Tuesday, January 07, 2003

THE LITERARY ENCYCLOPEDIA. Wood's Lot has directed my attention to The Literary Encyclopedia, a work in progress that aims to "provide profiles of the lives and works of literary authors whose works are valued in the English language, and to do so within an electronic publication which will enable readers to explore literary history as never before." A noble goal, and I wish them every success; having found the entry on Ezra Pound (a useful test case in several respects) properly appreciative and occasionally severe ("Guide to Kulchur (1938) is a less controlled prose diatribe, more of a political and cultural rant"), with a link to a useful Pound page from Kobe University, I have already bookmarked the site and will be following its progress.

There is, however, a caveat. The writing, while acceptable from academics (and mercifully free of Judith Butler–style jargon), is not of a particularly high order (as can be seen from the above quote: "...works of literary authors whose works are valued in the English language..."). This would not be especially significant except that they have chosen to write and include a style book, a "Guide to the Writing of Scholarly English" (I can't take you to it, thanks to their use of frames, but the link is in the left-hand column below "Make a Timeline"). Not only is this not required, or even expected, of such a site, it seems a pointless superfluity in a world where style guides are in plentiful supply online, from good old Strunk & White to the alt-usage-english FAQ. The bad writing, however, renders it not only otiose but obnoxious; what is the point of a style guide written in a manner that violates the very rules it wishes to inculcate? Here is the first paragraph of the Introduction:
I have written this guide to help explain why a feature of written English is incorrect. As many colleagues and students have found this guide useful, I have posted it in a public place, but I am anxious neither to set up as expert nor pedant. Like many teachers of English, I learned my grammar through foreign languages, and then through encountering problems in my teaching, rather than being properly taught. No one who takes language seriously can want to impose a procrustean idea of ‘right language'. Language grows and changes, but it does have to make sense. My aim has been to provide a reasoned check-list of good practice, and to do this in numbered paragraphs so that I (and others) can use it rapidly and effectively to help students when correcting essays. The reference numbers by each section point to an explanation of a common fault and provide examples of good and bad practice. If you find this guide useful, I will be very pleased. I will also welcome suggestions of improvement. If The English Style Book reduces the time spent puzzling about what someone might have been trying to say, and gives us more time to discuss the complexities of writing and experience, I will be very pleased.
To the first sentence I respond "which feature would that be?" I leave as an exercise for the reader the faults of grammar, style, or logic that pervade the rest. And if the good people at the Encyclopedia ultimately decide to junk the section (referring their students, perhaps, to the better-written and infinitely livelier Guide to Grammar and Style by fellow member of the professoriat Jack Lynch)... well, in their favorite locution, I will be very pleased.

Monday, January 06, 2003

LOCAL PRONUNCIATION. I reproduce below a letter from yesterday's NY Times ("The City" section, p. 11) with which I wholly agree:
To the Editor:

How could your F.Y.I. column give the answer it did to a reader plaintively asking for the proper way to pronounce "Kosciusko," stipulating "as in the Kosciusko Bridge"?

The column tamely chose the Polish way ("ka-SHUSH-ko").

I grew up in the Bronx in the 1930's, have lived in Brooklyn since the 60's, and have spent hours of my life stuck in traffic over fragrant Newtown Creek: we locals have always called it the "kos-kee-OSS-ko" bridge, even if we knew, as 30's kids did, the Polish pronunciation from high school history.

So, quaintly, which is "the proper way"? The Thames River is "Tems" in London, "Thaymes" in New London, Conn. If you mean the general, go Polish; the bridge, go local.

Brooklyn Heights
To which I can only add: I've lived in NYC over twenty years and never heard anyone pronounce the bridge's name à la polonaise, always either Brodtkorb's way or koss-ee-USS-ko. Does Mr. F.Y.I. also say HUE-ston Street and BROOK-ner Expressway? Faugh.

Query. The comments inspire me to ask the readership at large: Are there local pronunciations of place names in your area that outsiders are unlikely to get right?

Sunday, January 05, 2003

HIPPOCRENE. I imagine that those of my readers who are, like me, inveterate buyers of foreign-language dictionaries have run across the products of Hippocrene Books. First off, I would like to inform you that the good people at Hippocrene pronounce the name in the classical fashion, which is to say in four syllables (rhyming with "meanie"). How do I know this? I know because some years ago I was so put out by the poor quality of their concise Georgian dictionary (no longer, thankfully, in print) that I wrote them a scathing letter on the subject. Imagine my surprise when instead of a frigid dismissal (or, more likely, a resounding silence) I received an invitation to do better, and a suggestion to visit the Hippocrene offices if I was interested. I did so, and learned that they will basically publish any dictionary you submit, subject only to your acceptance of their derisory financial arrangements. (This means that the quality ranges from excellent to abysmal; caveat emptor.) As it happens, I had been putting together an English-Georgian word list for my own use (since no such thing was available), and I thought about taking them up on their offer. Eventually I decided against it—not so much because I didn't actually know Georgian (I knew I could do better than the existing book, and looked forward to creating a practical and compendious system of presenting the basic verb forms) as because it would be too damn much work.

But I digress. The point is that Hippocrene publishes an incredible array of dictionaries, from Afrikaans to Yoeme (a language I had never heard of), and increasing at a manic pace (surely Zulu can't be far behind), though occasionally retrogressing (apparently my tiny Yoruba dictionary is no longer available). This means that every time I go to a bookstore I risk being presented with an offer I can't refuse, no matter how fervently I wish to limit further encroachments on my absurdly overstrained bookshelves. Today I found no fewer than four dictionaries of whose existence I had no inkling. I managed to resist the Galician and Highlander Polish (though the latter was so recondite as to be tempting)—they looked a little too slapdash for my taste, and the languages are close enough to Portuguese and Polish respectively that I thought I could do without them. I could not, however, say no to the Kyrgyz and the Sorbian. Yes, Sorbian; my multiple posts on the subject put me in a position where I could hardly pass up a dictionary. And to think that when I was growing up you were lucky to find materials on anything beyond French, Spanish, and German...
TRUTH, LIES, AND OGONEKS. I would like to bring to your attention an essay by Timothy Garton Ash, who argues that although witnesses and memory are unreliable and objectivity is impossible, it is still important to respect "the frontier between the literature of fact and the literature of fiction" and to refuse to embellish reporting with telling details that didn't actually happen. He makes the point that this respect, this determination to stick to what one knows to be real, makes itself felt in the prose itself; he contrasts Paul Theroux's unconvincing claim that every word in The Great Railway Bazaar was written down at the time exactly as it happened with George Orwell's more modest, and therefore more believable, insistence in Homage to Catalonia that the reader "beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact, and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events." He also contrasts two books published as Holocaust memoirs:
Take a now notorious example: the book published in 1995 as Bruchstücke (in English, Fragments) by Binjamin Wilkomirski, which purported to be the memories of a man who survived the Nazi death camps as a Polish Jewish child. It is now established beyond reasonable doubt that the author was a Swiss musician of troubled past and disturbed mind, originally called Bruno Grosjean, who had never been near a Nazi death camp—but had imagined himself into that past, that other self. Reading Fragments now, one is amazed that it could ever have been hailed as it was. The wooden irony ("Majdanek is no playground"), the hackneyed images[...], the crude, hectoring melodrama [...]. Material which, once you know it is fraudulent, is truly obscene. But even before one knew that, all the aesthetic alarms should have sounded. For every page has the authentic ring of falsehood.

Compare this with the great books of true witness. Of course there are large variations in tone and style between these works. Many nonetheless have a certain voice in common: one of pained, sober, yet often ironical or even sarcastic veracity, which speaks from the very first line. Take, for example, and contrast with Wilkomirski, the first line of Levi's If This Is a Man: "It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944, that is, after the German government had decided, owing to the growing scarcity of labour, to lengthen the average life-span of the prisoners destined for elimination; it conceded noticeable improvements in the camp routine and temporarily suspended killings at the whim of individuals." How could we not believe this?
I have to admit that the impulse to make a Languagehat entry of the essay arose from an utterly trivial source, the irritation I experienced as a result of the following passage:
"You who harmed an ordinary man . . ." writes Czeslaw Milosz, in one of his most famous poems, "do not feel safe. The poet remembers./You may kill him—another will be born./Deeds and words shall be recorded." The poet remembers: Poeta pami, eta !
I was happy to see a bit of what I presumed was the original Polish quoted, but what was that "eta"? Some kind of Polish exclamation parallel to Greek opa? I don't know the language, so it took a while before I realized that it was not a separate word at all but part of the verb pamieta 'remembers'—except that the e should have an ogonek (like a right-pointing cedilla) underneath (making it nasal, so that the word is pronounced "pamyenta"), and there appears to be no way to achieve this either in HTML or in the online Guardian. I don't know how it wound up as a comma followed by an e, but surely someone at the paper might have noticed; of course, what they could have done about it is another question. It is presumably beyond the ambit of a Guardian copyeditor to know the details of Polish orthography and to realize that it would make more sense to print a simple e. I blame Ash, who's been in the business a long time and should know that asking a newspaper to reproduce a Polish nasal vowel is a losing proposition. [Via You Got Style.]

Incidentally, there is an interesting parallel to Ash's comparison of Wilkomirski and Levy in Matt Zoller Seitz's review of the new movie The Pianist, which he compares favorably to both Schindler's List and (especially) Max; he says:
While the director crafts some moments of nearly unbearable suspense and dares to see the humor in Szpilman's plight, there's nothing cheap, hustling or fashionable about this movie. It's done in a rigorously classical style that inattentive Polanski fans might mistakenly deem "conventional." They shouldn't. Polanski is a Polish Jew and longtime U.S. exile whose mother was killed at Auschwitz and whose wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family. The Pianist's precise, even meticulous approach suggests a deep respect for the brutalizing power of violence that can only have come from personal experience.

Saturday, January 04, 2003

DISAPPEARING GENDER IN RUSSIAN? Avva points out a phenomenon I had no inkling of: there is apparently a trend among young Russian-speaking women to refer to themselves (both in conversation and in blogs) using male verb and adjective forms. He speculates that this may be the beginning of the end of Russian gender, but reassures a concerned reader that even if this is the case it will take at least a couple of centuries.
LES BEAUX TRAVAUX DE LINGUISTIQUE. From Saint-John Perse's Exil (Neiges IV):
...voici que j'ai dessein d'errer parmi les plus vieilles couches du langage, parmi les plus hautes tranches phonétiques : jusqu'à des langues très lointaines, jusqu'à des langues très entières et très parcimonieuses,

      comme ces langues dravidiennes qui n'eurent pas de mots distincts pour «hier» et pour «demain». Venez et nous suivez, qui n'avons mots à dire : nous remontons ce pur délice sans graphie où court l'antique phrase humaine; nous nous mouvons parmi de claires élisions, des résidus d'anciens préfixes ayant perdu leur initiale, et devançant les beaux travaux de linguistique, nous nous frayons nos voies nouvelles jusqu'à ces locutions inouïes, où l'aspiration recule au-delà des voyelles et la modulation du souffle se propage, au gré de telles labiales mi-sonores en quête de pures finales vocaliques.

Friday, January 03, 2003

HUMMINGBIRD POEMS. Raphael Carter is looking for poems about hummingbirds. He has found three, one by Lawrence and two by Dickinson, which he reproduces and comments on with enthusiasm, whether he approves ("I would take the stanza beginning 'He never stops,' and the line 'reels in remoter atmospheres,' over just about anything else in American poetry. This is what astonishes me about Dickinson. She wrote close to two thousand poems, and nearly every one of them is forceful, original, and beautiful.") or disapproves ("[Lawrence] knows that hummingbirds are small and very fast and often very bright, and yet he writes this ponderous, ungainly poem whose rhythms would be more suitable for describing an elephant"). He says "There must be others—surely Frost wrote about hummingbirds somewhere..."; Elizabeth Bishop leapt to my mind, and she did mention "The tiniest green hummingbird in the world" in "Questions of Travel", but she doesn't seem to have written a poem specifically about the bird. I have found online a translation with commentary of a Zinacantán (Maya) hummingbird poem, but that may be a little far afield; anybody know others? [Via Plep.]

Update. Avva and his readers have found further examples, in both English and Russian.

Thursday, January 02, 2003

TOLKIEN TRANSLATION OF BEOWULF. Michael Drout, an assistant professor of English at Wheaton College, has discovered the manuscript of a complete translation of Beowulf, with commentary, by J.R.R. Tolkien. It will be published this summer and will presumably sell quite a few copies. [Via Pat.]

Addendum. Having now discovered Drout's blog (via Mind-Numbing), I must retract the last statement; apparently the translation won't be published this year, as can be seen from this entry (from an increasingly exasperated series):
First, though the Sunday Times calls it a "discovery," I'm a little uncomfortable with the term, since the material was right there in the Bodleian the whole time. The Bodleian's librarians and Christopher Tolkien certainly knew what it was. Second, there is almost no way I can see the Beowulf translations being published in 2003. While I've already done a lot of work on the translations (and they are pretty "clean" manuscripts, anyway), I really have to finish the volume of commentaries before I can publish the translations, since the commentaries explain the translations and I need to be clear in my own mind about Tolkien's intent before I make major editing decisions. I think I unintentionally confused the reporter when I said that I would probably be done with the translations at the end of the summer. That's true as far as it goes, but being done won't be enough, unfortunately.

All that said, the Beowulf translation is great and lovers of Tolkien will love it.

Wednesday, January 01, 2003

THE TRANSLATOR AS HERO. I was given a DVD of one of my favorite movies, Godard's Contempt, for Christmas, and I watched it this evening. Among the many striking features of the movie (such as the opening credits being given in voiceover, in Godard's inimitable rasp, rather than printed on the screen) is its multilingual nature; much of it consists of discussions between an American producer, a German director, and a French screenwriter, with occasional interactions with the Italian crew, and these discussions are made possible by the translator, Francesca, who is constantly rendering what we have just heard in English into French or vice versa (and on at least one occasion translating a remark before it has been made, a neat trick for which translators should get extra pay). It may be annoying to the average moviegoer, but it's catnip to the polyglot. (And it's worth the price of admission just to see Fritz Lang play European Culture Besieged By American Vulgarity—which reminds me, there is one glaring error in the newly done subtitles: when the producer says "Whenever I hear the word 'culture' I reach for my checkbook," Lang responds "Les Hitlériens disaient: 'mon révolver'," which the subtitles render "The Italians used to say 'my revolver'"!)

Addendum. I suppose I should explain the context of the "culture" reference for those who don't know it. There is a famous quote, usually given as "When I hear the word 'culture' I reach for my gun" and attributed to either Goering or (less often) Goebbels. Whether or not Goering ever said it (he may have been fond of quoting it, or it may have been attracted to the more famous, and thus memorable, source), it originally comes from Act I, Scene I of Hanns Johst's play Schlageter (first performed for Hitler's birthday in 1933): "Wenn ich Kultur höre ... entsichere ich meinen Browning!" ('When I hear "culture," I release the safety catch on my Browning [revolver]!').

Tuesday, December 31, 2002

PEACE. I would like to wish all Languagehat readers a happy new year; may 2003 be a year of peace for each of us individually and for the world at large.
I do not want the peace which passeth understanding, I want the understanding which bringeth peace.
—Helen Keller
TRADUCING TOLKIEN. I saw The Two Towers yesterday and enjoyed it a lot—partly because the theater kept the sound down to a level where I didn't have to keep my hands over my ears for half the move; theater owners please take note! (Best Languagehat line: "It takes a long time to say anything in Old Entish.") However, I had not read the books in decades, so discrepancies were lost on me aside from a little uneasiness around the edges. Now that I've read Naomi's detailed demolishing in Baraita, I like the movie less in retrospect. Renee has a more narrowly focused attack in Glosses.net. Tolkien fans will want to read both.

Monday, December 30, 2002

MEMORIZING POETRY. Yesterday's NY Times had a good op-ed piece, A Lost Eloquence, by Carol Muske-Dukes on the value of memorizing poetry, which I heartily endorse. The opening is a little silly, but here's the heart of the essay:
Years ago, when I taught in the graduate program in writing at Columbia, the late Russian poet Joseph Brodsky was also on the faculty. Brodsky famously infuriated the students in his workshop on the first day of class, when he would announce that each student would be expected to memorize several poems (some lengthy) and recite them aloud. The students — even if they had known that Brodsky had learned English in dissenter's exile in Russia by putting to heart the poems of Auden, among others — were outraged at first.

There was talk among students of refusing to comply with this requirement. Then they began to recite the poems learned by heart in class — and out of class. By the end of the term, students were "speaking" the poems of Auden and Bishop and Keats and Wyatt with dramatic authority and real enjoyment. Something had happened to change their minds. The poems they'd learned were now in their blood, beating with their hearts.

In the workshops I teach I continue to ask students to choose poems to memorize. Recently, a young woman loudly resisted what she called a boring exercise. But after memorizing Emily Dickinson, Countee Cullen, Sylvia Plath and several haiku by Issa, she was still going strong — delighted with how the words rolled trippingly off her tongue. "I own these poems now," she said.

Sunday, December 29, 2002

LOWERCASE THAT I! I don't tend to join crusades, but I'm hereby enlisting in Joseph Turow's. According to John Schwartz's article "Who Owns the Internet? You and i Do" in this week's NY Times Week in Review, Turow is campaigning to have the word "internet" spelled with a small i.
Capitalization irked him because, he said, it seemed to imply that reaching into the vast, interconnected ether was a brand-name experience.

"The capitalization of things seems to place an inordinate, almost private emphasis on something," he said, turning it into a Kleenex or a Frigidaire. "The Internet, at least philosophically, should not be owned by anyone," he said, calling it "part of the neural universe of life."

But, he said, dropping the big I would sent a deeper message to the world: The revolution is over, and the Net won. It's part of everyone's life, and as common as air and water (neither of which starts with a capital).
I've always thought of the word as lowercase, and it irritates me every time I see that capital I. Mind you, there are (as always) obstacles to change:
Dictionaries do not generally see themselves as making the rules, said Jesse Sheidlower, who runs the American offices of the Oxford English Dictionary.

"What dictionaries do is reflect what's out there," he said. He and his fellow dictionary editors would think seriously about such changes after newspapers make them, he added.

That could take a while. Allan M. Siegal, a co-author of The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage and an assistant managing editor at the newspaper, said that "there is some virtue in the theory" that Internet is becoming a generic term, "and it would not be surprising to see the lowercase usage eclipse the uppercase within a few years."

He said, however, that the newspaper was unlikely to make any change that was not supported by authoritative dictionaries.
And, by the way, "the Internet's capital I is virtually engraved in stone, since Microsoft Word automatically capitalizes the lowercase "i" unless a user overrides its settings."

So fight the power and force the newspapers, the dictionaries, and Bill Gates to recognize the new, non-brand-name reality—write "internet"!

Saturday, December 28, 2002

GAZABO. No, not "gazebo": it's a slang term from the early part of the last century meaning 'guy, fellow' or (according to Howard N. Rose's 1934 A Thesaurus of Slang) 'a friend or companion.' Jack London in Valley of the Moon (1913) uses it thus: "By the sixth round the wise gazabos was offerin' two to one against me." I came across it in a poem by Edwin Honig, "The Gazabos." The poem is a bit long to quote in full here, but it can be found online (a page with a large number of poems; search on "gazabos" or scroll to about two-thirds down). Here is the beginning:
I saw them dancing,
the gazabos, apes of joy, swains of
their pocket mirrors, to each a world:
a dancing, a gallumphing, a guzzling
of themselves.

They yapped, they cooed,
they flapped their feet and winked grimaces
into grins. They rapped their knuckles on
their teeth and bled and licked
the blood like honey.

Turning the corner
to my street, I spat on each
gazabo as they came. They loved it,
they could barely keep
from following....

Friday, December 27, 2002

GANGS OF NEW YORK. I have lots of things to say about this movie, which (besides having great acting from Daniel Day-Lewis and Jim Broadbent) puts you in mid-nineteenth-century New York so convincingly you can practically smell the pigs wandering the streets in Five Points, but what's relevant to Languagehat is, of course, the language. Which is magnificent. Much of the script (especially Day-Lewis's part) was obviously written with a deep love for the period's mix of high and low, exemplified by the line "I don't give a tuppenny fvck for your moral conundrums!" (No, he doesn't say "fvck," that's my attempt to avoid misbegotten googlings.) And the attention paid to detail can be heard in the way a policeman discussing problems at various locations during the Draft Riots refers to "Broad Way"; you can hear the two words, not ostentatiously but clearly. For that sort of thing I am willing to forgive some of the historical lapses (though not the absurd shelling of the city at the climax of the riots, obviously inserted to provide more bang for the multimillion bucks). I must warn potential viewers, though, that this is an extremely violent movie; anyone made queasy by multiple shootings, stabbings, hatchetings, brainings, and the like should avoid it (or at least wait for the video, where you can fast-forward through the gore).

Thursday, December 26, 2002

HERESY OF THE DAY. I was looking for an entirely different word in the Shorter Oxford when I ran across the mysterious term "Osiandrian." I don't know why religious sects so often have such recondite-sounding names, but they do; in high school I was fascinated by the word "Muggletonian" (and still am, truth be told, though I have no idea what belief it was that Muggleton held so fervently), and I couldn't resist this. I could quote you the Oxford's boring definition about the Atonement of Christ being wrought by His divine nature, but instead I will serve up this pungent piece of rhetoric from "The Osiandrian Controversy" at the fundamentalist-Lutheran site Concordia Lutheran Online:
Wherever the vicarious atonement of Christ is denied or minimized as the cause of man's justification; wherever God's forensic act of Objective Justification is rejected; wherever the "Christ in us" is substituted for (or stressed above) the "Christ FOR us"; wherever Christians are taught to place their confidence and look for the assurance of forgiveness in their "personal experience with Jesus Christ" and their mystical relationship with the indwelling Savior; and wherever poor sinners are directed to their own works of sanctification for favor with God, as if they in any way merit His goodness—there the error of Osiander still lurks in the bushes.
Addendum. Pete, of the excellent New Companion, provides this touching testimonial:
I do believe in God alone,
Likewise in Reeve and Muggleton.

This is the Muggletonian's faith,
This is the God which we believe;
None salvation-knowledge hath,
But those of Muggleton and Reeve.
Christ is the Muggletonians' king,
With whom eternally they'll sing.

GAELIC AND SORBIAN. "Essentialism and Relativism in Gaelic and Sorbian Language Revival Discourses" (Paper given by Konstanze Glaser on 30 January 2002) is actually pretty interesting, with information on the background and present status of the two languages (that's Scottish Gaelic, by the way, which I didn't realize at first; since the paper was presented to the Department of Celtic and Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh, it's understandable the Scottish part was taken for granted). And of course Languagehat is known to take an interest in Sorbian. The main reason I'm posting it, however, is the unexpected pairing of the two languages. When I saw the title, I blinked and repeated the words of my dear departed mother: "I never thought the subject would come up." An excerpt:
Gaelic has served as a reminder of an original genetic and cultural link of indigenous Highlanders to the traditional Gaelic-speaking community of Ireland. Gaels have celebrated this link as a confirmation of their share in a rich cultural heritage and as a source of Pan-Celtic sensibilities, but there has never been a serious attempt to (re)establish a political union between them and their Irish counterparts. At the same time, Gaelic has functioned as a boundary marker towards the Lowlands. The Gaelic term Gàidhealtachd still is translated as both 'Gaeldom' and 'Highlands' even though the continued retreat of Gaelic language ability and language use to the Western periphery and a growing share of 'Highland' natives whose biographies were only marginally affected by the region's traditional language and culture have made the composite meaning of the term Gàidhealtachd problematical.

Tuesday, December 24, 2002

HAIRY ISTHMUS TO ALL! Eeksy-Peeksy has a little ditty (or, as he calls it, augury doggerel) that made me laugh despite my wretched cold, and I thought I'd share it with my readers. However, since 1) it may offend those who are solemn about the Nativity season and 2) it contains words that I don't want drawing Google hits to Languagehat, I will put the actual ditty in a comment; if the comments are temporarily missing (sigh), just click on the Eeksy link above to be taken right to it. I will probably not be blogging tomorrow (too busy stuffing myself with Norwegian meatballs), so I will take this opportunity to wish all Languagehat aficionados a merry & happy twenty-fifth of December, whether or not you assign any metaphysical significance to the date.

Monday, December 23, 2002

LANGUAGEHAT RESTORED. Thanks to a timely intervention by Anton Sherwood, the muttering Ogre, I found my missing entry by the simple expedient of republishing the archive. I apologize for crying wolf, but dammit, the gate of the sheepfold was open, I could have sworn I saw wolf tracks, and it's so hard counting virtual sheep... At any rate, I am glad to know I have readers so willing to help out and encourage me to improve the blog; I appreciate all of your comments to the earlier entry, and I promise I'll switch to Movable Type!

Sunday, December 22, 2002

TIMES WATCH. In a silly article called "Suddenly, It's Easier to Find a Hero Than a Villain," Rick Lyman rehashes the ancient wheeze about how hard it is to find acceptable ethnic groups for a villain to belong to since the fall of the Soviet Union. I can forgive him that—the Times has to fill the "Week in Review" section somehow—but I can't forgive him this sentence:
When it comes to choosing villains for big popcorn movies — a task that used to be as easy as "Where did we put those Nazi uniforms?" — it is becoming more and more difficult to take a step without trodding on someone's tender toes.
"Trodding"?? Does Rick think about what he's wroting, or does he just sat down and let flew? And where are the editors, for the love of god?

Addendum. Having recently beaten William Safire like a rented mule, I feel I should compliment him for this week's column. Not only does he provide interesting information about the etymology of "pot" (I'm not at home and don't have my full array of sources, but the Online Etymology Dictionary agrees: "pot (2) - 'marijuana,' 1938, probably a shortened form of Mexican Sp. potiguaya marijuana leaves.'"), he openly disagrees with the unfortunate Times decision to refer to Saddam Hussein as "Mr. Hussein." As the column says, "Hussein is not a family name but his father's first name." This is something I rarely see referred to, and Safire is absolutely right to insist on calling the dictator "Saddam."
FUJIMORI. I have never figured out how to pronounce the family name of Alberto Fujimori, quondam president of Peru. There is debate over whether he was born in Japan or Peru, but his native language is Spanish, so he (like all Peruvians) pronounces his name with a Spanish j (=kh). That should settle the matter, except that it feels strange to be pronouncing a clearly Japanese name in such an un-Japanese way. (Compare the discussion of how to pronounce foreign names in this earlier entry.)

Saturday, December 21, 2002

THE ULWA PROJECT. I happened on a very well done site, The Ulwa Project, which includes a dictionary of this language (of the Misumalpan family) of eastern Nicaragua as well as Thomas Green's dissertation, "A Lexicographic Study of Ulwa" (MIT 1989) and is dedicated to recording and preserving the fast-dwindling language. I liked very much Green's acknowledgments, in which (along with the usual suspects) he thanks Eugene "Sully" Sullivan, "the night custodian on the third floor of the now-deceased Building 20.... He was always good for some Red Sox talk or griping about the system or keeping a pot of coffee brewing in one of the biohazard labs."

Friday, December 20, 2002

OLD ENGLISH COMPUTER TERMS. For example, boot up = inspinngehweorfastyrian. Via Avva.
TRANSLATING GENDER. Jacek Krankowski, a professional translator, has a very interesting discussion of problems involved in translating between languages with grammatical gender marking and those without. Some samples:
The Russian painter Repin was baffled as to why Sin had been depicted as a woman by German artists; he did not realize that "sin" is feminine in German (die Sünde), but masculine in Russian (grekh). Likewise a Russian child, while reading a translation of German tales, was astounded to find that Death, obviously a woman (Russian smert, fem.) was pictured as an old man (German der Tod, masc.). My sister Life, the title of a book of poems by Boris Pasternak, is quite natural in Russian, where 'life' is feminine (zhizn), but was enough to reduce to despair the Czech poet Josef Hora in his attempt to translate these poems, since in Czech this noun is masculine (zivot). (1959: 237)

Similarly, the German painter Stuck personified the gruesome war as a man (der Krieg, masc.) while, in contrast, the Polish painter Grotger represented a similar war-like figure as a woman (wojna, fem.) (de Courtenay, 1929: 246)....

In Daphne du Maurier's gothic-like novel Rebecca, the protagonists, Maxim and his wife, have invited some relatives to their once-deserted manor in the English countryside. After dinner, Maxim's brother-in-law expresses his admiration for the meal by saying:
Same cook I suppose, Maxim?
There is no later reference in the book to the cook and the sex of this chef de cuisine is never revealed. How does a translator, whose task it is to translate the sentence into a language that shows grammatical gender, cope with this problem? How does he/she know whether the cook is male or female? There seems to be no one agreed solution as five different translations into grammatical gender languages show:

French: la meme cuisinière
Italian : lo stesso cuoco
Spanish: el mismo cocinero
Portuguese: a mesma cozinheira
German: dieselbe Köchin
(Wandruszka 1969: 173)
The example demonstrates that three translators assigned 'generally female' and two 'generally male' as the social gender of cook. Whether this is due to the translators' lack of knowledge as to what type of cook is more likely to be in a noble English manor or whether this is due to their ideological expectations as to what is likely in their own community, is an open question.
He gives several other examples of different translators coping with the same text; I love this sort of thing, and would happily read an entire book of it. [Via Enigmatic Mermaid.]
OD, A MONOSYLLABLE. Now, here's a branch of the sciences that has been too long neglected. From the OED:
Od. A hypothetical force held by Baron von Reichenbach (1788-1869) to pervade all nature, manifesting itself in certain persons of sensitive temperament (streaming from their finger-tips), and exhibited especially by magnets, crystals, heat, light, and chemical action; it has been held to explain the phenomena of mesmerism and animal magnetism.
An odd name, you say? But it was chosen for impeccably logical reasons: "I will take the liberty to propose the short word Od for the force which we are engaged in examining. Every one will admit it to be desirable that a unisyllabic word beginning with a vowel should be selected... for the sake of convenient conjunction in the manifold compound words.... Instead of saying, 'the Od derived from crystallization', we may name this product crystallod." (Ashburner 1850, tr. Reichenbach's Dynamics 224). Those interested can pursue their odylic studies here. Od's most significant appearance in literature is probably in the Seventh Book of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh:
We think, here, you have written a good book,
And you, a woman! It was in you—yes,
I felt 'twas in you: yet I doubted half
If that od-force of German Reichenbach
Which still from female finger-tips burns blue,
Could strike out, as our masculine white heats,
To quicken a man. Forgive me. All my heart
Is quick with yours, since, just a fortnight since,
I read your book and loved it.
But it is also referred to in Avram Davidson's The Enquiries of Doctor Eszterhazy, a collection of stories about curious events in the Empire of Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania which I recommend to anyone interested in fine prose and recondite phenomena.

Thursday, December 19, 2002

THE PERFECT SQUELCH. Anton Sherwood cites a story about three Romanian gymnasts being banned by their federation for giving a nude performance in Japan: "The trio had 'tarnished the image of gymnastics' with their naked performance . . . in a DVD filmed in Chiba prefecture outside Tokyo, said the Romanian gymnastics federation president Nicolae Vieru." The Ogre remarks: "Spoilsport. He should look up the etymology of gymnast sometime. "

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

97 AND STILL GOING STRONG. I should have been paying more attention to Stanley Kunitz. This poem is wonderful:

"The Testing-Tree", section 4

In the recurring dream
   my mother stands
      in her bridal gown
under the burning lilac,
   with Bernard Shaw and Bertie
      Russell kissing her hands;
the house behind her is in ruins;
   she is wearing an owl's face
      and makes barking noises.
Her minatory finger points.
   I pass through the cardboard doorway
      askew in the field
and peer down a well
   where an albino walrus huffs.
      He has the gentlest eyes.
If the dirt keeps sifting in,
   staining the water yellow,
      why should I be blamed?
Never try to explain.
   That single Model A
      sputtering up the grade
unfurled a highway behind
   where the tanks maneuver,
      revolving their turrets.
In a murderous time
   the heart breaks and breaks
      and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
   through dark and deeper dark
      and not to turn.
I am looking for the trail.
   Where is my testing-tree?
      Give me back my stones!

Copyright (c) 1995 Stanley Kunitz
from Passing Through: the Later Poems, New and Selected (via Wood's Lot)
JEWISH FAMILY NAMES. From Beth Hatefutsoth (via Plep) comes an introduction to their database of Jewish names. Getting information on particular names costs five bucks a pop, but the introduction is well worth reading:
In all Diaspora communities, Jews had a preference for surnames of biblical or Hebrew origin. Not only did they choose biblical given names that had been in Jewish usage for generations – Shimon, David, Yaakov, Abraham, Aharon and many others – but also biblical toponyms like Jerusalem, Bethlehem and other venerated sites and landmarks of the Land of Israel. Yet, Jews did not use the name in the original form, but generally changed its spelling and pronunciation or added prefixes and/or suffixes from other languages. In this way, they wished to combine their ancestral heritage with a sincere desire to be integrated into the non-Jewish surrounding society. Family name Nathansohn is an example of choosing a biblical name – Nathan – to which the German suffix "-sohn" (meaning "son") was added to confer it a more German appearance. In North Africa, the biblical Yaakov became the family name Vaaknin, which is a diminutive of Yaakov in the local Berber language. As a result, the Hebrew name sounded more similar to a local Berber or Arabic name.

Sometimes family names were created by using acronyms or anagrams of Hebrew words. Thus, the name's sound and spelling was changed, transforming it into a European name while keeping the original meaning: Katz, which is a Hebrew acronym of Kohen Zedek ("rightful priest") (ë"õ) means "cat" in German. Family names Wiehl or Weill are anagrams of the biblical name Levi.

Translating a Hebrew name was another popular method for selecting a family name: Hayyim (literally: "life") became Vivas or Bibas for Ladino speaking Jews, while Cohen (meaning "priest") was translated as Kaplan ("chaplain", in German).
I'm assuming that their information is accurate; what I know about seems correct, but as always I welcome corrections from knowledgeable readers.

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

LANGUAGEHAT HACKED. Over the weekend I was trying to access an earlier entry; my archives had disappeared (which happens every once in a while with Blogger), but I assumed I'd be able to retrieve it via Google. However, Google seemed to have no record of it, which worried me; it occurred to me that some rabid Greek nationalist with hacker skills might have taken offense at my account of Macedonian history and somehow removed it. I had no way of finding out for sure until my archives returned; now they have, and my fears are confirmed: the entry is gone. Here is the problem report I sent Blogger:
Almost a month ago I published in my blog Languagehat an entry titled "Purity vs. History 4," the last in a series of entries about Greek history. This one concerned Macedonia, and I was aware that it would be controversial (Greeks are obsessed with the issue), but apparently an offended hacker has gone to the trouble of deleting the entry from my blog. I have no idea how it was done, not being a computer maven, but you can see the evidence here:
In that blank space at the top is where the entry should be; it would have been dated either the 18th or the 19th of November. I hope this concerns you as much as it does me, and it concerns me a great deal: I put a lot of work into that entry, and to have it erased is not only a personal violation but an intellectual crime. Even though I am not a paying user, I hope you will respond and treat this with the seriousness it deserves. I thank you in advance.


Language hat
Blogger proudly announces that they do not provide personal support unless you fork out for BloggerPro, but I'm hoping this is serious enough that they will deal with it. If anyone out there knows how to contact Blogger directly, please let me know. This is very upsetting.

Update: It turns out the blank space is unrelated (the source code is missing a line valign="top" so the vertical alignment defaults to "middle"). However, the entry is still missing. [Thanks, Songdog!]
TRANSLATING ANTIGONE. This introduction to Sophocles' Antigone includes an excellent discussion of the problems of translation. Here's a paragraph on the opening line (discussed in a previous Languagehat post):
From the first line, the translator confronts the abyss separating Sophocles' Greek from English. Our translation, "O common one of the same womb, dear head of Ismene" uses eleven words for five of the original. An endearment like "dear heart, Ismene" would be more readily understood than "head of Ismene" but with a false familiarity: the Greeks spoke of the head, not the heart, as the center of love and affection. Richard Jebb's translation, "Ismene, my sister, mine own dear sister," forfeits the slight delay in discovering the identity of the addressee and dilutes the hyperbolic expression of kinship.(2) Elizabeth Wyckoff's "My sister, my Ismene" and Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald's "Ismene, a dear sister" further diminish the urgency perceptible in the words of kinship. Kinship is emphasized in Andrew Brown's "Sisters, closest of kindred, Ismene's self " and in Richard Emil Braun's "Ismene? Let me see your face," although "Ismene's self " is no more English idiom than the literal "head of Ismene," and looking upon Ismene's face is not in the Greek. Robert Fagles' "My own flesh and blood--dear sister, dear Ismene" highlights the physicality of the kinship Antigone asserts with Ismene at the price of abandoning the Greek. "Ismene, my dear sister whose father was my father" (Grene) stresses the notion of the sisters' kinship shared through the father, an emphasis on father that not only is not in the Greek but imports father into words that denote kinship through the womb. Each version of line 1 promises a faithful translation, but they are not the same English, since the translator cannot escape imposing his or her layer of meaning upon Antigone of the written page.

Saturday, December 14, 2002


On an empty sarcophagus
   hewn out of alabaster,
A branch of fennel on an
   empty sarcophagus...

Nothing suggests accident
   where the beast
Is finishing her rest...

Smoke of ultramarine and amber
Floats above the fields after
Moonlit rains, from tree unto tree
Distils the radiance of a king...

You might as well see the new branch of Enkidu;
And that is no new thing either...

Christopher Okigbo

Friday, December 13, 2002

SINGULAR "THEIR." I have long been pushing for the acceptance of "they/their" as the gender-neutral third person singular pronoun, and I am delighted to discover (via fabulousness) a site that nails down its credentials so thoroughly it might shake even the ossified beliefs of William Safire:
These files contain a list of over 75 occurrences of the words "they"/"their"/"them"/"themselves" referring to a singular antecedent with indefinite or generic meaning in Jane Austen's writings (mainly in her six novels), as well as further examples of singular "their" etc. from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and elsewhere. While your high-school English teacher may have told you not to use this construction, it actually dates back to at least the 14th century, and was used by the following authors (among others) in addition to Jane Austen: Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, the King James Bible, The Spectator, Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, Frances Sheridan, Oliver Goldsmith, Henry Fielding, Maria Edgeworth, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, William Makepeace Thackeray, Sir Walter Scott, George Eliot [Mary Anne Evans], Charles Dickens, Mrs. Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, John Ruskin, Robert Louis Stevenson, Walt Whitman, George Bernard Shaw, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, W. H. Auden, Lord Dunsany, George Orwell, and C. S. Lewis.

Singular "their" etc., was an accepted part of the English language before the 18th-century grammarians started making arbitrary judgements as to what is "good English" and "bad English", based on a kind of pseudo-"logic" deduced from the Latin language, that has nothing whatever to do with English. (See the 1975 journal article by Anne Bodine in the bibliography.) And even after the old-line grammarians put it under their ban, this anathematized singular "their" construction never stopped being used by English-speakers, both orally and by serious literary writers. So it's time for anyone who still thinks that singular "their" is so-called "bad grammar" to get rid of their prejudices and pedantry!
Incidentally, this is part of Henry Churchyard's linguistics page, which also contains his dissertation, Topics in Tiberian Biblical Hebrew Metrical Phonology and Prosodics, as well as "The vowel system of a reconstructed 18th-century proto-language ancestral to modern 'standard' English dialects in both England and America," Twain's hilarious "The Awful German Language," and a couple of other things.

Thursday, December 12, 2002

OH, JUST ABSQUATULATE, BILL. It's been a while since I last lambasted William Safire, so let's take a look at his latest bout of lexicoskepsis, "Gifts o' Gab". This week he's doing his annual Xmas-book column, and he begins by recommending the newly issued Volume IV of the Dictionary of American Regional English. Fine with me, I hope he sells people on it (though it's hardly a "bargain at 90 bucks")—but he refers to the dictionary as "the set that no library can afford to absquatulate." Sorry, my lad, but absquatulate is an intransitive verb; to quote the American Heritage Dictionary,
INTRANSITIVE VERB: Midwestern & Western U.S. 1a. To depart in a hurry; abscond: “Your horse has absquatulated!” (Robert M. Bird). b. To die. 2. To argue.
It doesn't mean anything like 'do without,' which is what you were trying, with your usual clumsy jocularity, to convey.

He goes on to recommend several other books, some of which (like the two by Fiske) sound like a rehash of the usual useless maxims (short words are better than long!—well, sometimes they are and sometimes they aren't) and some of which (Metcalf and Bryson) sound interesting. He likes the fact that Bryson corrects his use of "munch" (one of Safire's winning characteristics is his willingness to acknowledge error), but he goes on:
Bryson and I part company on begging the question, which he accurately describes as presenting as proof something that itself needs proving, like the logical fallacy ''parallel lines will never meet because they are parallel.'' He abandons the ramparts with ''I am inclined to think that insisting absolutely on the traditional sense is more a favor to pedantry than to clarity.''....In my book, if you mean ''raise the question'' or ''pose the question,'' say so; but if you mean ''that's a phony argument that turns in on itself,'' say ''beg the question.''
This is one of those issues that is catnip to the adolescent language-lover but which a sensible person grows out of. I too used to enjoy tormenting people with the "truth" about the phrase, but I eventually realized that, whatever its origins in philosophy and petitio principii, I had never seen or heard the phrase used "correctly" except by people making a point of doing so (cf. "hoi polloi"); in current English usage, "beg the question" means 'raise the question,' and that's that. I got over it, and so should Safire. (An anguished appraisal by the earnest Michael Quinion of World Wide Words ends by saying the phrase is "better avoided altogether"; like Fowler's similar recommendation concerning "hoi polloi," this counsel of despair is a sign that the language has sailed on, leaving wistful archaists treading water and clutching at the stern.)
MORE PEOPLE SHOULD DO THIS. Joey deVilla provides a loving description of his Toronto neighborhood (near Queen Street West), with descriptions of businesses, sociological summary, brief history, and lots of pictures that give me a real sense of what the place is like. There should be a web ring of bloggers who do this for their own neighborhoods; I'd happily spend many hours investigating them. I'm easily bored by monuments, but I never tire of street scenes and local quirks. [Via Gideon Strauss.]

Wednesday, December 11, 2002


She stole ma hat
    ma hat . was in the lounge with ma jacket
The jacket she dint take it, but
         ma hat, she tukkit, clean
         outa the place . she liked
ma hat . & went with it to the room & danced,
     DANCED with it, wearin the hat she
danced, and dint expect I'd cum back ferit . ah did .
      Pretended I hadn't figured it out
      talkin with her friend . I'd figured
            she laiked ma hat .
Next mornin, nobuddy up, both of 'em sleepin late .
             "Come in"
                             I did, & there it was,
ma hat
on the bed . She'd bigod
                                  slept with ma hat!

Paul Blackburn

Monday, December 09, 2002

JOURNALISM HAVING NEW SYNTAX. Sunday's "Week in Review" section of the NY Times had an article by Geoffrey Nunberg discussing a phenomenon I have noticed but not seen mentioned before, the proliferation of participles taking the place of verbs in news broadcasting.
...The all-news networks have begun to recite their leads to a new participial rhythm: "In North Dakota, high winds making life difficult; the gusts reaching 60 m.p.h." . . . "A Big Apple accident, two taxicabs plowing into crowds of shoppers" — call the new style ing-lish. Fox News Channel and CNN have adopted it wholesale, and it's increasingly audible on network news programs as well.

The odd thing is that not even the newscasters seem to have a clear idea of what they're doing, or why. A "Newshour With Jim Lehrer" feature described the style as one of "dropping most verbs, putting everything in the present tense."

But cable news reporters don't actually drop any verbs except "to be," and that only in sentences like "President Bush in Moscow." And those participles like "plowing" aren't in the present tense — they don't have any tense at all.

What ing-lish really leaves out is all tenses, past, present or future, and with them any helping verbs they happen to fall on — not just be, but have and will. Newscasters used to say "The Navy has used the island for sixty years but will cease its tests soon." On CNN or Fox, that comes out as "The Navy using the island for sixty years but ceasing its tests soon."

What's the point of this? The NewsHour calls it "an abbreviated language unique to time-pressed television correspondents," and points to the need to shoehorn as many stories as possible into a brief space. But the new syntax doesn't actually save any time — sometimes, in fact, it makes sentences longer. "Bush met with Putin" is one syllable shorter than "Bush meeting with Putin."

Strangely, broadcasters don't seem to realize how bizarre the new style sounds. Fox newscaster Shepherd Smith calls it "people speak" and explains, "It's about how would I tell this story if I were telling it to a friend on a street corner." But that must be a pretty exotic intersection, if Mr. Smith's buddies are saying things like "My car in the shop. The brakes needing relining."
SORBS IN THE NEWS. From BYU News (via Pat) comes this story about one of the least known minority communities of Europe (and Texas!), the Sorbs. Sorbian (also called Wendish and Lusatian) is a Slavic language (a fact oddly unmentioned in the BYU article), closely related to Polish [and Czech—thanks, Mark!]; here is a detailed discussion of its history and place in contemporary Germany, and here are versions of "Silent Night" in both High and Low Sorbian.

Addendum. R.G.A. de Bray, in his still very useful Guide to the Slavonic Languages (J.M. Dent & Sons, 1951, rev. ed. 1969 which I do not have), begins his final chapter, "Lusatian (or Wendish)," as follows:
No book on the modern Slavonic literary languages would be complete without a chapter on the ancient and interesting Lusatian Serb or Wendish tongue.

The Lusatians call themselves "Serbja" (Serbs) and their country "Luzhica"* (Lusatia; in German—Lausitz). Hence the English name Lusatian Serbs. The Germans call them "Wenden" (slightly pejorative) or "Sorben"—hence the English use of "Wends" or "Sorbs". As the name "Serbs" can cause confusion with the Yugoslav Serbs of Serbia, while the term "Wend" or "Sorb" does not readily indicate a nationality to the English mind, we propose using the term "Lusatian" here. This name indicates the native land to which these Slavs are attached so passionately that they will not even hear of being transferred to other areas where there is a higher proportion of Slav inhabitants....

The period of Germanization has been so long that it is really a wonder that any Lusatians at all have preserved their language.... Too small in numbers, in comparison to their neighbours, to make an independent state, the Lusatians have been a pawn in the game for power of strong neighbouring rulers. Nevertheless they have survived, holding fast to their language, their Christian religion and their ancient customs, patiently tilling their land and waiting doggedly for better days. After the two recent world wars they have made claims to autonomy and independence, but the statesmen of the Great Powers have not even mentioned that they have considered their case. So the Lusatian cause has remained on the conscience of the very few who know anything about them (under whatever name). Their case has been passed over and ignored by the majority of the Press, and they have been considered too insignificant to be worthy of any kind of independence. Nevertheless, to the student of Slav languages, literatures and history they form a most interesting, if obscure, group of Slavs. Because of their very survival and ancient character they deserve to be more widely known, even apart from their literature, which is no mean achievement for so small a people.
Now there's a man who liked Sorbs.

*[The L should be barred and the zh should be z with a hacek, but I can't get either to show up.]
NEXT FRIDAY. In a meeting this morning someone referred to something that would happen "next Friday." Someone else corrected him: "You mean this Friday." The first person looked a bit startled and a bit contrite and said quickly "Yeah, this Friday, the thirteenth."

This is something that's always bothered me, and I think it's a structural problem. There is simply no way to know whether "next Friday" is meant to refer to the immediately following Friday or Friday of next week; I understand it as the former (and therefore was as taken aback as the first speaker by the correction), but obviously lots of people assume the latter. (The same holds, mutatis mutandis, for "last Monday.") I had thought it was a problem specific to English, but I see the same thing happens in German (Google translation here), so I guess it's just more evidence that language is irremediably sloppy.