Monday, October 14, 2002

YOU SAY KOLKATA, I SAY CALCUTTA. It seems to me a very simple and unexceptionable idea that each language has its own names for things and that there is nothing wrong with that. In English we say "mountain" for what the Chinese call "shan," and I don't think either side feels insulted by the difference. This happy equanimity vanishes, however, when it comes to place names. The Chinese government does not want us to say "Peking," as we have for centuries, but rather "Beijing," which follows the government-approved pinyin rules. Well, fine, let them want whatever they want, but it shouldn't have any effect the English language, right? Wrong. As soon as the demand was made, publishers all over the English-speaking world bent over backwards to obey it. At great cost, atlases, dictionaries, and other reference works were retooled to reflect the new names of just about every city and province in China (some, like Shanghai, remained unchanged). Newspapers switched over. People agonized over whether it was still all right to say "Peking duck." I was flabbergasted. For the dubious benefit of pleasing the brutal rulers of China, everyone had to learn new spellings full of misleading consonants like x, c, and q.
(As for the allegedly greater accuracy of pinyin; it's true that "Beijing" is closer to the Mandarin pronunciation than "Peking," but they're equally far from, say, Cantonese "Pak-king," which is just as Chinese.)

All right, I could partially understand the desire not to offend the authorities in China, a large and increasingly important country with which we want to do business. But what happened when the repellent junta that rules Burma decided they wanted us to say Myanmar instead of Burma and Yangon instead of Rangoon? Exactly the same thing. Nobody replied "Fie on you, vile dictators! Aung San Suu Kyi and other democrats prefer 'Burma' and say they will restore the name when they can, so we laugh at your pretensions!" No, they hastened to change all the books again, and complain when people used the unreconstructed terminology. When I made a comment to that effect on MetaFilter, two people took me to task for my cultural imperialism. I'm sure they aren't junta supporters, yet they automatically took the side of the powers that be. And the same thing is going on now with India; the extremist Hindus running the place are insisting on "Mumbai" for Bombay and "Kolkata" for Calcutta, and they seem to be getting their way. [Note: For a better-informed corrective to this hasty sentence, see Kaushik's comment (#12).] Prepare to start saying "Bharat" for India soon.

Now, here's what I don't get. Nobody seems to mind that Spanish-speakers say Nueva York, that the French refer to la Nouvelle-Orléans, that the Chinese call this country Mei Kuo—excuse me, Meiguo—and the Russians Soedinyonnye Shtaty Ameriki. As far as I know, nobody cares that the French refer to Regensburg as Ratisbon or that the Hungarians call Paris Parizs. So why this concern for the English names of foreign places? And why in the name of Babel does this country, in every other way so self-satisfied and downright imperial, jump when even the pettiest dictator says "froggie"? All suggestions will be much appreciated. (And hell, feel free to accuse me of cultural imperialism if you like, just so you answer the question.)

Addendum: Scribbler brings up an excellent point in the comments: isn't the name of a country determined by the government of that country? He gives as his example Burkina Faso, formerly Upper Volta. Now, that's an interesting example, because according to my bible in these matters, Pospelov's Geograficheskie nazvaniya mira, the name was changed precisely because the old one had so many variations: Upper Volta, Haute Volta, Alto Volta, Verkhnyaya Vol'ta, etc. This was seen as impractical, and the new name (which apparently means 'land of upright/honest/incorruptible people') was meant to provide a unique designation that would remain the same cross-linguistically. This can be called the poster boy of country-name change; it completely changes the name (for a sensible reason, even), and there seems no prospect of the name changing back. Burma/Myanmar is the opposite: the two are alternate modernizations of the same Sanskrit preform, so that in some sense they are "the same name," and there is every prospect of the preferred English version returning to Burma (if, as we all hope, the current thugs are tossed out). Another point is that there was not much occasion to refer to Upper Volta, so that the name change didn't cause many problems; Burma is much worse from that point of view, and the Chinese situation still worse. Obviously each case must be evaluated on its merits, but my point still remains: English-speakers have a right to their traditional place names (and pronunciations: Lyons used to be pronounced "lions" and Milan "MY-lun," but they changed in the natural course of events, not by diktat from abroad or above).

Added addendum: Renee has responded with a touching and poetic entry in her own blog, on the onomastic history of her hometown Lwow/Lviv/Lemberg and the ghosts of buildings; I urge everyone to go there at once.

Thursday, October 10, 2002

GOPNIK WATCH. A while back I posted an appreciation of Adam Gopnik, who writes with grace and humor on just about everything. (Slightly earlier, I had posted Babbling Babes, which referred to his sister's work on infant language. It's GopnikWorld here at languagehat.) Having finally gotten around to the Sept. 30 New Yorker (it's tough keeping up with all the periodicals), I just finished his "Bumping into Mr. Ravioli" and had to write another paean. This piece starts off as a charming description of his daughter's imaginary playmate:
My daughter Olivia, who just turned three, has an imaginary friend whose name is Charlie Ravioli. Olivia is growing up in Manhattan, and so Charlie Ravioli has a lot of local traits: he lives in an apartment "on Madison and Lexington," he dines on grilled chicken, fruit, and water, and, having reached the age of seven and a half, he feels, or is thought, "old." But the most peculiarly local thing about Olivia's imaginary playmate is this: he is always too busy to play with her....

On a good day, she "bumps into" her invisible friend and they go to a coffee shop. "I bumped into Charlie Ravioli," she announces at dinner (after a day when, of course, she stayed home, played, had a nap, had lunch, paid a visit to the Central Park Zoo, and then had another nap). "We had coffee, but then he had to run." She sighs, sometimes, at her inability to make their schedules mesh, but she accepts it as inevitable, just the way life is. "I bumped into Charlie Ravioli today," she says. "He was working." Then she adds brightly, "But we hopped into a taxi." What happened then? we ask. "We grabbed lunch," she says.
He and his wife are a little worried, and he consults his sister, the child psychologist. She says there's nothing to worry about; "most under-sevens (sixty-three per cent, to be scientific) have an invisible friend, and children create their imaginary playmates not out of trauma but out of a serene sense of the possibilities of fiction." (I was amazed by the 63% figure, by the way; why didn't I have one?)
I paused. "I grasp that it's normal for her to have an imaginary friend," I said, "but have you ever heard of an imaginary friend who's too busy to play with you?"

She thought about it. "No," she said. "I'm sure that doesn't occur anywhere in the research literature. That sounds completely New York." And then she hung up.
From there he goes into a discussion of why modern urbanites in general, and New Yorkers in particular, are so busy all the time when their ancestors didn't have the problem ("Pepys, master of His Majesty's Navy, may never have complained of busyness, but Virginia Woolf, mistress of motionless lull, is continually complaining about how she spends her days racing across London..."), and segues back to the playmate ("Charlie Ravioli, in other words, was just another New Yorker: fit, opinionated, and trying to break into show business"). Then the story takes a turn that it would be churlish to reveal, but the last page is a touching little minidrama that many authors would have made a whole meal out of rather than just dessert—it reminds me of Mozart's penchant for tossing in a couple of totally new melodies towards the end of a sonata-form movement when nobody expects him to do anything but restate the key he started in. Sorry, it's not online, but it will be in his next collection. Buy it.

(Incidentally, a few pages after "Mr. Ravioli" there's a cartoon showing a grumpy little boy lying in bed and his father, sitting on a stool with a book open in his hand, saying "It's not about the story. It's about Daddy taking time out of his busy day to read you the story." Probably coincidental, but a nice juxtaposition.)

Update: The Gopnik piece "The Cooking Game" that I wrote about earlier is now online here.

Tuesday, October 08, 2002

TARKOVSKY CORRECTION. A few weeks ago I posted an entry on the director Andrei Tarkovsky. I gave a couple of useful links about him and his father the poet, but the most gripping part was the second paragraph, in which I breathlessly recounted his descent from the shamkhals of Tarki. Alas, that appears to be a crock. I've just started reading his sister Marina's book Oskolki zerkala ('Shards of the Mirror,' or 'Shattered Mirror'), and the first section, Rodoslovnaya ('genealogy'), includes the following (my translation):
Papa's roots were in Poland. My grandfather was offered as an inheritance the ownerless herds and silver mines of the shamkhals of Tarki in Dagestan. This gave rise to the story [versiya] about the Caucasian origin of the family. There is no documentary support for this legend. Among the papers kept in our house after the death of Papa's mother was the genealogical tree of the Tarkovskys. On the parchment were little circles drawn in ink, and in each of them a name was written. I remember finding the names of Papa and of his brother Valya. More distant ancestors didn't interest me at all then. Afterwards, the parchment vanished. There remained an official document [gramota] from 1803, a "Patent," written in Polish, confirming the privileges of nobility [dvoryanskie privilegii] of Major Matvei Tarkovsky. From this document and from the "Dossier [delo] of the Noble Assembly of Volynsk Concerning the Noble Origin of the Tarkovsky Family" it is clear that Papa's grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather, and great-great-great-grandfather were soldiers living in the Ukraine. They were Roman Catholics, but Papa's father was inscribed in the Orthodox church book and considered himself Russian.

The Tarkovskys had fair hair and eyes. It was Papa's mother, Mariya Danilovna—daughter of a Kishinev postmaster, court counsellor Rachkovsky—who mixed up the cards, being dark because of her Romanian grandmother [?: v svoyu babku-rumynku]. Papa's family name combined with her dark coloring caused Dagestanis to think he was one of them, and certain Russians to ask the traditional question, "Tarkovsky... isn't that a Jewish name?" [ne evrei li Tarkovsky?] Even before the war this question interested our housemates. Semyonova, for example, was sure the answer was yes. Papa's nationality worried [volnovala] certain audience members at poetry readings as well, and they asked him about it in anonymous notes. Papa, who grew up in a family where people of all nationalities were treated equally, did not answer such notes. In general he was a little old-fashioned; he kissed women's hands and did not shake hands with scoundrels [ne podaval ruki podletsam].
So it looks like the Tarkovskys were Poles, not shamkhals. Fiction is stranger than truth. At least nobody picked up the story from my old entry and republished it to fool a larger audience...

Note: The translation has been edited in accordance with a very welcome e-mail; thanks, Renee!

Monday, October 07, 2002

HUGH MACDIARMID. One of my favorite poets is Hugh MacDiarmid, a Scotsman of violently clashing ideas (both a staunch Communist and a rabid Scots Nationalist) and undeniable poetic genius that shines through the artificial but convincing Lallans dialect in which he chose to write his earliest (and best) poems. Herewith "The Eemis Stane" ('the unsteady stone'), from Sangschaw (1925); how(e)-dumb-deid is 'depth, darkest point,' hairst is 'harvest,' lift 'sky,' yowdendrift 'blizzard,' fug 'moss,' hazelraw 'lichen,' and yirdit 'buried'—the rest shouldn't be too difficult. Listen to it.
I' the how-dumb-deid o' the cauld hairst nicht
The warl' like an eemis stane
Wags i' the lift;
An' my eerie memories fa'
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so's I couldna read
The words cut oot i' the stane
Had the fug o' fame
An' history's hazelraw
No' yirdit thaim.

Poetry update: I won't make this a separate entry, but there's a wonderful poem called "Mordred" by John Ashbery (who gets better every year -- I never used to like him much) in the Sept. 26 NYRB (you have to pay to get the poem, but the table of contents may help locate it for people who have the issue); it includes lines like "I was preternaturally wise/ but it was spring, there was no one to care or do./ It was spring and the sprinklers were on" and "But I do, I said. Then, well, it's like a clearing/ in the darkness that you can't see. Darkness is meant for all of us./ We grow used to it," but I'm really citing it for the last line, the new motto of the Hats page: "Oh yes well it is important to have a hat."
ARTS & LETTERS DAILY IS DEAD. Or at least comatose. But don't despair: Denis Dutton is continuing operations here.

Tuesday, October 01, 2002

COMPARING TRANSLATIONS. A fascinating article by Wendy Lesser, in which she discusses the art of translation and has the (all too rare) opportunity to compare two translations of a modern author, in this case Haruki Murakami. Here are versions of the first two paragraphs of his The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, first Jay Rubin's:
"When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini's The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.

"I wanted to ignore the phone, not only because the spaghetti was nearly done, but because Claudio Abbado was bringing the London Symphony to its musical climax."
And now Alfred Birnbaum's:
"I'm in the kitchen cooking spaghetti when the woman calls. Another moment until the spaghetti is done; there I am, whistling the prelude to Rossini's La Gazza Ladra along with the FM radio. Perfect spaghetti-cooking music.

"I hear the telephone ring but tell myself, Ignore it. Let the spaghetti finish cooking. It's almost done, and besides, Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra are coming to a crescendo."
This comes via Billy's Blog; I agree with his preference in translators, but I'll let you decide for yourself before checking with him.

Update. A great discussion about translating Murakami, who I may actually have to read. Thanks, Nelson!

Monday, September 30, 2002

WORDSEARCH, 2002. Sunday's New York Times Magazine contained a 66-page (!) insert entitled "wordsearch: a translinguistic sculpture by Karin Sander." It turns out to be an advertising supplement, and normally I wouldn't be promoting such things here, but I think you'll see why I couldn't resist when you read this description:
Her work of art, which she calls a "translinguistic sculpture," will be printed on October 4, 2002 in the New York Times. Wordsearch explores the hybrid surfaces of New York's linguistic landscape: on four double page spreads in the newspaper's business section, and thus in place of the daily share quotations and stock prices, words from 250 mother tongues spoken in New York are arranged into columns, each one having been donated by a native speaker living in the city and representative of the entire respective language, which has an opportunity to "get a word in" here in a literal sense. Each word, whether personally meaningful or particularly characteristic of the "donor's" culture, is in turn translated into every other language spoken in New York. The filigree web of text arising out of this and covering the pages of the newspaper may be read as a kind of dictionary – the result of a research project in linguistic anthropology. At the same time, however, it works as an abstract image: even at a short distance from the page, it resembles an information matrix difficult to comprehend and comprised of a pattern of lighter and darker grays.
That's taken from a website put up by Deutsche Bank to plug the project; unfortunately, the supplement itself doesn't seem to be online, but here's a news story about it, and here's a list of the languages -- click on any one and get a page where you can hear the chosen word spoken. The supplement itself includes not only six pages showing chosen words as written by the speakers ('help' in Burmese, 'guest' in Pakistani Punjabi, 'culture' in Icelandic, 'music' in Chickasaw, 'white' in Irish Gaelic, etc. etc.) but all sorts of essays, including one by Hilton Als on Marianne Moore. And everything's in both English and German. All in all, well worth trying to find (or digging through your Sunday paper for if you haven't thrown it out yet). I think it's an interesting idea, and I'll try to remember to buy the Times on Oct. 4.

Update. It's out today, and it's well worth checking out. English words across the top of the pages, other languages in columns below; under "butterfly," for example, are bilinwal, pillangó, papillon, farashah (in Arabic script), farfalla... The original chosen word of which the others are translations (in this case Turkish kelebek) are in bold and underlined, forming a diagonal pattern. It's pages C9-C16 of the New York edition.
FORGOTTEN ENGLISH. From a calendar of "vanishing vocabulary and folklore" given me last Christmas by a certain musical canine, for your delectation...
dateless: stupid; stupefied, dazed, without memory. From the analogy of a deed or letter which, without date, is legally useless.
smicker: to look amorously or wantonly.
gizzen: to grin audibly.
hempy: mischievous; having the qualities likely to suffer by cat o'nine tails, or the halter.
rotten logging: a term used when romantic couples sit on a log by moonlight to court.

Sunday, September 29, 2002

CONVERSATIONAL PROVERBS. I lived in Taiwan many years ago (teaching language and wearing hats), and one of the features of Chinese I remember fondly is the prevalence of proverbs and "four-character expressions" in everyday conversation. (I can remember it fondly because I wasn't seriously trying to learn Chinese; the woman I was living with was overwhelmed with the number of allusions she had to memorize in order to carry on a simple chat.) Here is a marvelous illustration of what it can be like (from Poagao's Journal), which gave me the first good laugh I've had this weekend (lovely weather, and I have such a wretched cold I can't even take advantage of it):

Just today after work I went to one place on Heping E. Road to let them know I wasn't interested in one of their places, but the lady was quite insistent. "So you'll take it?" she asked, nodding agreeably not two seconds after I had told her I wasn't overfond of the room.

"I don't particularly like the neighborhood."

"But one can only be a successful official when living in a peaceful residence," she countered, using a Chinese saying.

"I'd rather ride a donkey to look for my horse," I replied with another.

"I think you're painting legs on a snake here."

"The only snake is being reflected in my soup." This went on for awhile, but I knew when she started shifting to old Taiwanese sayings that I was fighting a losing battle. "I'm going to take a walk around the neighborbood," I said firmly, and as she tried to figure out what I was really trying to say with this apparently unknown ancient saying, I took advantage of the lull to beat a hasty retreat before I was drowned in irrelevant flowery rhetoric.
BASIL BUNTING. I am inspired by Moira Russell's A Constant Reader to quote some poetry here from time to time; after all, what could be more language-oriented? Today's portion is from Basil Bunting, the great and nearly forgotten Northumberland poet, of whom Allen Ginsberg said "I've taken his model syntactical swiftness as corrective for my own 'too many words'" and W.S. Merwin "There is no one like him among English poets of his time." Herewith the first of his two little gems dedicated to Anne de Silver:
Not to thank dogwood nor
the wind that sifts
petals are these words,
nor for a record,

but, as notes sung and received
still the air,
these are controlled by
yesterday evening,

a peal after
the bells have rested.

Friday, September 27, 2002

MENOMINEE. Another great link from the Merm: "Wisconsin tribal languages in danger of dying out" (from the University of Wisconsin's student newspaper -- how does she find this stuff?). The focus of the article is on Menominee, which apparently "has only 10 to 20 fluent speakers left, all of whom are elderly"; a group of linguists is helping the tribe with a language preservation project. What saddened me (besides the imminent extinction of the language, that is) was that the article didn't mention the linguist whose name used to be indissolubly linked with Menominee, the great Leonard Bloomfield, whose book The Menomini Language is a valued denizen of my linguistics shelf. (I see from that it's going for $125 and up! Hmm... but no, that would be wrong. Unless I really need the money.) A natural place to include him would have been their statement, "Currently, there is a Lexicon, but it's extremely hard to use and only goes from Menominee to English." That lexicon is Bloomfield's (edited by Charles F. Hockett, another great). I guess this is one of the consequences of the Chomskyan takeover of the field: everyone before Chomsky is forgotten.

Wednesday, September 25, 2002

MEL GIBSON SPEAKS ARAMAIC! Well, not exactly. But he's planning to make a movie in Aramaic and Latin (Latin? how about Greek?) about the last twelve hours in the life of Jesus. I don't care how bad it is, I won't be able to pass up a movie in Aramaic.

Update: Naomi has a splendid list of reactions to the idea of this movie, and I'm definitely going to want to see what she has to say if it ever gets made!

Monday, September 23, 2002

NOW THIS IS WHAT MAPUDUNGUN NEEDS. Inuktitut is having a language workshop. (Courtesy of Enigmatic Mermaid.)

Sunday, September 22, 2002

WER NICHT MEHR DA IST. I just learned that Peter Kowald, the great German free-jazz bassist, died early Saturday morning, apparently of a heart attack. Peter was a big part of the New York jazz scene, especially the Vision Festival, and his bald head was a familiar sight. I'm going to shoehorn him into Languagehat by pointing out that the title of his amazing solo album, Was da ist, often provided with a spurious question mark in English-language publications, is not an interrogative; it could be translated as 'what's there,' but the liner notes correctly translate it in context (Kowald's "Was da ist, das ist ja sehr viel, eigentlich fast alles") as "What there is": "What there is is quite a lot, actually almost everything." Or you may prefer the version at the end of the quote: "...But there is so much there, so much is at my disposal for which I am grateful, and I try to comprehend, to grasp, to utilise and to leave out, simply take what is there [was da ist]." Fine words for any artist to live by.

Update: Tuesday's New York Times has a well-informed obituary by Ben Ratliff:
There was great power and concentration in his improvising: he had a broad, strong sound, impeccable intonation and could spend long periods investigating a single pitch and its overtones. At certain moments, he would bend his torso so that his bald head pointed toward the audience, aim his mouth at the resonating chamber within the bass and perform the low subharmonic growls of Mongolian throat-singing, which he had learned while staying a Buddhist monastery in Japan during the early 1980's.
Also, on Wednesday WKCR, in my opinion NYC's best jazz station, will devote the entire day, midnight to midnight (EDT), to broadcasting Kowald's music, so if you're curious, it's a great way to hear him (they broadcast over the internet).

Saturday, September 21, 2002

VERBS IN COLLISION. I have complained elsewhere about the loss of the "might have" form in English, which is now rare even in printed periodicals. Here, from an article about an FBI agent who tried to warn about one of the 9/11 hijackers, is the first instance I have seen of the older and newer forms in hand-to-hand combat:
Through hearings this week and some in the future, Hill is painting a picture of missed opportunities. Individually, none may have prevented the attacks. But collectively, they might have unraveled the plot.

Friday, September 20, 2002

POETRY. I dropped by the Mid-Manhattan Library and visited their ongoing sale, coming away with a couple of poetry books for a buck each. One, Robert Kelly's 1973 The Mill of Particulars, is a signed limited edition (#190 of 200 hardcover), worthless, of course, because of the library stamps (I can't believe what libraries put in the sale bin, but that's a rant for another day), but irresistible at the price. It's worth mentioning here for the first poem, "prefix:) Against the Code," which begins:
Language is the only genetics.
"in which a man is understood & understands"
& becomes
what he thinks,
becomes what he says
following the argument.

. . . .

So the hasty road
& path of arrow
must lead up
from language again

& in language the work be done,
work of light,

The other is a very strange book called Gut Yuntif Gut Yohr, by Marie B. Jaffe; this 1966 "revised and enlarged edition" cost $3 at the time, and (amazingly) it's still in print for only $7.95, well below the rate of inflation (for books anyway). It contains Yiddish poetry in transliteration, some original but mostly translated; I'm not sure in what spirit Ms. Joffe intended the translations to be read, but they range from the respectable:
In der fertzarter Caravanserai,
Vu mir gefinen zich i tog und nacht,
Bemerk vie yeder Sultan in zein shtoltz
Voint zein besherteh shoh, und shtarbt avek.
--Der Rubaiyat
to the dissonant:
Ver is Sheyndeleh? Vos is zie,
Geloibt bei alleh mentshen?
Gut und frum und sheyn is zie,
Der oilim vil ihr bentshen.
(after Shakespeare's "Who Is Sylvia?")
to the just plain bizarre:
'Sis geven erev krismess, und shtill is in heizel,
Kein nefeshel rirt zich, afileh kein meizel...
(after "A Visit from St. Nicholas"!)
I'm still shaking my head in bewilderment, but I couldn't pass it up.

Wednesday, September 18, 2002

TARKOVSKY. OK, so you hip film-oriented folks already know about the amazing movies of Andrei Tarkovsky. (If you like them as much as I do, you may be interested in a couple of web sites that do a good job of presenting information and ideas about his work.) If you're in the New York area, you probably know about the retrospective going on at the Walter Reade (and I suggest getting a membership, so you can go as often as you like for half the price). You may even know that the director was the son of the poet Arsenii Tarkovsky (Russian link; I apologize to non-Russophones, but—shamefully—there does not appear to be an English-language site that discusses this peer of Akhmadulina and Voznesensky, if not of Brodsky, other than as the father of the director).

But I'll bet you didn't know (unless you're Avva, who knows all sorts of obscure things) that he was the direct descendant of the shamkhals of Tarki, feudal rulers of the Turkic Kumyk people who dominated a big chunk of the eastern Caucasus from the sixteenth century until the Russians conquered them in the early nineteenth. (Tarki, or Tarkou, was a fortress town near what is now Makhachkala in Dagestan; the adjectival form in Russian is tarkovskiy.) When Yo'av Karny, author of the delightful and informative book Highlanders (well reviewed here) asked a current Kumyk leader if Tarkovsky could have been the leader of a revived shamkhalate, he laughed and said "Sure, why not?"