulted by his Russian-speaking readers were not familiar with the expression. My assumption is that this is generational rather than regional, the term being long past its sell-by date, but I'm curious to hear from my own loyal band of readers. I've known the word as long as I can remember, but then I cut my teeth on '40s pulp fiction (yellowing, not hot off the presses); do you know it, and if so, from reading or as living terminology?

Tuesday, August 20, 2002

OLEHASHOLEM. It was brought to my attention by a person who wishes to remain nameless (not wanting to be thought an inveterate scanner of obits) that among the death notices in last Sunday's NY Times is one that begins as follows:
ROTHSTEIN - Miriam Chilson. Died at age 91, on August 14, 2002. She would've turned 92 on September 21. Miriam was the wife of the late Irwin Chilson, the late Lou Fineberg, the late Phil Rispler and the latest late Moe Rothstein.
I submit that Miriam must have been quite a gal to have inspired that bit of affectionate wordplay, and that Irwin, Lou, Phil, and Moe were four lucky guys. I wish I'd known her, and I hereby honor her memory.
WHY DID THE YEAR 7208 HAVE ONLY THREE MONTHS? Not only is that a meaningful question, it has a perfectly good answer. Until Peter the Great's calendar reform, Russia counted its years from the creation of the world, which the Russian Orthodox church reckoned as having happened in 5509 BC, and celebrated New Year's Day on September 1; thus Peter was born in the year 7180, or 180 as they often referred to it (early 1672 by our calendar). Once Peter took full power he began making drastic changes in the Russian way of life to imitate the Western European countries, and along with cutting off beards and banning caftans he updated the calendar, decreeing in late 1699 (or early 208, as it then was) that January 1 would be the New Year, and it would be the beginning of the year 1700. So 7208, which had begun on Sept. 1, only ran for three months before giving way to the newfangled Western year 1700, producing documents with phrases like: "In the years 207 and 208 and in the present year of 1700..." I love this stuff.

What I don't understand is why he didn't go all the way and adopt the Gregorian calendar, which had been around for over a century and was used in the Western countries he wanted to emulate. For over two hundred years Russia remained 10 or 11 days behind, and Peter didn't like being left behind. Strange.
FODER! Miguel Cardoso (over at MeFi) expatiates upon Portuguese sexual practices and terminology, and I urge anyone with an interest in Romance obscenities (and obscene romance) to hie themselves thither forthwith. (And scroll down for more.)

Monday, August 19, 2002

ORTHOGRAPHIC PRINCIPLES. Avva has a debate going about Russian orthography. It began with a remark, in a post of his about Pope Gregory's bull Inter gravissimus (which proclaimed the year 2000 a leap year), that he was writing the Russian adjective for 'leap' (in "leap year") vysokosnyi rather than the standard spelling visokosnyi because that was how he pronounced it. This caused quite a hullabulloo. People accused him of willful flouting of the rules, even of illiteracy. He responded with three long and closely reasoned analyses of the Russian writing system, based not on the simplistic "write as you pronounce" principle but on the phonemic principle, which in this case forced him, precisely, to write the word as he pronounced it. My initial reaction was like that of his opponents: write it the way it is in the dictionary; what's the problem? But in the end he convinced me with his arguments and analogies. What struck me is how hopeless it would be to reproduce the argument in English, where writing is so far from pronunciation (though not as far as many think) that to introduce even the minor correctives he argues for would be to risk letting the sea wash away the dikes and flood the land. Russian is, as it were, above sea level; it can afford to get a little wet.
THE TIMES GETS IT RIGHT. Since I lambasted the NY Times a couple of days ago, I feel I should present the other side of the coin. Sometimes they show me things I would probably never have known about and am glad to have discovered. Herewith two examples from the Sunday "Arts and Leisure" section.

Vicki Goldberg presents the photographer Josef Koudelka, who's led an amazing life, both complicated ("Never married, he has three children by three women of different nationalities. He has helped support all three children, he said, and has remained in touch with them.") and simple ("I have two shirts.... I have one trousers for one year, one shoes for one year, one jacket for two years, two socks, and for travel a good sleeping bag."). He did a series of photographs of Gypsies:
The Gypsy pictures are dark, brooding, disjunctive, tinged with tenderness and sorrow. Years later, he said, he met some Gypsies on a pilgrimage and told them he'd done a book on their people: " 'We know,' they said. `We call you Iconar. We have the book. It's been cut apart and put in a chapel. We pray for the people in them.' "

And Christopher Hall describes working on a project to build a 13th-century castle in a remote area of Burgundy (Treigny, in la Puisaye, for those keeping score at home; the Times, uncharacteristically, doesn't supply a map). They're using medieval tools and techniques and even wearing medieval clothes (barring safety glasses). I don't know about you, but that sounds like a great way to spend my summer vacation, if I still had a summer vacation.

There's also a good piece by Norimitsu Onishi on the use and misuse of statistics, but I posted that on MetaFilter (where it sank without a trace).
MINIM. Naomi, over at Baraita, has taken time out from her lytdybr entries about moving to a new university town and posted a fascinating discussion of, among other things, "Jewish groups who deviated from some perceived norm": minim, apikursim, and others. One of the reasons I used to wish I were Jewish was so I could be an apikoyres, but the other terms were new to me.

Sunday, August 18, 2002

JANEWAY. I happened upon the family name Janeway and vaguely wondered about it, as I have every time I've seen it. This time, for whatever reason, the vagueness sharpened into an immediate desire to know what the hell was going on. So I went to my Rybakin (Slovar' angliiskikh familii/Dictionary of English Surnames), and the first thing I discovered was that the name is pronounced in three syllables, Jan-away (traditionally, in England, that is; I assume modern Americans with the name pronounce it Jane-way). The Janeway entry referred me to Janaway, the main entry, where I discovered that alternate spellings are Gannaway, Jannaway, January [!], Janway, and Jennaway—and that the name is derived from the Italian city Genoa! This etymology delighted me no end (not "to no end," which means something entirely different), and I thought I'd share it.

Saturday, August 17, 2002

THE TIMES SCREWS IT UP. There is an article in today's NY Times about verlan, the French backwards slang (verlan is verlan for l'envers 'the reverse'). Well and good; it's an interesting subject. But after a lead-in defining the term, the article goes on:
Within a couple of decades, Verlan has spread from the peripheral housing projects of France's poorest immigrants, heavily populated with Africans and North African Arabs, and gained widespread popularity among young people across France. It has seeped into film dialogue, advertising campaigns, French rap and hip-hop music, the mainstream media. It has even made it into some of the country's leading dictionaries.

A language of alienation that has, paradoxically, also become a means of integration, Verlan expresses France's love-hate relationship with its immigrant community and has begun to attract a number of scholarly studies.

Ah, so it's some newfangled thing, a product of those strange Arab immigrants! Except it's not. As they eventually mention, in a tossed-off sentence in the seventh graf, "The first documented uses of Verlan date to the 19th century, when it was used as a code language among criminals, said the French scholar Louis-Jean Calvet." Then it's back to the immigrants and their entertaining ways, so beloved of reporters the world over.

This is just silly. Verlan is a venerable form of inner-city slang comparable to the Cockney rhyming-slang of London; it is in no way new, not even to "the attention of a wider public" (which they claim discovered it in the 1980s). I knew about it when I was first studying French forty years ago, and it was not considered new then. Of course it's been used by criminals and defiant youth; these are prime users of slang everywhere. And of course immigrants (in this case North African Arabs) are represented in both groups. To make that the focus of the article is ridiculous... and sadly inevitable, given the blinders that come with being a reporter.

Friday, August 16, 2002

POPULIST LINGUISTICS. I found an interesting list of language books via the comments at Prentiss Riddle's Language; I was put off by the recommendation for Mario Pei's books, which are fun but nutritionally empty, but fortunately I persevered, and came across this: "Jim Quinn's amusing little book is the antiparticle to the pop grammarians; he actually looks things up instead of just fulminating." Which reminded me that it was my bounden duty to tell y'all about Quinn's American Tongue and Cheek. Some years ago Barnes & Noble was selling remaindered copies for a dollar, and I bought several to give away (and of course wish I had bought more); my own copy is always within arm's reach, ready to provide ammunition against unfounded prejudices. Let me quote his "Special Preface for You, The Lover of Our Language":

If this book doesn't make you angry, it wasn't worth writing....
It attacks no use of language.
It defends all the words and phrases and sentences you have been trying to stamp out: Finalize. Hopefully. Between you and I....
This book defends all those constructions—not on the grounds that anyone can say what they please (though of course they can)—but on the grounds that all those constructions are grammatically correct.

His basic technique is to show that every maligned usage turns up in Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Faulkner, etc., and to ask the entirely reasonable question, Whose language sense would you rather trust, a great writer's or Edwin Newman's? He has a great deal of fun with Newman, Safire, John Simon, and the other mandarins of "good English," and shows them tying themselves into knots trying to "correct" sentences there was nothing wrong with in the first place. The book is, alas, long out of print, but it's available from online bookstores, and of course there's your friendly local library (if they haven't put it on the For Sale table, but don't get me started on that). Try it, you'll like it. It's the perfect antidote to David Foster Wallace (see below).
And for an excellent shorthand equivalent (just theory, no examples), try Alan Pagliere's article at, of all places, The Vocabula Review (home of linguistic curmudgeonry).
ANOTHER LINGUIST LOST TO LEMURS. All right, that's a bit misleading—no linguists were harmed in the making of this article—but no more so than the Times' headline, "How to Say Lemur and Quiddich in 11 Languages" (which led me to expect a quirky new dictionary). Reg. req., and if you don't want to take the trouble, here are the parts about languages:
As a Yale undergraduate, she planned to study comparative linguistics. She studied Latin in high school, picked up French and German from her father's translation of vocal concerts and later her own classical singing and learned Russian in college. But, early in her sophomore year, she was shopping for one course to fill her distribution requirements and was urged by a friend to try physical anthropology.

Dr. [Eleanor] Sterling, who still resembles a graduate student in jangling silver bracelets and a peasant skirt, was riveted by the professor, who studied lemurs in Madagascar. "I was mesmerized by how she spoke." Dr. Sterling said. "I took every class she taught from then on. I'm sure I would have been happy doing something else. But that was the turning point."

Dr. Sterling's gift for language complements her science. "I was lucky to come from a linguistic background to this," she said.

To write a book about the natural history of Vietnam, which will coincide with a museum exhibit next year, she had to read the so-called gray literature — unpublished papers, many in Vietnamese. So she hired a tutor. She is fluent in Swahili, from African fieldwork, hard at work on Spanish and has lately taken up Lao and Burmese, for a total of 11 languages.

Her husband suggested a novel study method when Dr. Sterling set out to polish her Spanish for a speech in Bolivia. A nephew was peppering her with questions about Harry Potter. She had read the books in English but strained for details. So she re-read them in translation. "Killing two birds," Dr. Sterling said, using an unlikely figure of speech given her profession, "with one stone."

An impressive woman, no?

Thursday, August 15, 2002

LANGUAGE MAP OF L.A. Pat claims he got this amazing interactive map via me, but I've never seen it, so I'm crediting him. It's sort of like the closed-loop artifact in P. Schuyler Miller's "As Never Was" (classic 1944 sf). Anyway, check it out.

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

...BUT I DON'T HAVE TO LIKE IT. Avva, in the course of a discussion of the diamond industry and its ethnic makeup, makes the following observation (after someone has pointed out that language changes of its own accord):
"Language develops, of course, but that doesn't mean I can't have my opinion about the changes."
This expresses a paradox that has plagued me ever since I began studying linguistics. A linguist has, ex officio, no opinion regarding the facts of the language; it would be like a physicist preferring one subatomic particle to another. Yet a linguist with any feel for the language can't help but have such opinions; I, at any rate, can't. I accept certain developments with a cheerful and welcoming heart; "hopefully" as a sentence adverb is an example. Others, like "disinterested" to mean "uninterested," I have come to accept, however grudgingly, as semantic changes that I have to live with (though I personally will never use the new sense). But there are some that fill me with insensate rage, however unseemly it may be in a person with scientific training, and I fear I will never come to terms with them. Such a thing is the growing use of "may have" to mean "might have": "If he had started running earlier, he may have caught the ball." No, no, I cry (soundlessly) every time I see this—he might have caught it! A few years ago, when I began to notice this phenomenon, I started to keep a record of occurrences, but it eventually became futile; it would now make more sense to record instances of the correct usage. And what am I, proud holder of an M.Phil. in linguistics from one of our finer educational bazaars, doing talking about "correct" usage? Correct is whatever native speakers say! Yes, yes, quite correct... eppur si muove lo stomaco. It's probably just as well I went into editing, where this irrational attitude is an asset.

Tuesday, August 13, 2002

INUKTITUT. An excellent article on Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit (often called Eskimo); via MeFi.

Monday, August 12, 2002

DAVID FOSTER WALLACE DEMOLISHED. I was attacking DFW's long Harper's essay on usage in a comment on MeFi today, and the more I thought about it, the madder I got, and I finally couldn't resist letting him have it at length. I didn't want to take up the whole front page of languagehat, but the interested reader will find it on the Languages page (scroll down).

Sunday, August 11, 2002

LYTDYBR: POLYGLOT CITY. One of the things I love about New York is the variety of languages you are exposed to in the course of your civic existence. I eavesdrop shamelessly on the conversations of my fellow straphangers, and sometimes when I'm stumped I break the rules of non-interaction and ask the person next to me what language they are speaking (most recent answers: Albanian and Armenian). Today on the N train to Times Square the woman across from me was reading a Korean book, and the woman next to me was reading a Hungarian magazine. On the 2 train from Times Square to Houston St. (I was off to see another Kurosawa movie, this time High and Low, not well known but the equal of the famous samurai movies if you ask me) I heard Spanish and Hebrew in my vicinity. In between, alas, I was the victim of one of the MTA's impromptu stoppages—"Last stop on this train... there is a train experiencing mechanical difficulties at Chambers St. and there is no downtown service at this time..."—but I was able to give directions to Ground Zero to a family of clueless Midwestern tourists, who will now be able to report to their fellow Midwesterners that New Yorkers, contrary to rumor, are helpful and polite. And the train eventually did come and get me to Film Forum in time. So the universe showed its beneficent side despite initial appearances.
VIRTUAL. William Safire is on vacation, which is ordinarily a time to rejoice—the On Language column can for a few weeks be written by people who actually know something about language. But today's column, by Patricia T. O'Connor and Stewart Kellerman, is a hopeless mishmosh. Its point is apparently to promote polite e-mails, which (though doubtless a Good Thing) is only tangentially concerned with language. Having realized this, they chose to lead in with a discussion of the word "virtual," which, while indisputably appropriate for On Language, is only tangentially related to their main point. They then proceed to bungle the lead-in, discussing at some length the history of the (completely irrelevant) word "virtuous" while ignoring the question that is likely to be on the minds of anyone who bothers to read the column: how did "virtual" pass from meaning 'possessed of certain physical virtues or capacities' to (in their words) 'existing in effect rather than in reality'? Languagehat is here to remedy the omission.

The transition is the meaning (OED's number 3) 'capable of producing a certain effect or result; effective': "So vertuall was the speech of Paul a Prisoner, in the heart of his Judge" (W. Sclater, 1619). Now consider this quote (J. Smith, 1815): "Whatever is the real length of the leg b a [of a siphon], the virtual or acting length when in use, only extends from b to the surface of the fluid." (Note the premodern commas in both quotes.) It's natural to contrast the "virtual or acting" with the "real." From there we get the OED's meaning 4: 'that is so in essence or effect, although not formally or actually; admitting of being called by the name so far as the effect or result is concerned': "Every proof a priori proceeds by Causes either real or virtual" (Waterland, 1734). Now the weight of reality has shifted; the "virtual," once the powerful agent, is now opposed to the real, and the way to the modern electronic-ethereal is open.

While I'm on the subject of the Times Magazine, the cover story this week is "The Odds of That" by Lisa Belkin, who for a reporter does a pretty good job of presenting the uncomfortable, unintuitive scientific truth (though she tends to use "we" too much). It's about coincidence, and the tagline "In paranoid times like these, people see connections where there aren't any" pretty much sums it up. Since I recently posted a rant about coincidence, I thought I'd bring it to your attention. You can never have too much balloon-pricking.

Saturday, August 10, 2002

MEGALOMANIA IN TURKMENIA. I'm sure you are all aware that President Niyazov of Turkmenistan has renamed the calendar, but you may have been wondering (as was I) what the new names were. Wonder no more; Alex has provided them (and Avva has pointed my way thither):

January: Turkmenbashi (in honor of the President; it means 'Head Turkmen')
February: Navruz (the Persian New Year, except it doesn't fall in February; Alex's source says "in honor of the Turkmen flag"—maybe the flag is named "Navruz"??)
April: Gurbansoltan-eje (the President's mother)
May: Makhtum Kuli (a Turkmen poet)
June: Oguz (a Turkmen military leader)
July: Gorkut (an epic hero)
August: Alp Arslan (a medieval commander)
September: Rukhnama (a book by the President)
October: Independence (the source only gives the translation).
The others are apparently unchanged.

Friday, August 09, 2002

FREE-FOR-ALL. There's an interesting discussion of vegetarianism, prejudice, the eating habits of Bulgarians, and suchlike going on over at, and it's being carried on in an admirably civilized fashion (I shudder to think of the insults that would be flying if the discussion were happening at MetaFilter, especially after the word "fat" came into it).
Full disclosure: I'm a participant in the discussion.
MYANMARRRGH. Writing about the word "Thai" yesterday reminded me of one of the reasons for my occasional flashes of anti-Brit feelings. (Yes, I know "British" is not the same as "English," and it's the English who don't pronounce their r's and caused the problem I'm about to describe, but "anti-English feelings" just doesn't work—it sounds like I don't like the language, which is far from the case. Besides, "Brit" is internationally recognized shorthand for "those people who used to run an empire from London.")

Remember Sade, "pronounced Shar-day"? I disliked her (quite irrationally) for forcing me to see that idiotic description for months on end (and hear Americans actually pronouncing it that way). There is, of course, no r sound in Sade; the description was created by Brits who don't pronounce the r and wanted to indicate the a sound in "father." Why they didn't make it "Shah-day," which would indicate the same sound and would work for all English-speakers, is beyond me, like the appeal of cricket. But they've taken the same tack for centuries, which has resulted in all sorts of intrusive r's that cause names to be wrongly pronounced. Thai is full of them: the last syllable of Chulalongkorn [University] is actually kawn, and people named Porntip would get a lot less grief from English-speakers if it were written Pawntip or Pohntip. The Korean name Park is actually Pak. And the absurd new name for Burma, "Myanmar," is made more absurd by the fact that not only is the r not pronounced, it's not even used consistently: the country's postal service is called Myanma Posts and Communications, for Pete's sake. Mind you, the r in "Burma" itself is intrusive—the Burmese word is bama—but it's old and established and there's nothing to be done about it; "Burma" is the English name for the country and that's that.

Off-topic, but I can't resist:

Cheer up face

The war is past

The "h" is out

Of shave

At last


Thursday, August 08, 2002

TAI VS. THAI. It has been brought to my attention that this blog is becoming Russocentric to a degree (I use the phrase in its original sense), so I thought I'd ruminate on a different part of the linguistic universe altogether.

For a long time I was confused by the terms "Thai language" and "Tai languages": what was up with the h, and what was the relation between the two terms? Eventually (once I got out of the sandbox of Indo-European) I discovered that the Tai family of closely related languages spread from Assam in eastern India (named after invaders who spoke the now extinct Ahom language) to the mountains of northern Vietnam, and from southern China (whence they originated) to the Malay Peninsula. The best-known of them is of course Thai, the official language of Thailand; I'm not sure when and how the h came in (probably the Brit tendency to add it to foreign terms to make them look more exotic, cf. dhal), but it does come in handy to differentiate the terms, which are both from a T(h)ai word meaning 'free' ("Thailand" is half translated from prathet tai 'country of the free'). Eastwards from India we find Shan (in Burma), Northern (or Lanna) Thai (in northern Thailand), Lao (the official language of Laos, but the majority of its speakers are in Thailand, where it is often called Northeastern Thai), and Red Tai, Black Tai, and White Tai (in northern Vietnam—no formal-wear jokes, please). An interesting point is that an alternate ethnic designation is at the base of Assam/Ahom, Shan, and Siam, as well as the Cambodian term Siem (the name of the town Siem Reap, near Angkor Wat, means 'defeat of the Thai').

Wednesday, August 07, 2002

TRANSLATION SILLINESS. Avva quotes a wonderful instance (picked up from agavr) of thoughtless translation: "Thank you—these two words..." is rendered into Russian as "Spasibo—eti dva slova [these two words]..."

This reminded me of something that made me laugh during my first, mirthless days in NYC (no job, no money, no telephone, just been dumped, you know the song). In those days, Don Q rum had an advertising campaign using the tagline "Quality begins with Q." Advertisers were just beginning to realize it might be useful to reach the millions of Spanish-speakers in the city in their own language, so ads were being translated—but not always at the highest level. This one, for instance, became: "Calidad comienza con Q."

Tuesday, August 06, 2002

TRANSLITERATION TRANSMISSION. One of my favorite guilty pleasures is a book called Ali and Nino by "Kurban Said." It's not Tolstoy or Faulkner by a long shot, but it's a hell of a lot of fun, and if you have any fondness for tales of derring-do—if, say, you enjoyed The Princess Bride—you should lay your hands on a copy; you won't be disappointed. I put Kurban Said in quotes because it's not his real name; he was apparently born Lev Nussimbaum in Baku in 1905, converted to Islam as a teenager and changed his name to Essad Bey, and moved to Germany and wrote biographies under his own name and a couple of novels as Kurban Said. (I was lucky enough to run across 12 Secrets of the Caucasus, by Essad-Bey, in a Lancaster, Pa. used-book store a few years ago; it too is full of derring-do, and has chapter titles like "The Idyllic Robbers' Den," "The Master of Fragrance," and "The Village of Poets.") Here's a sample from the first chapter of Ali and Nino:

I, Ali Khan Shirvanshir, had been three times to Daghestan, twice to Tiflis, once in Kislovodsk, once in Persia to stay with my uncle, and I was nearly kept down for another year because I did not know the difference between the Gerundium and the Gerundivium. My father went for advice to the Mullah at the mosque, who declared that all this Latin was just vain delusion. So my father put on all his Turkish, Persian and Russian decorations, went to see the headmaster, donated some chemical equipment or other and I passed. A notice had been put up in the school stating that pupils were strictly forbidden to enter school premises with loaded revolvers, telephones were installed in town, and Nino Kipiani was still the most beautiful girl in the world.

But I'm not here to talk about Essad Bey's romantic prose or complicated life (someone's said to be working on a biography, which I can't wait to read), I'm here to talk about transliteration.

As enthralled as I was by the book, I kept wanting to throw it across the room while cursing the name of Jenia Graman. Yes, she rescued the book from a Berlin bookstall, translated it, and brought it to the attention of the English-speaking world, and for that we owe her. But didn't the woman have any sense? She kept all the Arabic, Persian, Turkic, and Russian terms from the novel in their German guises (the book was written in German), which produces an effect in English that is at best barbarous and at worst incomprehensible. Some examples: Dshafar for Ja'far, Nikolaus for Nikolai, Seljam-Alejkum for salaam aleikum (here we have the Russian substitution of lya for la, followed by the German substitution of j for y), Sakavkasnaja Jelesnaja for Zakavkaskaya Zheleznaya (Doroga, the Transcaucasian Railway), Jasid for Yezid, and—my two personal favorites, both from Chapter 11—Dshainabi: Tewarichi Al-Y-Seldjuk for Jainabi: Tavarikh-e Al-e Saljuk and Chajasseddin Keichosrov for Ghiyas-ed-din Kaikhusrow. Some names are rendered ambiguous by the veil of transmission: is "Seyd" Zayd, Sayyid, or Sa'id? And some are just gibberish as far as I can tell, like "Teshachut" in Chapter 24. All right, it would have required some effort on her part to find the proper English renderings of some of the more obscure terms, but surely she could have gotten "salaam aleikum" right! And the book keeps getting reprinted; couldn't some merciful publisher fix these things? I have a fairly complete list I'll be more than happy to supply, free and gratis. Let's rid an otherwise satisfactory translation of these unsightly blemishes, shall we?

Monday, August 05, 2002

COINCIDENCE. We humans have a deep need to find meaning in everything around us, and therefore have a hard time accepting the idea of meaningless coincidence. If something looks like something else, there must be a connection, mystical or otherwise. (See: Jung, synchronicity.) Fortunately, I've been exposed to enough statistics to know that if you keep tossing coins, the fact that heads and tails are equally probable means that it is inevitable that, if you toss long enough, you will get (say) ten or fifty or a thousand heads in a row, by pure chance. My education in historical linguistics reinforced the lesson: even though English and Persian are related languages, and even though Persian "bad" means the same thing as English "bad" and is pronounced almost identically, there is no historical connection whatever. It's just a coincidence.

With that introduction, I proceed to my latest trip to Brighton Beach. Some time ago I read and enjoyed Boris Akunin's Azazel, the first of his "Fandorin" series of detective novels set in 19th-century Petersburg. I've since moved on to other things, most recently Pushkin's "Poltava" and late-17th-century Russia in general (I highly recommend Lindsey Hughes' Russia in the Age of Peter the Great—Yale very kindly lets you read the first chapter online, if you're interested), but last time I was in BB I noticed a video of a televised version of Azazel, although I was too loaded down to buy it at the time, so today I went back to repair the omission. (I had the day off from work.) While I was in the smaller branch of Sankt-Peterburg (which has lower prices for some reason), I looked up at the detective-fiction shelves, and there was a new work by Akunin: Altyn-Tolobas, a novel set in late-17th-century Russia! I bought it and can't wait to read it. But I don't think it's the work of the gods. It's just those coins coming up heads.

Sunday, August 04, 2002

OH, AND ANOTHER THING... I obsessively read the New York Times corrections sections, and today I hit the mother lode. This was printed at the end of the Book Review letters column (and is also online); I leave it to speak for itself:


The Close Reader column on July 14, about the relation between daily life and intellectual life in Israel at present, referred erroneously to protests against the award of the Israel Prize to an Israeli Arab, Emile Habibi. The award, and the protests, occurred in 1992, not ''recently''; the Israel Prize is given for a life of achievement, not any particular accomplishment. The novel ''Arabesques'' was misattributed; it was written not by Habibi but by Anton Shammas, also an Israeli Arab, in Hebrew, not Arabic.

The column misstated the title of a book that discusses political minorities in modern Hebrew literature, and misstated its timing in the author's career. It is ''Producing the Modern Hebrew Canon,'' not ''Constructing the Hebrew Canon,'' published after the writer joined the faculty of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, not before. And his preferred transliteration of his name from the Hebrew is Hannan Hever, not Chanan Chever.

The column also attributed an honor erroneously to the novelist A. B. Yehoshua. He has never received the Sapir Prize (often referred to as the Israeli equivalent of Britain's Booker Prize).

Saturday, August 03, 2002

POSTCOLONIAL CONTRADICTION. In today's New York Times there is a profile (registration required) by Clifford Krauss of a Canadian writer named Neil Bissoondath. (I apologize to him and to all of Canada for the fact that I had been unaware of his existence; like most Yanks, I am lamentably ignorant of our great neighbor to the north.) Mr. Bissoondath (to use Times style) came originally from Trinidad, like his uncle and mentor V.S. Naipaul, and he shares Naipaul's disdain for the lesser breeds he has transcended by embracing the imperial culture. (I know, Canada was never an imperial power, but its culture came originally from Britain and France and has been heavily influenced by the U.S., and I trust no one will argue about the term "imperial" as applied to those heavyweights.) I was particularly struck by the psychological contradiction embodied in the following pair of quotes, a few paragraphs apart in the profile; I leave their exegesis as an exercise for the reader:

"Then there is 'Selling Illusions,' his collection of essays, in which he argued that Canada's declaration that all cultures are equal and welcome is a curse in disguise. The financing of ethnic festivals and community centers, he wrote, amounts to the separation of minorities in Disneyland-like pockets of ethnicity frozen in time and out of context."

"He is married to a French Canadian, has an 11-year-old daughter and lives in a city where there are few other immigrants. Although he writes in English, he strongly defends local efforts to preserve French culture. His comfortable fieldstone house is decorated with accessories from many countries, but there is no sign of anything Trinidadian."

PUSHKIN, NABOKOV, AFGHANISTAN. Anatoly Vorobey discusses the idea that the first lines of Evgenii Onegin should be interpreted according to a theory that uvazhat' sebya zastavil is an early-nineteenth-century Russian equivalent of "kicked the bucket." This seems implausible to me, but I don't want to emulate Edmund Wilson and argue about the fine points of Russian usage with native Russian speakers; fortunately, Anatoly is also dubious, and like him I will wait for any evidence of such usage that may be forthcoming. In the meantime, I will rely on Nabokov, who knew Pushkin inside and out and translated the passage thus:

My uncle has most honest principles:
when taken ill in earnest,
he has made one respect him
and nothing better could invent.

As usual, one is taken aback by the determinedly rebarbative nature of the English phrasing (this from Nabokov!), but it is clear that he took uvazhat' sebya zastavil in its obvious sense ("made one respect him").

Not that Nabokov is infallible. In the same spirit in which he gleefully exhibits Pushkin's "schoolboy howler" la greve d'Athenes for Byron's "the Athenian's grave" (commentary on Onegin One:XXXVIII.9, p. 162), I hereby place before the world his own ludicrous blunder at the end of his commentary on Two:XVI (p. 255), where he identifies Ratmir, one of the characters in Ruslan and Lyudmila, as "a young Hazaran Persian-speaking Mongol from Afghanistan"! Ratmir is a khazarskiy khan, a khan of the Khazars, the Caspian state that was a neighbor and rival to Kievan Rus in the days of which Pushkin is writing; what Nabokov thought a peasant from the mountain fastnesses of central Afghanistan might be doing at Vladimir's court I can't imagine. (The Hazara, incidentally, are not Mongols, though they have traditionally described themselves that way and have faces and cultural elements reminiscent of Central Asia; their actual ethnogenesis is lost in the mists of time, but they speak a dialect of Dari, the Afghan variant of Persian. Lest anyone take too seriously the matter of self-identification, let me point out that many Pushtuns believe they are descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel.)

Friday, August 02, 2002

READING FACES. In the Aug. 5 New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell has a fascinating article, "The Naked Face," about a psychologist named Paul Ekman and his studies of facial expressions. It turns out that, despite what Margaret Mead thought, people all over the world, whatever their culture, interpret facial expressions the same way; furthermore, with sufficient training we can learn to interpret not just the obvious smiles and grimaces but every fleeting "microexpression" that reveals what another person is trying to hide. In fact, we can learn to tell whether someone is lying, and pretty much what they're thinking.

But it's not just that our expressions reflect our feelings; they also cause our feelings. Ekman and a colleague began noticing that when they practiced moving their facial muscles into expressions of anger and distress, they felt terrible. They did a study in which one group was told to "remember and relive a particularly stressful experience" while the other "was told to simply produce a series of facial movements.... The second group, the people who were pretending, showed the same physiological responses as the first." In another experiment, people who were holding a pen between their lips (making it impossible to smile) did not find cartoons as funny as people who were holding a pen between their teeth (forcing them to smile).

So do we want to learn to read faces? What would be the effect? Ekman quotes Erving Goffman, who "said that part of what it means to be civilized is not to 'steal' information that is not freely given to us." Goffman wrote:

"When the secretary who is miserable about a fight with her husband the previous night answers, 'Just fine,' when her boss asks, 'How are you this morning?' -- that false message may be the one relevant to the boss's interactions with her. It tells him that she is going to do her job. The true message -- that she is miserable -- he may not care to know about at all as long as she does not intend to let it impair her job performance."

Would it be better for him to take note of her sadness? Would we benefit by recognizing the constant play of emotions that surrounds us, or would it make it impossible for us to function? Read the article -- I've barely scratched the surface. And reflect on what language is, and what it's not.

Thursday, August 01, 2002

GROWING UP. In the July 22 issue of The New Republic, Margaret Talbot demolishes Carol Gilligan and her latest book, The Birth of Pleasure, at considerable length; in the course of so doing, she produces the following impeccable definition of what it is to grow up, mentally and spiritually:

"But the cult of the young, the reverence for spontaneity, the romance of incomplete socialization: all this is itself a kind of immaturity. As most people get older, they realize that the first thing that they say or think is not always the truest thing; that their first thoughts are not usually their best thoughts; that what they write in a diary is not necessarily betrayed by what they say out loud; that the edited self, or the polished thought, is not an inferior or corrupted copy of a deeper, truer, better self. They realize that the truth that a child knows about divorce, say, or more generally about the social conventions of adults, is not a superior truth but a partial one, important to know and to credit, but necessarily occluded, like a glimpse through a crack in a door. The Catcher in the Rye is no longer their favorite book."

Of course, many people get older without ever growing up.