Friday, February 28, 2003

OULIPO. Why not? I love Raymond Queneau (Exercices de style makes me happy every time I open it, or even think about it), and although I haven't actually read Georges Perec's Life A User's Manual, I have it in both French and English and I'm looking forward to tackling it. So let's add Oulipo to the word burst. If it's good enough for Caterina, it's good enough for me. Besides, isn't it fun to say? Oulipo!

Addendum. Kip has joined the Oulipo word-burst pump-primers and has linked to several more sites, including Matt Madden's wonderful comic-strip avatar of Exercices de style; from this template come all manner of good things.
HUH. The Queen Bee points out that the ad above Languagehat features two language-related products and wonders if blogs are now being specifically targeted as a result of Google's purchase of Blogger. Could be. It obviously makes sense from an advertiser's point of view, and I guess it makes no never-mind to me. Spooky, though.
BILINGUAL THESAURUS/DICTIONARY. This amazing site allows you to enter a French word on the left side and get both a set of translations into English and a set of French synonyms simultaneously; you can then click on any of the words and get a further set. The same holds, mutatis mutandis, when you enter an English word on the right. Thanks go to La grande rousse for this boon to translators.

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

KIM ADDONIZIO. Just discovered a new poet, thanks to wood s lot, where the following moving meditation is featured:
The Numbers

How many nights have I lain here like this, feverish with plans,
with fears, with the last sentence someone spoke, still trying to finish
a conversation already over? How many nights were wasted
in not sleeping, how many in sleep—I don’t know
how many hungers there are, how much radiance or salt, how many times
the world breaks apart, disintegrates to nothing and starts up again
in the course of an ordinary hour. I don’t know how God can bear
seeing everything at once: the falling bodies, the monuments and burnings,
the lovers pacing the floors of how many locked hearts. I want to close
my eyes and find a quiet field in fog, a few sheep moving toward a fence.
I want to count them, I want them to end. I don’t want to wonder
how many people are sitting in restaurants about to close down,
which of them will wander the sidewalks all night
while the pies revolve in the refrigerated dark. How many days
are left of my life, how much does it matter if I manage to say
one true thing about it—how often have I tried, how often
failed and fallen into depression? The field is wet, each grassblade
gleaming with its own particularity, even here, so that I can’t help
asking again, the white sky filling with footprints, bricks,
with mutterings over rosaries, with hands that pass over flames
before covering the eyes. I’m tired, I want to rest now.
I want to kiss the body of my lover, the one mouth, the simple name
without a shadow. Let me go. How many prayers
are there tonight, how many of us must stay awake and listen?

–Kim Addonizio
Here's your source for all things Addonizio, including a page where you can hear her reading her poems; she even has a blog (well, there are no links, so I guess it's actually a journal, but who's counting?).

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

VLACHS. In reading the Karakasidou book (discussed here and here), I have noticed (with the sadness you might expect) that her linguistic understanding is, shall we say, less than sophisticated. She wants to be accurate and evenhanded, and in larger matters succeeds, but little things like her use of the pseudo-Greek* form comitadjidhes for the Slavic partisan groups known in English as comitadjis or komitadjis,** her use of Phanariotes ("the Phanariotes Greek elite under the Ottomans") for English Phanariote, and her italicizing of English words like "eparch" and "nomarch" as if they were foreign give her away. But what really incensed me was the following piece of idiocy (fortunately hidden away in a footnote at the back, where it won't mislead too many people): "Although the ethnic origins of the Vlahs [sic] has been widely disputed, some scholars claim their language is derived from Roman Latin roots." Some scholars! That's like saying some scholars claim English is a Germanic language. So let's talk about the Vlachs.

Nobody knows the origin of the Vlachs*** or how they got where they are today, but an indisputable fact is that they speak a language (known as Aromanian or Vlach) that is closely related to Romanian (and thus is a Romance language, "derived from Roman Latin roots"). The Vlachs (who call themselves Aromanians) are spread throughout the Balkans, and have traditionally practiced a form of nomadic pastoralism that has become increasingly difficult in this era of hard-and-fast borders and governmental insistence on everyone's having an address. Encouraged to settle and assimilate, they were having a hard time maintaining their culture and language, but there has been something of a Vlach revival in recent years, and the wide-ranging newsletter of the Society Farsarotul (the main Vlach organization in the U.S.; the name is from a northern Vlach clan, and the s is pronounced sh) is a good place to find out about it. I commend to your attention an article on a proposed writing system, one on Vlachs in Greece, and particularly "Instant Modernization" in America, a fascinating account by a scholar, Nicholas S. Balamaci, who grew up in the old culture and reports on its rapid disappearance:
A basic belief of Vlach culture is that one should live elsewhere in summer than in winter, and that the summer home should have three qualities: it should be away from civilization, it should be cool, and it should be a place where you can simply enjoy festivities and fun. It takes a lot of money to be able to do this in America, more than the first generation to arrive here could manage. But children were not tied down to jobs in the campu (lowland—a derogatory term), so I was sent every summer to live with my aunt in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, a factory town with such a large Vlach community that I thought it was a Vlach village named "Oonsocka," as my aunt Sia used to call it....

We are losing the language, which is not surprising considering that there has not been even so much as a school here to preserve it (what is surprising is that it has lasted even this long). This has had the further ramification of putting us almost completely out of touch with the old country, because we no longer share a common language (and even those of the first American-born generation, who know the language, never had the benefit of learning how to write it). As far as church goes, where once the older generation half-understood the literary Romanian used in the service, very few of us now do, and we are making the transition to an English liturgy....

Will a work of literature someday be written about the Arumanian experience?
And for a less scholarly and more paranoid approach, here is an account of "Vlachs in Greece and beyond" (the page looks blank; you have to scroll way down).

*An actual transcription of the Greek would be komitatzidhes.

**From Turkish komitaji 'member of a committee.'

***The word "Vlach" is a Slavic term for 'Romance-speaking foreigner, Romanian' (hence "Wallachia") that was borrowed from a Germanic term for 'non-Germanic foreigners' (hence "Welsh," "Walloon," and Old Norse Valir 'Gauls, Frenchmen' > Danish vælsk 'Italian, French, southern'); this in turn is from a Celtic name represented by Latin Volcæ.

Monday, February 24, 2003

ROBERT K. MERTON. Today's NY Times carries the obituary (by Michael T. Kaufman) of Robert K. Merton, "one of the most influential sociologists of the 20th century, whose coinage of terms like 'self-fulfilling prophecy' and 'role models' filtered from his academic pursuits into everyday language." I know nothing about sociology, so I'll take their word for his eminence in that field; what I know and love him for is his book On the Shoulders of Giants. The obit says:
Referred to by Mr. Merton as his "prodigal brainchild," it reveals the depth of his curiosity, the breadth of his prodigious research and the extraordinary patience that also characterize his academic writing. The effort began in 1942, when, in an essay called "A Note on Science and Democracy," Mr. Merton referred to a remark by Isaac Newton: "If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." He added a footnote pointing out that "Newton's aphorism is a standardized phrase which has found repeated expression from at least the 12th century."

But Mr. Merton did not stop there. Intermittently during the next 23 years he tracked the aphorism back in time, following blind alleys as well as fruitful avenues and finally finished the book in 1965, writing in a discursive style that the author attributed to his early reading and subsequent rereadings of Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy." Denis Donoghue, the critic and literary scholar, wrote of the book admiringly as "an eccentric and yet concentric work of art, a work sufficiently flexible to allow a digression every 10 pages or so." He admitted, "I wish I had written 'On the Shoulders of Giants.'"
This doesn't begin to do justice to the loony thoroughness and anfractuosity of the book, and anyone who enjoys such investigations should run out and read it posthaste.

Sunday, February 23, 2003

HMONG/MIAO. Allow me to introduce you to one of the most intractable problems of nomenclature I've run across.

You have probably seen references to the Hmong people; many of them fled Southeast Asia after working with the American military and finding themselves on the wrong side of the Communist takeover, and a sizable community has settled in the U.S. They have established themselves enough to have begun to find a voice; the NY Times yesterday published a long article by Felicia R. Lee about the birth of a literature out of an oral tradition, in particular the literary journal Paj Ntaub Voice, based in St. Paul, Minnesota, and an anthology, Bamboo Among the Oaks. A quote from the article:
As for the Hmong, they are gradually coming into their own in America. They have elected their first state senator, from Minnesota, and the St. Paul police have learned to speak Hmong. The anthology is being bought particularly by educators and those interested in Asian culture, said John van Vliet, a spokesman for the Minnesota Historical Society Press. Since October, about 3,200 of the 4,500 books in print have been sold, said Kevin Morrissey, a marketing manager for the press.
Note that in none of those links does the word "Miao" occur.

Now let us turn our attention to the minority languages of China. One of the most prominent (spoken by 5,000,000 people, behind only Zhuang, Uighur, and Yi) is Miao, part of the Miao-Yao group. A striking feature of Miao is that it has a large number of consonants (49 in one representative dialect) but few vowels, and syllables can end only in a vowel or in the consonant -ng (in some dialects, this becomes nasalization of the preceding vowel). The usual romanization system takes advantage of the fact that no syllable ends in a consonant: the tone (except for the mid tone) is indicated by a consonant letter written at the end of each syllable. Thus pob 'ball' has high tone, poj 'female' has high falling tone, and so on, with po 'spleen' representing the mid tone. This is a clever and economical system, with the disadvantage that foreigners not used to the conventions find it virtually impossible not to "hear" the final consonant they see written. Thus the name of the journal I cited above, Paj Ntaub, is pronounced something like "pa ndau" (with tones as in my examples). Note that in neither the above paragraph nor in the links does the word "Hmong" appear.

The attentive reader will already have anticipated the surprise ending: Miao and Hmong are one and the same. It took me some time to figure this out, and once I did I was quite annoyed. There are many languages that are known by more than one name (Gypsy/Romanes, Galla/Oromo, Araucanian/Mapuche, Votyak/Udmurt, etc., the latter of each pair being the "correct" name), but when these are referred to acknowledgment is usually made of the duality. Only in the case of Hmong (written Hmoob in the standard romanization) and Miao do the two terms lead such separate lives. The explanation is simple enough. The group that migrated from southern China to Laos and Vietnam within the last couple of centuries (many of whom have now emigrated to the U.S.) call themselves Hmong and quite naturally passed the term on, first to the soldiers they worked with and now to Americans at large; meanwhile, the much larger group that remained in China has always been known to the Chinese as Miao, and since there is no common self-designation (only a minority using "Hmong"), Miao has quite naturally been used by linguists and others who deal with the minorities of China. So what are we who want to refer to the whole population to do? Joakim Enwall has written a short article on the subject, and I am willing to accept his conclusion:
I propose that the term Hmong be used only for designating the Miao groups speaking the Hmong dialect in China and for the Miao outside China. This usage is by now well established in Western literature. However, I think that it is best to use Miao as a general term, especially as this is in accord with tradition and is also practical for making the situation clear to persons not specialising in Miaology. Many persons have already been confused by the present terminological state and see no connection between the Hmong and the Miao. There is perhaps not much that can be done about this now, but I hope that some people will understand the relation between the words Miao and Hmong better, if they are used in a more logical way.

Saturday, February 22, 2003

NOISE. The NY Times review of Francis Spufford's The Child That Books Built (by James Shapiro, Feb. 2) is no longer online, but here's a nice quote from it; it follows a description of Spufford's learning to read by tackling The Hobbit as a six-year-old in bed with the mumps:
Spufford wonders in retrospect how he could have gotten the gist of Tolkien's novel while unfamiliar with so many of the words. He finds an explanation in the research of Claude Shannon, a mathematician who worked for Bell Telephone and discovered that even if a third of its words were garbled, the message gets through: "There is no difference between a phone call one-third obscured by static on the line, a manuscript one-third eaten by mice and a printed page one-third of whose words you don't know. Ignorance is just a kind of noise."
POLYGLOT TYPEWRITING. A few years ago the Atlantic ran this piece by Ian Frazier on Martin Tytell, king of the typewriter repairmen (now retired, I'm afraid, if anybody reading this has a beloved machine that needs looking after, but here's a list of typewriter repair shops worldwide). It's wonderfully written, but I'm citing it here for the material on foreign languages, something of a specialty of Tytell's.
We sidled through right angles into a dark and cramped part of the shop where we had to proceed by flashlight. "In these cabinets reposes the largest collection of foreign type in the world—a hundred and forty-five languages, over two million separate pieces of type," he said, sweeping the beam over banks of minutely labeled metal drawers. Sixty years of converting typewriters to different alphabets has amassed this inventory; Mr. Tytell can list man's written languages better perhaps than any nontenured person in the world. "Over there are some languages of India—Hindi, Sindhi, Marathi, Punjabi, and Sanskrit—and next to that is Coptic, a church language of the Middle East; it's a beautiful-looking thing. Then there's Hausa, a language nobody here has ever heard of, spoken by twenty million people in northern Nigeria. Over there's Korean, and the Siamese I took off those Remingtons during the war, which I've relabeled Thai, and Aramaic script, and Hebrew, and Yiddish ..." He pointed out with the flashlight drawers of Malay and Armenian and Amharic, and boxes of special symbols for pharmacists and mathematicians. One drawer seemed to be mostly umlauts. He opened it and took out a small orange cardboard box and shone the light on the dozens of mint-bright rectangles of steel inside, each with its two tiny raised dots. "Nobody else in the world would even bother with this stuff," he said.
My favorite bit is this anecdote from his World War II years (his machines were a vital part of the war effort; armies "took typewriters with them into battle and typed with them in the field on little tripod stands"):
He spent much of his time assigned to the Army's Morale Services Division, at 165 Broadway, which dealt in information and propaganda. There he received his hardest job of the war—a rush request to convert typewriters to twenty-one different languages of Asia and the South Pacific. Many of the languages he had never heard of before.... Morale Services found native speakers and scholars to help with the languages. Martin obtained the type and did the soldering and the keyboards. The implications of the work and its difficulty brought him to near collapse, but he completed it with only one mistake: on the Burmese typewriter he put a letter on upside down. Years later, after he had discovered his error, he told the language professor he had worked with that he would fix that letter on the professor's Burmese typewriter. The professor said not to bother; in the intervening years, as a result of typewriters copied from Martin's original, that upside-down letter had been accepted in Burma as proper typewriter style.
(Link courtesy of the ogre.)

Friday, February 21, 2003

ELECTIVE ETHNICITY. I have resumed reading Anastasia Karakasidou's book Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood: Passages to Nationhood in Greek Macedonia, 1870-1990, which is described in this earlier post, and what is fascinating me at the moment is the concept of ethnicity not as an immutable aspect of identity (as we tend to think of it) but as a garment chosen to suit an occasion or a preferred lifestyle. Here is the quote that struck me (I remind the reader that she is writing about a village in Greek Macedonia, part of the Ottoman Empire until the Balkan War of 1912):
Nearly everyone in the Guvezna area spoke Turkish during the late Ottoman era. Yet by the mid-eighteenth-century Greek had become the language of the marketplace throughout the Balkans. As Stoianovich* puts it, "Balkan merchants, regardless of their ethnic origin, generally spoke Greek and assumed Greek names."

*Trajan Stoianovich, "The Conquering Balkan Orthodox Merchant," The Journal of Economic History, vol. XX, No. 2, June 1960, p. 291
She later adds: "The bakal (Turkish: 'grocer'), on the other hand, was generally known as a Greek, regardless of what language he spoke." This reminded me of the situation in Central Asia before the Bolshevik occupation, where urban merchants of any ethnic background spoke Persian (the variety now known as "Tajik") in the course of their professional activities and were known as "Sarts"; the term disappeared once the inhabitants of the region were forced to choose a "nationality" for their Soviet identity cards. The same thing happened to the term "Macedonian" in the old sense once the Greeks and Bulgarians began violently competing for the territory and enforcing their new ideas of nationality once it had been divided up; as Karakasidou says, "The imposition of new national categories meand that Slavic-speakers were now either Greeks or Bulgarians. In Guvezna, being a 'Macedonian' was simply not an option." Thus the triumph of the nation state means the end of older, more complex identities (and the greater tolerance for difference that accompanied them).

A very different form of chosen ethnicity is exhibited by the Abayudaya (a clearer orthography would be abaYudaya, the aba- being a prefix meaning 'people') of Uganda, who in the years immediately following World War I chose to become Jews; despite their devoted adherence to ritual laws and courageous resistence to government pressure, the state of Israel has refused to recognize them; the New York Times ran a story on the situation this week.

Addendum. A striking illustration of the elective nature of ethnicity is given in this sentence from Karakasidou (quoting Duncan Perry's The Politics of Terror): "Cases of families divided are extant in which, because one brother was educated in a Bulgarian school, another in a Greek school, and a third in a Serbian school, each adopted a different nationality." Such divisions of families were not uncommon in Central Asia at the time of forced division into "Tajik," "Uzbek," and other Soviet-created nationalities, and presumably in similar situations elsewhere (e.g., Rwanda and Burundi). Note also the discussion of "Ted Yannas" in the Addendum to the earlier post linked at the start of this one.

Thursday, February 20, 2003

KUPAIANAHA! A list of Hawaiian "Idioms, Catch Phrases, Expletives and Interjections," both lively and (to all appearances) accurate. (Thanks, Songdog!)

Addendum. And here are a linguists' site for Hawaiian Creole ("pidgin") and a review of a pidgin translation of the New Testament (Da Jesus Book), courtesy of the same canine.
EPISTEMOLOGY IN STRINE. From Desbladet, these thoughtful lyrics from Down Under:
Maybe I'm knotty veneer
Hagger nigh telephime reely reel?
Hadder Y. Noah Fimere?
... Wunker nawlwye stell; yegger nawlwye snow
If you're reelor yerony dreaming;
Yellopoff the topoff your nirra stow
A new wafer the sander the screaming.

–Afferbeck Lauder
Alistair Morrison coined the term "Strine" for the idiosyncratic form of English spoken in Australia; his 1965 book Let Stalk Strine, written under the pseudonym Afferbeck Lauder ("alphabetical order"), popularized the term. If anyone can't figure out the text of the ditty, say so in the comments and I'll translate.
HET IEITHYDDOL. That's "Languagehat" in Welsh, courtesy of Pat. Just thought you'd want to know.

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

LANGUAGE OF POWER, LANGUAGE OF RELIGION. In making my way through the Nov. 21 NYRB, I've reached the Brent D. Shaw review (only the first paragraph available without paying, alas) of Peter Brown's book Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, which collects three essays on the transition from the ancient idea of poverty (the poor to be helped are those like you, in your community) to the more inclusive Christian one, which, however, by and large omitted two large classes: people outside urban areas—as Brown says, historians "must remember that mass poverty in both ancient and modern preindustrial societies was (and still is) overwhelmingly a rural phenomenon"—and slaves.

What struck me most, however, and impelled me to write about it here, is the section discussing the "extended argument about the place the new images of the poor and poverty had in the mainstream ideologies of Late Antiquity."
Brown's claim is that the Mediterranean-wide discourse on the poor that emerged in this period was strongly related to the new needs of the new imperial state to assert its presence. A hugely powerful and distant emperor and imperial court were simultaneously more present and more invasive at a local level than was the Roman state of the Augustan Age. Its officials and administrators were everywhere, regulating and reporting down to minute levels. What was needed was a discourse in which these extremes of power could be linked. The pervasive tyranny of the new imperial court needed a human face; its subjects needed to believe in the efficacy of its local presence.

The new Christian language of poverty was the most widespread Mediterranean discourse of entitlement, affecting all persons down to the most indigent; and so it was the most suitable, the most powerful, and the most effective rhetoric in which the weak and the suppliant could converse with the more powerful. The presence of God in all human beings, but especially in the most humble of them, was the touchstone of the dialogue's authenticity. The ideological consequence of all of this, Brown argues, is that the intense debates over the nature of the Christian God that raged among bishops and their councils between the fourth and sixth centuries—the murderous in-fighting that created mortal enemies in Arian and Monophysite heretics (and others)—were not just arid theological disputes over the essence of the supreme deity. They were part of a reformation of the language in which this new society could speak about itself.
This gives me an insight into something I had always wondered about, the tremendous importance given by the wielders of worldly power to those church councils and the persecution of "heretics"; it also reminds me uncomfortably of the discourses promoted in this new age of "extremes of power."

Tuesday, February 18, 2003

SOVIET ANNIVERSARIES. On this day in 1964 began the trial of Iosif Brodsky for parasitism (tuneyadstvo); famous exchanges with the judge include:
"Why haven't you been working?"
"I have been working. I've written poetry."
"That doesn't interest us."
"Who included you among the ranks of the poets?"
"Who included me among the ranks of the human race?"
Five years later, on this day in 1969, was the premiere of Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev at the Dom Kino in Moscow, one of the great moments of world cinema.
MANY WORDS FOR MUD. I am watching the Nova special on Tibetan art in Mustang, and I had to share the following sentence with you: "There are many words for 'mud' in Lo Monthang, but none of them are as important as gyang." I don't think I've ever heard the English word "mud" mentioned so many times in an hour. Mustang is truly the Land of Mud. (The language, Lopa, is a Tibetan dialect; Ethnologue says: "The inhabitants of Lo are called 'Lopa'. Their capital is Manthang, called Mustang by outsiders.")

Monday, February 17, 2003

COMUNISM SAVES! This strange page, part of a strange Australian site that advocates sustainability, limited liability, and "7 prinsipls to improve present spelling NOW," purports to recount the history of Russian spelling reform. After a quick dash through tsarist times they arrive at the Bolshevik revolution and get down to business: the 1919 Decree on Illiteracy, the postrevolutionary reform of orthography that "simplified spelling and eliminated surplus letters," and Stalin's literacy campaign of the '30s. Then things take a turn for the bizarre: "After 1945, spelling reform was predictably again on the agenda of reconstruction of a war-ravaged society. By the 1960s doubled letters without functions had been dropped. It was claimed that 90 tons of paper were saved annually by now spelling Kommunist as Komunist." Leaving aside the question of whether "predictably" is heavy irony or simple insanity, there was no such reform. The word kommunist is, was, and probably always will be spelled kommunist. This makes me a bit suspicious of whatever other information and nostrums they purvey (as it does Avva, who suggests that it may be a voice from an alternate universe, and from whom I swiped this link).

Friday, February 14, 2003

PHONOLOGICAL PHUN. I just ran across this protein-filled piece on phonology written by Professor Edward Vajda (editor of Word) for his Linguistics 201 class at Western Washington University. It contains all sorts of gems (including, for those of you who took part in the discussion of "nucular" a few days ago, this: "Metathesis rule reorders the segments that are present: ask/aks; nuclear, 'nucular'... These are examples of a rule randomly applied"); I was particularly struck by this:
A more striking example of a morphological constraint on phonetic distribution is to be found in Cherokee. Cherokee has a sound [m] that contrasts with other sounds to create changes in meaning: ama 'salt'; ada 'baby bird'; ana 'strawberry'; ata 'young girl'. However, the sound [m] appears in only about 10 morphemes: ugama 'soup'; kamama 'butterfly'; gugama 'cucumber.' Although most of these words seem to be foreign borrowings, no new words using [m] seem to be entering the language. Nor do new words containing [m] seem be made in Cherokee on any regular basis. Thus, the sound [m], which definitely would be considered a phoneme in the phoneme theory of phonology, is highly restricted in its distribution, at least as far as concerns the present state of Cherokee. The restriction is random: the sound [m] only appears in a small collection of words with no specific meaning in common. Yet the restriction on the distribution of [m] is morphological rather than phonological: [m] is restricted to a specific and limited set of words.

An even more extreme example is to be found in Quileute, a Native American language from the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. The sound [g] appears in only one word in the entire language: hága'y 'frog.' Thus, this sound, which is in contrastive distribution with other phonemes, is entirely restricted in function to being able to contribute to the makeup of a single phoneme, the word for 'frog.' It is even possible to say that [g] in Quileute has a specific function: to contribute to the morpheme meaning 'frog.'

Thursday, February 13, 2003

TRADUTTORE, TRADITORE. Some things just don't translate well. Regardless of how you feel about France's position in the current international crisis, you have to admit Groundskeeper Willie's line about "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" is pretty funny. But not when dragged, kicking and screaming, into French:
If such language is proving a headache for the diplomats, then spare a thought for the French translators, who have struggled for words to convey the full force of the venom. "Cheese-eating surrender monkeys"—a phrase coined by Bart Simpson but made acceptable in official diplomatic channels around the globe by Jonah Goldberg, a columnist for the rightwing weekly National Review (according to Goldberg)—was finally rendered: "Primates capitulards et toujours en quête de fromages". And the New York Post's "axis of weasel" lost much of its venom when translated as a limp "axe de faux jetons" (literally, "axis of devious characters" [actually, I believe, 'axis of hypocrites'—LH]).
(From a Guardian article by Gary Younge and Jon Henley, February 11, 2003; at the end of the article appears the following delightful correction: "The description of the French as 'cheese-eating surrender monkeys' was not coined by Bart Simpson. It comes from the Simpsons character Groundskeeper Willie, the Scottish immigrant who takes care of custodial matters at the elementary school.")

Fair balance. I will hereby provide equal time in the arena of memorable insults; wood s lot directed me to a Ben Tripp article from Counterpunch that contains this remarkable sentence: "You see, if there's a clear loser in the pending savagery, it's George W. Bush and his administration of barking scrotum monsters." Barking scrotum monsters! Now, that deserves a niche right up there beside the primates capitulards.

Addendum. Jumping Jehoshaphat, in just a few days those damn monkeys have overtaken the Romanian gymnasts in my referrer logs and at the present rate will soon threaten the all-time champ, Charlie Ravioli! I guess the secret to getting hits is to mention as many catchphrases of the day as humanly possible. This may seem obvious to you, but my brain was formed during the ENIAC era, so it takes me a while to catch on. Excuse me while I run out to buy some popular periodicals to find out what people are talking about. I trust the Saturday Evening Post is still the cynosure of the common man...
LANGUAGE IDENTIFIER. Only 47 languages, but they include Albanian, Basque, Breton, and Maltese, so it's fun; it may even be useful. (Via La Grande Rousse.)

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

NAXI. The Naxi (or Nakhi; the x/kh is palatal, as in German Chemie or Russian khitryi) are a people of western Yunnan in China. A thousand years ago they were a power in the area, the dominant people of the bend of the Yangtze, but since the Mongol conquest of the fourteenth century they have been politically subject to China (though culturally under the influence of Tibet), and they have lost their former prosperity. But they have retained a rich literary tradition that is expressed in a unique pictographic script that is almost, but not quite, a real writing system; you can read about it here and here and see a beautifully reproduced specimen here. And they made an impact on Ezra Pound, who began Canto CIV:
Na Khi talk made out of wind noise,
    And North Khi, not to be heard amid sounds of the forest
but to fit in with them unperceived by the game...
and quoted a Naxi love story in Canto CX ("The nine fates and the seven,/ and the black tree was born dumb...").
LANGUAGES GALORE. Two links from Open Brackets: the numbers from 1 to 10 in 4,500 languages, and the Language Museum with samples of 2,000 languages.

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

A DRAG PARADIDDLE AND A PATAFLAFLA. I knew the term "paradiddle" (though I had only a vague notion of what it was), but I had no idea there was such a variety of striking* terms for what drummers call "rudiments." I found this list at The Discouraging Word; unsatisfied with the mere terms, I wanted to know what they meant, and found this site, where you can see and hear musical examples.
*When people say "no pun intended," of course they mean "pun intended."

Addendum. The Discouraging Word welcomes letters (Feb. 7 entry); in their (encouraging) words, "You should also send us examples of especially good or bad language use or, as faithful reader languagehat did with evident relish last week, point out our errors or other infelicities." With relish, yes, but also respect and affection!

Monday, February 10, 2003

SZAJKÓHUKKY. That's Jabberwocky in Hungarian; here are several dozen translations of Lewis Carroll's immortal poem, including one into Jerriais, the French dialect of Jersey. (Via Where Threads Come Loose.)

Sunday, February 09, 2003

THELONIOUS AND TIFFANY. Two interesting name derivations:

I've loved the music of Thelonious Monk for many years, but I just discovered that his given name is a Latinized form of the Low German name Till (best known from Till Eulenspiegel), which in turn is a medieval nickname for Dietrich and other names beginning with Diet- (meaning 'people, race'; deutsch 'German' is from the same root); there was an 8th-century St. Tillo who evangelized in Belgium and France. According to Thomas Fitterling in his biography of Monk, "German missionaries could have brought the name to the Carolinas in the Bible Belt." Other derivatives of Dietrich are Terry (brought to England, as Thierri, by the Normans) and Derek (brought by Flemish settlers engaged in the cloth trade).

And while I was investigating that (in Hanks & Hodges' wonderful Dictionary of First Names), I discovered that Tiffany is "the usual medieval English form of Greek Theophania 'Epiphany'... This was once a relatively common name, given particularly to girls born on the feast of the Epiphany (6 January), and it gave rise to an English surname. As a given name, it fell into disuse until revived in the 20th century under the influence of the famous New York jewellers, Tiffany's, and the film, starring Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)."
WHITMAN ON LANGUAGE AND HATS. From the Preface to the 1855 Leaves of Grass:

...take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men...

The English language befriends the grand American expression—it is brawny enough, and limber and full enough. On the tough stock of a race who through all change of circumstance was never without the idea of political liberty, which is the animus of all liberty, it has attracted the terms of daintier and gayer and subtler and more elegant tongues. It is the powerful language of resistance—it is the dialect of common sense.

Saturday, February 08, 2003

DEFINITION. WAR consisteth not in Battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battle is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of War, as it is in the nature of Weather. For as the nature of Foul weather lieth not in a shower or two of rain, but in an inclination thereto of many days together: so the nature of War consisteth not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is Peace.
–Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan XIII

Friday, February 07, 2003

SLOVENES IN AUSTRIA. Considering how few people outside the Balkans know anything about Slovenia (or enough to distinguish it from Slovakia), I doubt many people are aware of the problems faced by Slovenes living as minorities in neighboring countries. (I'm using "Slovene" to mean someone who speaks Slovenian or is otherwise identified as culturally Slovenian; a "Slovenian" is a citizen of Slovenia.) Renee has alerted me to a news item about four employees of Radio Dva, the Slovenian-language radio station in Carinthia (the southernmost state of Austria, bordering Slovenia), who have gone on a one-week hunger strike to protest the end of government financing for the station. This surprised me; I knew about the Slovene minority in Austria, but didn't realize they were facing discrimination serious enough to provoke a hunger strike. Here is an account of their grievances; for more information, there is an article by Brigitta Busch, "Slovenian in Carinthia—a sociolinguistic survey," in The Other Languages of Europe. And this report on Slovenes in Italy includes some comparative discussion:
[I]t is not the only Slovene minority outside the independent state of Slovenia, nor the worst served. In some ways the 50,000 Slovenes living in Austria are even more crushed, not to mention the almost entirely neglected community of Slovenes living just across the border from Slovenia in Hungary [and that in Croatia as well—LH].... [On the situation in Italy:] Italian supremacist graffiti are rife, and a crew-cut group with Nazi-like banners parades unhindered regularly in one of Trieste's city squares. It is not a good idea to speak Slovene until you are clear of the city centre.
TEST YOUR VOCABULARY! From Teresa's Making Light comes this arcane and daedal test consisting of 200 pairs of words that must be marked as either (approximately) the same in meaning or (approximately) opposite. (They don't mark off for wrong answers, they just tell you the number you got right and list the ones you got wrong, so you can go back and review them; I urge you to take advantage of their "wild guess" column to mark the ones you're not sure of, so that you can find out which of your guesses were lucky ones.) It takes a while and is humbling—I have a damn good vocabulary, but I had to guess more often than I was at all comfortable with—but it will increase your word power (if you follow it up with the use of a good dictionary to remedy your blank spots). One caveat: I strongly disagree with item 159, based on the fact that I know perfectly well what each term means but got it wrong anyway; it's simply too ambiguous to be a useful item. (Also, if you have the same problem I did reading one of the words in 169, use View Source.) But never mind that; for anyone who loves vocabulary, it's a blast!

Thursday, February 06, 2003

WHEN TELEPHONE NUMBERS MEANT SOMETHING. Roger Angell, in this week's New Yorker, discusses the old-time telephone exchanges, with their evocative names:
Growing up, I began to apprehend that Manhattan telephone exchanges, which were geographically assigned, were a guide map and social register to my delightful city. West Side school friends of mine could be reached at the MOnument or CAthedral or RIverside exchange. My father worked at the WHitehall exchange, down near Wall Street, and my mother at the mid-West Forties' BRyant 9. BUtterfield 8 was just south of us on the Upper East Side, with TRafalgar, REgent, and RHinelander not far away. When my parents were divorced and my mother moved to East Eighth Street, she became a SPring 7, and neighbors and stores and movie theatres in that neighborhood had lively ALgonquin, CHelsea, and WAtkins handles. If you called up one of the Times Square movie theatres, to find the next showtime for "Cimarron" or "Rasputin and the Empress," the exchange was probably LOngacre.
(In explanation of that last name, I should point out that Longacre Square was the original name for Times Square, before the Times moved there.) There is a site that collects such exchange names; here is their New York list.
MARKUP FOR FOREIGN WORDS. This stuff is way beyond me, but there's a two-step discussion going on over at Jonathon Delacour's the heart of things (with its lovely rendition of the 'heart' character) about the proper way to mark up transliterated/foreign words (his example is Japanese nejimakidori): lang attributes? span tags? cite? (this last apparently a no-no)... me, I just use itals, but if this sort of thing is your idea of a good time, for heaven's sake go on over there and help out the gang, so that by the time it all means something to me I'll know how to do it.

Wednesday, February 05, 2003

THE WRITTEN WORD. "The visual and tactile aspects of the written word are explored in this exhibition. Although the subject is words, we have avoided textual content in favor of physical context. In presenting written texts that differ from the familiar, we intend to show that, far from being a uniform box of rows and columns, the written word has been recorded historically in a variety of shapes, sizes, and materials." Gorgeous, amazing stuff (via the always amazing Plep).
NUCULAR. I would like to thank Don Blaheta, a linguistics grad student at Brown, for posting an explanation of why "people who persist in going on and on about how dumb the President is for being unable to say the word 'nuclear'" are wrong. As he says,
There are excellent linguistic reasons why people (and it's a whole lot more people than just the President) do this. The process is called metathesis, and it is one that happens in many languages. It tends to happen where the reversed syllable ends up making the word easier to pronounce—in the case of "nuclear", the standard pronunciation has a front vowel between two back vowels, but the metathesised version has all back vowels. Another commonly-cited example in English is the word "comfortable", where the T and R are switched, allowing the following schwa vowel to drop out entirely and reducing the word to three syllables. Crucially, this is a regular phonological process affecting speakers of many languages, and not something that is indicative of intelligence.
Well said, and the next time I get into a discussion of the matter I'll just point to your crystal-clear statement.
ECRIVAINS. Via La grande rousse, excellent sites for Flaubert and Perec (the latter including a lexique perecquien; by the way, the name Perec is originally Polish/Jewish, and is the equivalent of the Anglicized Peretz).
THE LYRIC IMPULSE. It's funny 'cause it's true:
All lyric poems are narcissistic. They are the earliest form of the personal ad. They've been saying for more than a thousand years, "I'm a sensitive, vulnerable, misunderstood, barely solvent, lovable little fellow who would like to meet a person of exquisite taste who is not averse to an occasional roll in the hay." –Charles Simic
(Via Giornale Nuovo, which I found through Caterina; it's written by misteraitch, who lives "in an apartment in an hotel in a town on the Baltic coast of southern Sweden" and posts all manner of good and beautiful things.)

Tuesday, February 04, 2003

CUNNOS HABERE DUOS. Avva posts the first attested use of one of the less frequent but more amusing four-letter words; the entry is in Russian, but even those without the use of that remarkably obscenity-rich language will enjoy the Fletcher translation of Martial whose last line provides the historic reference—it is given both in transcription and in an image of the original book. (It should be noted that this word was, as the OED puts it, "Erroneously used... by Browning Pippa Passes iv. ii. 96 under the impression that it denoted some part of a nun's attire"; let this be a lesson to all of us to always look up words we don't understand.)
ON TRANSLATING NAMES. Baldur asks a good question: what should a translator do about personal names that bear a meaning in the original language? I reached his entry via Dorothea, who says:
It’s a wicked translation problem. Translate the names by meaning, and you make the original sound like a bigoted nineteenth-century impression of Native Americans. Worse, you give the names’ meaning too much prominence in the reader’s mind; as Baldur says, these names are names first and meanings second....

The opposite danger, though, is considering meanings—well, meaningless. If you don’t translate the name, how do you get across its echoes?

One possibility is the name-pair, the name in the original language paired with a translation.... The downside is that this is slightly misleading; it’s easy for the reader to believe that the translation is part of the name in the original.... (In an electronic edition, I would be tempted to include the translated name as a pop-up note or in a lighter text color. The latter might be possible in print also; depends on the publisher.)...

If all else fails, there’s always the footnote. In this specific case, though, I myself would prefer an annotated name glossary; it’s a darned shame to have to hunt through the entire book for the first instance of a name just to find out what it means.
Obviously, each case is different and has to be addressed on its own merits, but I wonder if readers have general thoughts on the subject? For me, this is a case where the internet has obvious benefits: a scrollover note on the name's meaning would be unobtrusive in a way that can't be matched in print. (Personally, there are few things I love better than an annotated glossary, but I recognize that it's a love not shared by the majority.)

Monday, February 03, 2003

MAKIT WI MACINTOSH. This pleasing page renders the phrase "Made with Macintosh" into various languages; I probably wouldn't link it just for that, but its creator, Carl Edlund Anderson, takes the trouble to explain the translations linguistically; sample: "This [Proto-Germanic "Tawidu mith Macintosh"] is a guess but there are very few native speakers around to complain! This expression is suitable if the word for the "made" object is feminine—as the proto-Germanic *síðó would be were it used to mean "page" (in the sense of "home page"). The verb *tawjan was used in a runic inscription from South Jutland c. AD 400 to describe the crafting of a pair of golden horns, so it seemed fair to use it to describe making web pages as well." I like your style, Carlaz!

Sunday, February 02, 2003

GREAT AND DEAR LEADERS. William Safire's column in today's NY Times Magazine has a useful discussion of the well-known bynames of the late Kim Il Song and his son and heir Kim Jong Il:
In 1994, Kim Il Sung (Great Kim) died and was succeeded by his son, whom Western writers continued to refer to, tongue-in-cheekily, as Dear Leader. But the son, Kim Jong Il (Dear Kim, in Kempton's simplifying formulation), soon changed his sobriquet to fit his new position.

He stopped having himself called Dear Leader (in Korean, ch'inaehanum chidoja) and assumed his father's informal title, Great Leader (widaehan, ''great,'' yongdoja, ''leader''). But that was confusing whenever the two men were spoken of in the same sentence. To which one—the late Great Kim or the former Dear Kim, now elevated to titular greatness—did the compound proper noun Great Leader refer?

Solution: subtly demote the dead Old Man. The deceased Kim Il Sung, formerly widaehan yongdoja, is now remembered in North Korea as widaehan suryong, ''major chieftain, big boss,'' important, but a linguistic cut below Great Leader. It is the son, whose leadership title is no longer encumbered with childlike endearment, who has taken his father's widaehan yongdoja, the top of the Communist Korean pecking order.
For more, I direct the reader to Andrei Lankov's article (originally published in Russian in 1995, thus now somewhat outdated) on North Korean official propaganda; this paragraph has further linguistic information:
When Kim Chong Il's ascent to supreme power had just begun, he was given a title which might at first seem a little strange—the "Centre of the Party" (Kor.: Tang chungang), although finally the title "Dear Ruler" (Kor. ch'in'ae'ha'nun chidoja) has prevailed. Even if the names of Kim Il Song or Kim Chong Il are not mentioned specifically, every North Korean knows what titles go with whom and would never mix the "Great Leader" (Kim Il Song) with the "Dear Ruler" (Kim Chong Il). Special words and even grammar forms have been established which may only be used in relation to these two personages. Their names along with any quotation from their writings are always printed in a special bold font. Starting from the primary school, North Koreans are taught how to make correct sentences in which the leader and his son are mentioned. According to this "court grammar", these two sacred names must not be put in the middle or, God forbid, at the end of a phrase, but always at the beginning.
Safire, by the way, goes on to provide further Korea-related details (on the origins of the word "Korea" and the descriptive "Land of the Morning Calm"; I was especially proud of him for sticking with "etymology unknown" with regard to gook—I know how he loves dubious etymologies). But it wouldn't be a Safire column without at least one mistake, and although this one is minor, it's interesting fodder for discussion. He refers to "the naming of Japan, or Nippon, from ni-pon, 'sun-rise,' which we recognize as 'the Land of the Rising Sun.'" The attempted clarity of the hyphenated ni-pon betrays an understandable, but false, assumption; in fact, the first part of the compound is not ni but nichi, which represents the Japanese reading of the Chinese character for 'day, sun'; the character was pronounced *nyit in Old Chinese, which was borrowed into Japanese as nichi and later (when the pronunciation in Chinese had changed) as jitsu (it is also read as hi as a native Japanese word, and the Chinese word itself is now pronounced r in Mandarin... but that's another story). It happens that when syllables ending in -chi are combined with a syllable beginning with a voiceless consonant, the -chi drops out and the consonant is doubled, hence {nichi + pon} = Nippon. It's all too complicated for a newspaper column... but that's what Languagehat is for.
WHY SO DAMN MANY LANGUAGES? In a comment thread at Oh, For a Muse of Fire!, I ran across a paragraph that so delighted me I had to share it here, with the permission of its author (who is also the prize-winning author of a number of sf/fantasy novels), Jo Walton:
I can also remember—when I was too young for school—trying to read a book of sermons in Latin, and discovering that there were more languages in the world than just Welsh and English. I can remember thinking that surely, two would be enough for all sensible purposes?