Monday, March 31, 2003

KLALLAM REVIVE LANGUAGE. The 950 members of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe of a reservation outside Port Angeles, Wash. (and nearby areas) have taken steps to stop the apparently inevitable decline of their language, according to this Washington Post article by Robert E. Pierre.
After a century of open hostility toward these languages, the federal government is helping to foot the bill. But the task is daunting: Of about 175 indigenous languages still spoken in the United States, about 20 are being passed on to another generation. The pressure to converse in English, the worldwide language of commerce, also isn't abating....

In this northwest corner of Washington, the Lummi have just one remaining speaker. The last fluent speaker of Makah died in August at age 100. As far as anyone can tell, there are only three or four remaining speakers of Klallam, which is one of the large family of Salish languages that were once prevalent in the upper Northwest and British Columbia.

Even in California, which has speakers or semi-speakers of about 50 indigenous languages, the future seems grim.

"The trouble is that there is not an indigenous language where children are learning, and all the fluent speakers are over 60," said Leanne Hinton, a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley who has written books and essays about California languages. "All of them are in their last stages of existence unless something is done. Documenting the language is absolutely vital because . . . even when trying to revitalize them, you're not able to produce speakers as fast as speakers are dying."
So linguist Timothy Montler (see his web page for links to information on Klallam and other languages) "has devoted much of the past decade to preserving the language of the Klallam," having been asked by the tribe to help in 1992. He has created an alphabet, a dictionary, other reference works, even computer games, and trained "cultural specialists" are going into the schools and helping the young people learn. I can't think of a better way for linguists to spend their time. (Thanks to Andrew Krug for the link.)
IRISH CURSE ENGINE. We've had Iraqi ire; here's Irish ire. Choose your terms and it will give you an Irish curse, with pronunciation. Example:
English: May the hounds of hell destroy your underwear.
Irish: Go scriosa cúnna ifrinn do chuid fo-éadaigh.
Phonetic: guh SHKRIH-suh KOO-nuh IHF-rin duh khwihj FO-AY-dee.
Via Out Of Ambit.
LEXICON OF IRAQI IRE. Through the kind offices of David Quidnunc I have discovered this list of words used by Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Said Al-Sahhaf at his morning press conferences. Some samples:
Isabat al-Awghad al-Dawliyeen: The Gang of International Villains
a reference to the American administration
Akrout (pl. akarit): loathsome, pimp
a reference to British Prime Minister Tony Blair
Ahmaq: stupid
usually a reference to President Bush
al-Tabe: The subordinate
a reference to PM Blair
al-Tabe al-Jadid: The New Subordinate
a reference to Spanish Prime Minister Aznar
The information was provided by the Middle East Media Research Center, who are to be commended for their diligence.

Sunday, March 30, 2003

ENGLISH IN JAPANESE. That's the title of a book by Akira Miura that I picked up on my last visit to the Strand. It contains a selection of the many English loanwords in Japanese, and it has that combination of scrupulous accuracy (in this case, even giving pitch contours, which I have replaced with an acute accent on the last high-pitched vowel) and wide-ranging, even eccentric, commentary that I find almost impossible to resist. Some sample entries:
baipuréeyaa (lit. byplayer)
A supporting actor or actress is called wither wakiyaku, a non-loan, or baipureeyaa, a pseudo-loan. Baipureeyaa is such a cleverly made pseudo-loan that most scholars don't seem to realize that there is no such word as *byplayer in English. Of all the dictionaries and other publications I consulted, Bunkacho (p. 69) was the only one that pointed this out. In fact, most loanword dictionaries list the nonexistent English *byplayer as the origin of baipureeyaa!

beniya-íta (< veneer + Japanese ita 'board')
Veneer was introduced into Japanese in the Taisho era (1912-26) and became beniya (Arakawa, p. 1207). Later, however, the non–loan word íta 'board' was added to form beniya-ita (lit. veneer board). *Veneer board would, of course, be redundant in English, but since beniya alone would have sounded a little too unfamiliar to most Japanese, it is quite understandable why ita was added to make the meaning clear. Concerning this point, Umegaki (1975b, p. 208) proposes an extremely interesting hypothesis. He suggests that beniya must have been misinterpreted by some Japanese as the name of a lumber dealer since, as everyone knows, the names of many Japanese stores, dealers, and manufacturers have the suffix -ya at the end, as in the case of Matsu-ya and Fuji-ya. According to Umegaki, people who thus analyzed the word as Beni plus -ya must haave added ita to indicate 'boards manufactured by Beni-ya'! Be that as it may, beniya-ita has since come to mean not only 'veneer' but also 'plywood.' In other words, although veneer and plywood mean two different things in English, beniya-ita covers the meanings of both in Japanese.

cháko (< chalk)
Chako, from English chalk, refers to a special kind of chalk used for marking in sewing. The regular kind of chalk used for writing on a blackboard is chóoku, also from chalk. The fact that chako does not reflect the spelling of chalk indicates that the word was learned through the ear.
Chalk is one of the limited number of English words that have yielded more than one corresponding loanword in Japanese. Other examples of this type are iron (which has become both aian 'an iron-headed golf club' and airon 'an iron for pressing clothes') and ruby (which has produced both rúbi 'small kana printed alongside Chinese characters' and rúbii 'a kind of jewel').
Some other interesting loans: fákku 'fuck' (he warns Japanese readers that the English word is "far more strident"), feminísuto (which means 'man who is indulgent with women,' giving his seat to them or buying presents for them, rather than 'feminist'), hóchikisu 'stapler' (from the name of its inventor, Hotchkiss), and múudii (which is from "moody" but is associated by Japanese with "mood music" and thus has the implication 'creating a pleasant, langorous mood,' which can cause problems when Japanese try using the word in English).
ABORIGINAL LANGUAGES OF AUSTRALIA. A comprehensive collection of links. Via Plep.

Saturday, March 29, 2003

LOGOLEPT'S DELIGHT. Avva describes how he hit upon the word "uglyography" (an invention of Southey's) in the OED, looked for it online, and found exactly one Google hit: on a page of Forthright's Phrontistery. I thought I'd share this remarkable site with you; its primary feature is a "14000-word dictionary of obscure and rare words, the International House of Logorrhea," and anyone who enjoys the dustier corners of the English vocabulary will want to explore it.
ROMANIZED RUSSIAN? Via Ilya Vinarsky comes this 1975 article (pdf format) by Eugene Garfield urging Russians to give up their ugly Cyrillic ("Cyrillic has nothing but capitals") for the flexible, international Roman alphabet. Before you join the lynch mob ("I have been accused of scientific and linguistic imperialism and chauvinism..."), let me remind you that none other than Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov thought the same thing! (Edmund Wilson, naturally, disagreed: "This alphabet, since five useless characters were got rid of at the time of the Revolution, is one of the only features of Russian that are really convenient and logical—far more practical than the English alphabet.")

Friday, March 28, 2003

KARL KRAUS. A couple of quotes from one of my favorite cynics and masters of language ("I master only the language of others; mine does with me what it will"), Karl Kraus:
How is the world ruled and led to war? Diplomats lie to journalists and believe these lies when they see them in print. (Wie wird die Welt regiert und in den Krieg geführt? Diplomaten belügen Journalisten und glauben es wenn sie`s lesen.)

War is, at first, the hope that one will be better off; next, the expectation that the other fellow will be worse off; then, the satisfaction that he isn't any better off; and, finally, the surprise at everyone's being worse off. (Krieg ist zuerst die Hoffnung, dass es einem besser gehen wird, hierauf die Erwartung, dass es dem anderen schlechter gehen wird, dann die Genugtuung, dass es dem anderen auch nicht besser geht, und schließlich die Überraschung, dass es beiden schlechter geht.)
EDENIC LANGUAGE. The very first Languagehat post was about the language spoken by Adam and Eve, or rather theories thereof, so my eye was lured by a book by Maurice Olender called The Languages of Paradise on that very subject. I managed not to buy it (I'm trying to cut back, honest), but I found an article (pdf file) by Olender from a post on crank linguistics by Cinderella Bloggerfeller, who seems to know a lot about language, so you can find the story (or his version of it) there. If scholarly wackiness amuses you, you'll enjoy it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

NEW LINGUABLOG. A big hello to Meredith, whose Linguistiblog looks very promising; she doesn't give an e-mail address, so I can't drop her a line, but I assume she'll see this eventually. Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome!
ELVIS IN SUMERIAN. I got excited when Juliet posted this link, but when I went there I discovered there was no Sumerian text, just an interview with Dr. Simo Parpola, the Assyriologist who did the translation; I guess you have to buy the CD if you want the goods. Still, it's worth posting if only for the remarkable picture of Doctor Ammondt (who did an earlier CD Rocking in Latin) as a Sumerian deity—as is the extensive page of Sumerian links where Juliet found the Elvis. Furthermore, it led me to this article by Parpola on the survival of Assyrians and their culture after the fall of the Assyrian Empire, which should fascinate anyone who, like me, is interested in ancient Mesopotamia:
Yet it is clear that no such thing as a wholesale massacre of all Assyrians ever happened. It is true that some of the great cities of Assyria were utterly destroyed and looted—archaeology confirms this—, some deportations were certainly carried out, and a good part of the Assyrian aristocracy was probably massacred by the conquerors. However, Assyria was a vast and densely populated country, and outside the few destroyed urban centers life went on as usual....

Distinctively Assyrians names are also found in later Aramaic and Greek texts from Assur, Hatra, Dura-Europus and Palmyra, and continue to be attested until the beginning of the Sasanian period. These names are recognizable from the Assyrian divine names invoked in them; but whereas earlier the other name elements were predominantly Akkadian, they now are exclusively Aramaic. This coupled with the Aramaic script and language of the texts shows that the Assyrians of these later times no longer spoke Akkadian as their mother [tongue]. In all other respects, however, they continued the traditions of the imperial period.

Contemporaries and later Greek historians did not make a big distinction between the Assyrian Empire and its successors: in their eyes, the "monarchy" or "universal hegemony" first held by the Assyrians had simply passed to or been usurped by other nations. For example, Ctesias of Cnidus writes: "It was under [Sardanapallos] that the empire (hegemonia) of the Assyrians fell to the Medes, after it had lasted more than thirteen hundred years."....

The Babylonian, Median and Persian empires should thus be seen (as they were seen in antiquity) as successive versions of the same multinational power structure, each resulting from an internal power struggle within this structure. In other words, the Empire was each time reborn under a new leadership, with political power shifting from one nation to another.
He concludes by saying that he takes seriously the assertion of Assyrian identity by Syrians in Greco-Roman times (like Iamblichus, whose name "is a Greek version of the Aramaic name Ia-milik, which is already attested in Assyrian imperial sources") and its continuation in "the oppressed and persecuted, Aramaic-speaking Christian Assyrians of today." This resonates with similar ideas in the controversial (and irresistibly snotty) Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook (see description here). I don't know whether it will hold up under scholarly assault, but it makes you rethink history, and that's always a good thing.

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

ARABIC FOR INVADERS. A few useful phrases if you happen to find yourself in a situation where they are called for:
(Courtesy of the amazingly multilingual Bob "zaelic" Cohen.)
MIXED LANGUAGES. In the Strand today I saw a book by Carol Myers-Scotton called Contact Linguistics. The book is written in a rebarbative theoretical jargon that (for instance) replaces "clause" with CP, which stands for some gobbledygook phrase that thankfully eludes my memory, but it includes brief sections on three "mixed languages" that I had been unaware of and that sound fascinating.

The first is Michif, described in this online article as follows:
The Michif language is spoken by Metis, the descendants of European fur traders (often French Canadians) and Cree-speaking Amerindian women. It is spoken in scattered Metis communities in the provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba in Canada and in North Dakota and Montana in the United States.... It is spoken outside the French-speaking part of Canada and the Cree-speaking areas of North America.... Michif is a rather peculiar language. It is half Cree (an Amerindian language) and half French. It is a mixed language, drawing its nouns from a European language and its verbs [and grammatical structure—LH] from an Amerindian language.
The second is Medny Aleut (also called Copper Island Aleut), probably now extinct or close to it, which has Aleut lexical items embedded in Russian grammar; the third, and best known, is Mbugu (also called Ma'a), which has Cushitic vocabulary and Bantu grammar. More such languages are dealt with in this 1994 collection of papers.

These languages pose a problem for historical linguists, who tend to like neat "family trees" (as in this amazing page, which also has beautiful maps) showing languages splitting neatly into daughter languages in such a way that each language is traceable (in theory) back through a single lineage; fortunately, these mixtures are rare enough not to disturb the general picture too much, and they don't destroy the usefulness of the traditional model any more than the existence of people who cannot be clearly defined as "male" or "female" nullifies the concept of gender. (If you think it does, you may have wandered into this blog by mistake; I suggest you flee back here.)

Monday, March 24, 2003

SAWAYAKA! A comprehensive listing of the phonetic renderings used in Japanese comics (manga) to represent not only sounds but various other... states of being, shall we say? For instance, 'sticky, gummy' (beto beto), 'tongue hanging out' (biron), 'a head being shaken violently in the negative' (buru). More recondite is bon 'sound of magical transformation or appearance, often seen with a puff of smoke'; I think my favorite is uttori 'enraptured by beauty.' (Via No-sword.)

Friday, March 21, 2003

DOLLY PALARE. The Queen Bee called my attention to a language I had never heard of, called Polari. It's actually more of an argot, being standard English with replacements (mostly Italian, but also Romanes, Yiddish, and Cockney slang) for many words; it has passed from theatrical usage into the (English) gay community, and some words have entered more general speech (ponce, a pimp; savvy, to know, understand; scarper, to run away). Fortunately, I didn't have to go far to learn more about it, since the always interesting Desbladet recently did a post on the subject, linking to a detailed World Wide Words article, the scripts from the "Julian and Sandy" skits on Kenneth Horne's Round The Horne show from the '60s, and (this is truly remarkable) a Polari version of the King James Bible:
1 In the beginning Gloria created the heaven and the earth.
2 And the earth was nanti form, and void; and munge was upon the eke of the deep. And the nanti lucoddy of Gloria trolled upon the eke of the aquas.
3 And Gloria cackled, Let there be sparkle: and there was sparkle.
4 And Gloria vardad the sparkle, that it was bona: and Gloria divided the sparkle from the munge.
5 And Gloria screeched the sparkle Day, and the munge he screeched nochy. And the bijou nochy and the morning were the una day.
Amazing stuff. So thanks, qB, it's fantabulosa!

Thursday, March 20, 2003

HYAPADOS/ABSOLUTLIFABULOS. Translating Astérix, with pictures (and mouseovers). Via Open Brackets.
CRUMBLY OLD BOOKS ONLINE. The library of Case Western Reserve University has put online "full-text, complete page images of books from the regular circulating collection that have become too fragile or brittle to allow normal circulation." The wood s lot entry on this wonderful find leads off with a link to A Concise Dictionary of Middle English by Mayhew and Skeat (1888), which is an excellent thing to have available. My eye was drawn to Street Names of Cleveland by Walter August Peters, with a copy of Spafford's "Original plan of the town and village of Cleveland, Ohio, October 1, 1796," and Syrian Home Life by "Rev. Henry Harris Jessup, D.D. of Beirut, Syria," published in 1874, with chapters on The House, The Dress, The Food, The Priests (headings "Ignorance.—Vice.—The Ordained Cameleer..."), The Druzes, The Nusairiyeh, The Christians, The Civil War (Lebanon had been through a particularly vicious religious war in 1860), etc. (The term "Syria" then encompassed what is now Lebanon.) But your taste may run to Hold Up Your Heads, Girls! (1886) or Umbrellas and Their History (c. 1871). There should be something here for everyone.
ECLOGUES. Juliet's back. She promises poetry and art. We need them.

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

TACITUS, AGRICOLA 30. Raptores orbis, postquam cuncta vastantibus defuere terrae, mare scrutantur: si locuples hostis est, avari, si pauper, ambitiosi, quos non Oriens, non Occidens satiaverit: soli omnium opes atque inopiam pari adfectu concupiscunt. Auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.

Tuesday, March 18, 2003

POLYGLOT PLANETS. The names of the planets in dozens of languages, including Maltese, Old Czech, and Uzbek (which gets the prize for Most Bizarre-Looking Planetary Names in a Modern Language: Quyosh, Utorid, Zuhra, Yer, Oy, Mirrikh, Mushtarij, Zuhal; Oy is the moon, in case you were wondering). Deep thanks to Where Threads Come Loose Incoming Signals!
TSK, TSK. The NY Times has a very silly article today suggesting that the click languages of southern Africa "still hold a whisper of the ancient mother tongue spoken by the first modern humans." Let me establish right off the bat why this is silly. Languages change at a rate that, while not constant, is in a broad sense predictable; over the course of centuries sounds inexorably alter, so that without written records we can peer back only a few millennia by comparing modern languages and seeing what the common ancestor must have been like. Written records, of course, go back only five thousand years or so. Beyond that, all is conjecture; people who claim to reconstruct "Nostratic" and similar alleged ancestors of all languages are snake-oil salesmen. The very idea that we can find remnants of a language spoken 50,000 years ago (or "112,000 years, plus or minus 42,000 years," depending on who you listen to) is ludicrous.

So why are they saying otherwise? Well, click consonants sound funny to speakers of languages that don't have them, so they appear to demand explanation (unlike our "normal" consonants), and it happens that they're found almost exclusively in the languages of southern Africa (they also occur in Damin, an Australian language, but nobody speaks it anymore, so we can ignore it), and Africa is the earliest home of mankind (and of course frequently thought of as strange and primitive), so... it all fits together. The specific hook the article is based on is the discovery that the speakers of two of these languages are genetically divergent: "The Stanford team compared them with other extremely ancient groups like the Mbuti of Zaire and the Biaka pygmies of Central African Republic and found the divergence between the Hadzabe and the Ju|'hoansi might be the oldest known split in the human family tree.... ("Ju|'hoansi" is pronounced like "ju-twansi" except that the "tw" is a click sound like the "tsk, tsk" of disapproval.)" Why then it follows as the night the day that the clicks are inherited from our earliest ancestors, if you ignore inconvenient facts like the inevitability of language change, the irrelevance of genetics to linguistics, and the propensity of language communities to borrow sounds from each other (the Bantu languages of the region, for instance, have borrowed clicks from the languages that were there when they arrived). In the whole article, only one sensible person is quoted, well after the point when most readers will have turned the page:
Dr. Bonnie Sands [sic; her name is spelled Bonny], a linguist at Northern Arizona University, said click sounds were not particularly hard to make. All children can make them. Dr. Sands saw no reason why clicks could not have been invented independently many times and, perhaps, lost in all areas of the world except Africa.

"There is nothing to be gained by assuming that clicks must have been invented only once," she said, "or in presuming that certain types of phonological systems are more primordial than others."

I don't want to suggest that the localized occurrence of clicks isn't an interesting question. Olle Engstrand of Stockholm University suggests that "the reason for the areal skewness of clicks lies in the African phonetic-typological environment rather than in production or perception constraints"; in other words, the languages of the region happened to develop phonetic structures that made the production of clicks likely. I have no idea whether this is correct, but it's a scientific argument. Genetic mumbo-jumbo is not.
[Thanks for calling my attention to this article go to a Bonnie who does spell her name that way.]

Monday, March 17, 2003

CITYSPEAK A L'ANGLAISE. Desbladet reminisces about a comedy sketch program called The Fast Show, on which one of the running gags was Channel Nine, presented "in a made-up language based mostly on the sound of Italian, with bits of Spanish" ("Republicca presente... totalla bien cantesta... C-h-a-n-e-l N-i-n-e!"). He quotes a very funny weather report and links to a complete script. Don't miss it.

Saturday, March 15, 2003

DRAVIDIAN ETYMOLOGY ONLINE. In the course of perusing the glorious Guide to World Language Dictionaries recently posted, I have discovered that the magisterial (and expensive—I was once tempted to spend $40 for it at a used-book store) Dravidian Etymological Dictionary of Burrow and Emeneau is online—for free! What a wonderful world!
BARF DETERGENT. And other multilingual experiences of a traveler to Tashkent: Buyer Bedazzled, by Ronald Cluett. Via Kip, who links to it in the course of a long reminiscence of being an American kid in '70s Iran (in a town confusingly called Arak) that is well worth reading for its own sake.
CITYSPEAK. This page from the FAQ of a site devoted to the movie Blade Runner has a detailed analysis of the multilingual "Cityspeak" ("a mixture of words and expressions from Spanish, French, Chinese, German, Hungarian and Japanese") used in the movie. Sample:
Gaff: Monsieur, azonnal kövessen engem bitte. [French-Hungarian-German: "Sir, follow me immediately please!" (Thanks to eMU for translating the Hungarian part:- "azonnal" - means immediately; "kövessen" - means follow imperative; "engem" - means me. And of course "Monsieur" is French for Sir and "bitte" is German for please.)]

Friday, March 14, 2003

FISH STORY. So this fish is about to become gefilte when suddenly it begins talking. In Hebrew. Read all about it! The scene is Zalmen Rosen's fish market in New Square, NY...
Mr. Nivelo, who is not Jewish, lifted a live carp out of a box of iced-down fish and was about to club it in the head with a rubber hammer.

But the fish began speaking in Hebrew, according to the two men. Mr. Nivelo does not understand Hebrew, but the shock of a fish speaking any language, he said, forced him against the wall and down to the slimy wooden packing crates that cover the floor.

He looked around to see if the voice had come from the slop sink, the other room or the shop's cat. Then he ran into the front of the store screaming, "The fish is talking!" and pulled Mr. Rosen away from the phone.

"I screamed, 'It's the devil! The devil is here!' " he recalled. "But Zalmen said to me, 'You crazy, you a meshugeneh.' "

But Mr. Rosen said that when he approached the fish he heard it uttering warnings and commands in Hebrew.

"It said 'Tzaruch shemirah' and 'Hasof bah,' " he said, "which essentially means that everyone needs to account for themselves because the end is near."

The fish commanded Mr. Rosen to pray and to study the Torah and identified itself as the soul of a local Hasidic man who died last year, childless. The man often bought carp at the shop for the Sabbath meals of poorer village residents.

Mr. Rosen panicked and tried to kill the fish with a machete-size knife. But the fish bucked so wildly that Mr. Rosen wound up cutting his own thumb and was taken to the hospital by ambulance. The fish flopped off the counter and back into the carp box and was butchered by Mr. Nivelo and sold.
I know the end seems abrupt, but to me that gives it the ring of authenticity. The carp was not long among us, but it spoke its piece.

Addendum. Since this appears to be an amazingly popular story (I've already had a day's worth of hits this Sunday morning, mostly people seeking talking-carp information), and since (I am proud to say) I am the sole Google hit for "Hasof bah," I feel it incumbent upon me to add some linguistic explanation for those in quest of it. Unfortunately, my Hebrew is rusty, but ha-sof ba is extremely simple: 'the end (sof) is coming.' Shemirah is a noun meaning 'guard(ing), watch(ing), observance'; unfortunately tzaruch is beyond me. Can someone with more knowledge of Hebrew help out? Avva? Naomi?

Followup. Avva says (in the comments) that "tzarich shmira" would mean 'protection (guardianship, vigilance) is needed' in colloquial Modern Hebrew. The official Languagehat interpretation of the carp's oracular utterance, therefore, is "Vigilance is needed; the end is coming." Thanks, Avva! Furthermore, Jonathan Edelstein at The Head Heeb (March 16, 2003 entry; I can't make the permalink work) deals with the Hasidic aspect and makes the point that "the choice of a fish also seems strange given the association of fish with the Christian religion. In at least some countries, including many of the Central and Eastern European countries that formed the cradle of Hasidism, the Christian symbolism of fish is specifically associated with carp, which are traditionally served at Christmas dinner."
FRENCH TOAST. A "legally certified if somewhat lapsed lexicologist" investigates the history of the phrase and the foodstuff. With recipe.

Thursday, March 13, 2003

TUR, KARGYSH MENEN TAMGALANGAN! The "Internationale" in dozens of languages, courtesy of Where Threads Come Loose. (The post title is in Kirghiz.)
WUTHERING TRANSLATORS. Alice Kaplan has a fascinating article in the latest issue of Mots Pluriels about the problems of translating and being translated; she discusses in detail the horrors of the failed French translation of her "autobiographical essay" French Lessons, a couple of French court cases involving translations of Wuthering Heights and of Kafka, and her own experience translating Roger Grenier, along the way describing the writer/translator relationships of Marguerite Yourcenar and her lover Grace Frick and of Louis-Ferdinand Céline and his drinking buddy John Marks. At the start she provides the following amazing Nabokov anecdote:
Vladimir Nabokov was famous for his vigilance concerning every word of his translations — and when this polyglot spotted an error, he could be unreasonable. His wife Véra, as vigilant as he, pored over the Swedish translations of his Pnin with the help of a dictionary and determined that entire passages were missing, and that the anti-communist slant of the original had been muted. She ordered the entire Swedish stock of both Pnin and Lolita destroyed. In July 1959, the Nabokovs' lawyer served as witness to an enormous book burning on the outskirts of Stockholm. It's a rare event in literary history when a writer burns his own books!
If you're interested in translation, it's well worth your time—as is the entire issue, which I have barely begun investigating; its theme is "translated lives," and it includes essays (in French and English) on all manner of cross-cultural experiences (read the editors' introduction). Many thanks to wood s lot for the link (and I urge everyone also to scroll down his page to yesterday's excellent collection of links on the great filmmaker Stan Brakhage, who died Sunday).

Addendum. Also from the invaluable wood s lot comes a lively conversation between Jonathon Mays and Marek (of Gonzo Engaged), on Jonathon's blog Stretching Thought, about translation (of Ferdydurke in particular) and how to deal with metaphors that don't make sense in the target language. I particularly liked the following bit (which makes a fortuitous tie-in with the recent duct/duck-tape discussion here at Languagehat):
There are things in other languages that can't be said in english... circumlocution becomes a duck tape of language.

Whenever I read some literature translated from Polish (or even original english books) I can't help but to see miles and miles of duck tape applied to hold the structure of language together. Without circumlocution the whole thing falls apart. (most business books are like visiting garbage dumps for used duck tapes strips. No wonder most people who read a business book have no fucking clue what it was about. Cause it's all duck tape and plastic sheeting)
ALOHA, HTML EXPERTS! Songdog, newly returned from Hawai'i, is "having a hard time deciding what to do about representing some Hawaiian words in HTML." It seems the glottal stop is correctly represented by the 'okina (a reversed apostrophe) rather than the straight quote/foot mark I'm using here, and long vowels should have a macron (kahakô) over them rather than the rounded mark I just used over the ô, and Songdog finds "the use of alternate fonts and plug-ins" a royal pain. (You may think this stuff is trivial, but a bill has been introduced in the Hawaiian legislature to "require the use of the kahako and the 'okina diacritical marks when Hawaiian words are included in county and state documents." So it's not just proper diacritics, it's the law!) If anyone has any suggestions, drop by his comment section. Me, I'm just happy I've learned how to do italics and links.

Addendum. I have acquired a new version of my moniker, thanks to Songdog; in Hawaiian, I'm 'ôlelo pâpale!

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

THE POLYGLOT'S DREAM BOOK. Thank god for you language-loving readers, because otherwise, who would appreciate the wild joy I felt today on finding Andrew Dalby's A Guide to World Language Dictionaries? This book has been out for five years now, and I never knew about it; why don't publishers notify me immediately when they publish things so central to my concerns? This lists the best dictionaries available for around 300 languages, from Abkhaz to Zulu, and like Dalby's equally wonderful Dictionary of Languages, it combines attention to detail with discursive descriptions in an irresistible way. The Introduction says:
For about half the world's known languages there is probably some kind of published word-list or dictionary. For many of the better-known languages there is a large number of dictionaries to choose from, some of them simply in competition with one another, some dealing with a language variety, some offering different approaches to the same material. The catalogue of a large research library will include many thousands of language dictionaries.

This book is therefore very selective. The aim is to pick out those dictionaries that offer something more than a simple list of words placed along brief equivalents ('glosses') in another language.... [M]ost of the dictionaries listed here are likely to retain some value whatever else is published in their field. Typically, they not only list the vocabulary but also document it. They cite sources of information, oral or printed, and often quote them at length to show how a word is or was used. They suggest word origins, or discuss them at length with references to earlier scholarly work. They identify the special registers in which a word is used; they date its first or last recorded occurrence, and they supply the evidence to back up the dating.

This makes them among the most compelling of reference books. In many of the dictionaries listed here, every single article reports the results of original research, and each successive letter of the alphabet has taken years of labour to complete. Some, including the Oxford English Dictionary, can fairly be described as the greatest single literary enterprises in their language.
All right, that last sentence may be an overstatement, but if you can't imagine thinking it in the rapture of poring through those closely printed Victorian pages, this book may not be for you. But if you have an unquenchable love for dictionaries and greedily collect them, I hope you can manage to at least find a copy in the library, because it will give you the same sort of vicarious thrill as travel guides that provide maps and lists of noteworthy sights in Samarkand, Isfahan, Timbuktu...

An example at random, from the SAMOYEDIC LANGUAGES section:
Nordische Reisen und Forschungen von M.A. Castrén. 1853-62. 12 vols.
[Northern travels and researches of M.A. Castrén.] The result of two epic journeys in Arctic Russia and Siberia in 1842-4 and 1845-9. 'We can follow his activities in his "Reiseberichte" and "Reiseerinnerungen", which not only make very interesting reading, but at the same time are very valuable from ethnographical, geographical, historical and linguistic points of view. From these works we can see what superhuman will power and what self-sacrificing, heroic devotion to learning went into the preparation of the Samoyed grammar and dictionary. A Samoyed from Kanin, who happened to be in Finland, was a great help to him in this work. In 1851 he won the newly constituted chair of the Finnish language at Helsinki University. At this point Castrén was again stricken by his long ailment in 1852, and ended his earthly career after a few weeks of suffering. He was unable to complete the major fruit of his journey of several years, the Samoyed grammar. Castrén's family sent the manuscripts he left behind to the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, which entrusted his good friend Anton Schiefner with their publication' (Péter Hajdú, The Samoyed peoples and languages, Bloomington: Indiana University, 1963, pp. 84-5, abridged). The collection includes:
Grammatik der samojedischen Sprachen [Grammar of the Samoyed languages], 1854, in which the phonology of Nganasan, Enets, Selkup and Kamassian were completed by Schiefner. Verb morphology and syntax were never completed.
Wörterverzeichnisse aus den samojedischen Sprachen [Word-lists from the Samoyed languages], 1855.
Oh, and I should add that for languages that don't use the standard Roman alphabet, an alphabet is provided (so the researcher will know proper alphabetical order), and all titles are given in the native alphabet as well as in transcription. Maybe you can resist; I couldn't.

Monday, March 10, 2003

LANGUAGE TEACHING. There's some good discussion of the "communicative approach" going on at Renee's and Dorothea's. Check it out.

Sunday, March 09, 2003

MORE COINCIDENCE. Back in the green youth of Languagehat (the blog, not the blogmeister) I wrote a post on coincidence. That precedent established, I follow up with an account of my televisionary experiences of last night in the hope that they will astonish you as they did me. If not, I apologize and advise awaiting better posts.

We here at the Languagehattery, having surveyed the evening's offerings, decided to watch The River (He liu), a 1997 movie by the Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang. It didn't sound very cheerful, but the Time Out Film Guide review mentioned a scene at the Tanshui (Tamsui) River, near which I used to teach college, and concluded "Looks like a future classic," so we decided to give it a try. When we turned to the WE channel, however, they were showing a movie with Sissy Spacek and Mel Gibson; it quickly developed that this was an entirely different 1984 movie also called The River. It didn't sound that interesting ("Farming family battles severe storms, a bank threatening to reposses their farm, and other hard times in a battle to save and hold on to their farm"), so we went with our second choice, a 1991 British movie called Under Suspicion that featured Liam Neeson and was described as "tautly entertaining, with cunning plot." We switched to Bravo and were nonplussed to find ourselves not in Brighton but in Puerto Rico, with no Liam Neeson in sight. It turned out that this was an entirely different 2000 movie, also called Under Suspicion, starring Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman! (In both cases, it was not the Times television listing that was at fault, because the Guide button on our remote control provided the same erroneous information.) I've never had that happen even once; to have it happen on two different channels at the same time on the same evening is surely extraordinary. (Oh, if you're curious, the Freeman/Hackman movie is fairly well done and has, needless to say, great acting, but the ending is so stupid and pointless it makes one want to throw the tv across the room.)

Incidentally, in trying to Google various items for this post, I kept getting the following response:
"Server Error
The server encountered a temporary error and could not complete your request.
Please try again in a minute or so."
I've never seen that before on Google. Coincidence? I think not.

Saturday, March 08, 2003

RUSSIANS IN LONDON. An interesting account by Zinovy Zinik (via Chris) of expatriate culture; I'll have to look for this magazine:
It is called The Bell, after Herzen's journal, but in appearance it is a cross between the New Yorker and one of those thick brochures that sit in the pocket of the seat in front of you on an aeroplane. It's a glossy magazine with a purpose—to represent the diverse ideas of the Russian intelligentsia all over the world, unhindered by the power struggle going on inside Russia. Interestingly, it has appeared at a time when censorship has practically been abandoned in Russia as a means of coercing public opinion, except in those cases where the reputation of those in power is concerned. These instances are eliminated either by physical intimidation or self-imposed silence. So the necessity of a Bell abroad is more or less unquestionable.

Friday, March 07, 2003

NOT IN OUR GENES. I don't spend much time on Chomsky, Pinker, and the legions of evolutionary psychologists who claim language is innate ("nativists"), but Scott Martens over at Pedantry does, and today he provides a nice long assault on their line of thinking; I'll reproduce here the heart of the portion about language:
However, the adaptationist/nativist program has offered no insight into the neurobiology of language. It has not managed to identify genes or biochemical mechanisms that underlie language. It has not offered any useful knowledge to translators, lexicographers, language educators or people interested in natural language processing. All the progress made in those fields have come from people whose work either has no bearing on the central theses of language nativists or denies at least some nativist claims outright.

And, people outside the nativist community largely believe language is a lot like walking. Given the physiology of our senses, the structure of our mouths, throats and lungs, the properties of the human nervous system in general, and the structure of the environment in which children are immersed, language is simply the optimal solution to the problem of communication, and virtually every infant discovers it unless they are prevented from doing so by some serious physical condition. If this is the case, then there is nothing in the genome at all that specifies linguistic behaviour, or even has any sort of direct influence on it except in the trivial case where it interferes with the form of our bodies. It makes no sense to talk about innate linguistic knowledge or a language "instinct."

This programme has—over the last decade especially—shed a lot of light on language. Every meaningful advance in natural language processing since 1980 has come from some kind of interactionist or empirical theoretical base, not from attempts to uncover innate knowledge about language. All meaningful work in lexicography, translation studies and language education has been predicated on the idea that language is firmly grounded in time and place and that it is part of the social structure of the culture in which language is spoken. No linguistic universal has ever been found other than those trivially associated with the physical restrictions of bodies and limited working memory.
Bravo, sir—I doff my headgear in your general direction.

Thursday, March 06, 2003

SINTI. I have just discovered that there is a group of Gypsies called Sinti (or Sinto) that is apparently distinct from the Roma, but I am unable to find detailed information other than that they mostly hail from northern and western Europe (Germany, France, the Netherlands, &c.). It seems to be politically correct in Germany to speak of "Sinti and Roma" rather than "Zigeuner" (Gypsies). If anyone out there knows more (for example, whether there are linguistic differences), I would be much obliged if you'd pass it on. It's very hard on me when both the internet and my excessively laden bookshelves fail me.

Addendum. And that goes for the Jenisch (or Yenish or Yeniche) too.

Answer. The learned Bob Cohen has provided the following information in the comments section, which pretty much clears the matter up; thanks, Bob!
Speaking of "Roma and Sinti" is like saying "Jews and Sephardim". The Sinti dialect is definately Rromanes, but not intelligible to speakers of Kalderash or Balkan Rromanes. They mix in a lot of German influence and lack the heavily Romanian influences of Kalderash/Vlashiko.... As for Jenische, it isn't very much spoken any more—there is a Jenische web page for Swiss Jenische, they seem to have been a non-Rroma group who adapted and intermarried with Rroma.

Wednesday, March 05, 2003

THE JASMINE. I'm reading Mark Mazower's thorough and well-written book Inside Hitler's Greece and was struck by his remark: "During the Second World War Greek poets would produce a body of work comparable in quality to the British war poetry of 1914-18. Two Nobel laureates, Seferis and Elytis, and other major poets... wrote some of their finest poems in those years." Much as I love modern Greek poetry, I've been neglecting it lately, and this sent me back to my Collected Poems of Seferis. I thought about reproducing his wartime poem "The Figure of Fate" (Oct. 1, 1941), but it's a bit long and depressing ("How did we fall, my friend, into the pit of fear./ It wasn't your fate, nor was it decreed for me,/ we never sold or bought this kind of merchandise;/ who is he who commands and murders behind our backs?"). So instead I offer this gem from his last prewar collection, uncharacteristically tiny, a pure burst of lyricism.
The Jasmin

Whether it's dusk
or dawn's first light
the jasmin stays
always white.
The translation (and the spelling) are by Keeley and Sherrard. Here's the original (in transcription; dh = voiced th, as in "then"):
Ite vradhyázi
ite féngi
méni lefkó
to yasemí.

Tuesday, March 04, 2003

THE HORROR, THE HORROR. Well, that's my take on graduate school (and by extension academia as a profession), but Naomi is more sanguine (though she acknowledges the need to solve some pressing problems). If any of you have been through it and have thoughtful things to say about it, I suggest you drop by her place and join the discussion; if you hated it as much as I did and simply want to spew vitriol, please do so in my comments section, where it will be appreciated.

Sunday, March 02, 2003

WHY A DUCK? That's the title of William Safire's language column in today's Times Magazine, and it's the first one in a long time that not only eludes my carping but gladdens my heart. I can finally come clean and confess that not until I was an adult did I realize that the phrase was "duct tape" and not "duck tape." I was very embarrassed when I realized my mistake, but it turns out that the reason I had that impression was that it was "duck tape" when I was a child:
The original name of the cloth-backed, waterproof adhesive product was duck tape, developed for the United States Army by the Permacel division of Johnson & Johnson to keep moisture out of ammunition cases. The earliest civilian use I can find is in an advertisement by Gimbels department store in June 1942 (antedating the O.E.D. entry by three decades—nobody but nobody beats this column), which substitutes our product for the ''ladder tape'' that usually holds together Venetian blinds. For $2.99, Gimbels—now defunct—would provide blinds ''in cream with cream tape or in white with duck tape.''...

The first citation I can find for the alternative spelling is in 1970, when the Larry Plotnik Company of Chelsea, Mass., went bust and had to unload 14,000 rolls of what it advertised as duct tape. Three years later, The Times reported that to combat the infiltration of cold air, a contractor placed ''duct tape—a fiber tape used to seal the joints in heating ducts—over the openings.''

As the t spelling stuck, the Henkel Consumer Adhesives Company registered the name ''Duck brand duct tape,'' now the No. 1 brand in the United States. Even prom outfits are made from it.

The duckiness in the nomenclature persists because the essence of the product is its impermeability. A duck is a waterfowl, its feathers designed by nature to repel water. The simile using this quality was first cited by the novelist Charles Kingsley in 1871 to deride fallacious reasoning: ''All else is a 'paralogism' and runs off them like water off a duck's back.'' The expression means ''without apparent effect.'' And that, Chico, is why a duck.
So the logical-looking "duct tape" is actually a folk etymology, and my youthful wordhoard is vindicated. Thank you, Mr. Safire.

Addendum. I have just discovered this entry at The Vocabula Review:
duck tape Solecistic for duct tape. • In view of the possibility of a chemical, biological or nuclear dirty bomb attack, they were also told to have duck tape and plastic sheeting ready to seal doors and windows. USE duct tape. [Edinburgh Evening News] • [A couple more examples of this "misuse" are quoted—LH]

The term is duct tape, not duck tape though there is, from a company apparently trying to capitalize on people's ignorance, Duck (brand) tape. Duct tape has fewer uses than we have perhaps been led to believe; duck tape, fewer still. More ... 
Now, that "More..." is a link, and when you click on it you discover that you have to log in as a paid subscriber to read the rest of the article. In other words, they charge money for this supercilious misinformation. Maybe they should get a subscription to the Times and read Safire.
THE INTERPRETER. Suki Kim describes in today's NY Times her experiences working as an interpreter as part of her research for a novel. She describes the cases, mostly dull, for which she translated depositions in "gloomy offices known as reporting services," focusing on one in which she learned more than she wanted to know about a Korean storeowner from her block in the East Village. She concludes:
English, in some ways, struck me as a weapon, and not speaking it was the greatest economic handicap. And my role, as an interpreter, was not only to translate a witness's testimony but also to relieve this pain somehow.

With each case, I kept forgetting my mission as a novelist, my responsibility to my heroine, Suzy. After Sept. 11, I ran to the family assistance center at the armory to volunteer as an interpreter. It became increasingly difficult to pass by a Korean market or a nail salon and watch some customers berate the workers, or condescend to them as though their lack of English suggested lower intelligence. I was often tempted to interrupt and act on behalf of the non-English-speaker. I was driven by a professional instinct. But it also signaled my shortcomings as an interpreter. An interpreter, of course, should never take sides.

I stopped interpreting soon after. And I did finish the novel. But the city has changed for me. I keep noticing lines. Between a customer and a worker. Between a prosecutor and a witness. Between Manhattan and the other boroughs. Between one who speaks English, and one who doesn't.

Saturday, March 01, 2003

FOREST WITHOUT TREES. An article from World Wide Words discusses the history of the word "forest," which is more complicated than you might think:
The origin of the word forest is usually explained as coming from the late Latin phrase forestis silva, which was apparently applied to areas of land used by the Emperor Charlemagne for hunting. Here, silva meant "woodland" (as in "sylvan" and "silviculture") and forestis meant "outdoor, outside" (apparently related to the Latin fores, "door"), so that forestis silva meant something like "beyond the main or central area of administration; outside the common law". In time, the phrase became shortened to forest, but retained a sense of separateness and exclusion. It was this sense that the Normans brought with them when they invaded England in 1066. A forest for them and their successors was an area of unenclosed countryside, consisting of a highly variable mixture of woodland, heathland, scrub and agricultural land. Its purpose was to raise deer, which needed a variety of land—woodland to rest and hide in during the day, and more open land in which to feed at night....

By a process of transference, the meaning of the word forest gradually shifted, as the force of the old forest law declined after about 1500, from the legal area to the woodland within the forest, so giving us our modern sense of the word.
In between the two sections quoted above comes a discussion of forest law and what it entailed, and this should be read by anyone with a love for arcane and obsolete words: "The forests had an army of staff to look after them: seneschals, justiciars, regarders and verderers administered the forest laws.... The courts that heard offences were either courts of eyre (travelling courts to hear serious offences, from the Latin iterare, 'to travel', which also gives us words like 'iteration'), or of swainmote (a court held three times a year principally to control the pasturage of pigs in the forest...)" And we get puture, assarts, agisters, fewmets, and "the ceremonial gralloching or evisceration of the deer after the kill." Fun for one and all!
CHINESE POETRY. I have discovered a truly marvelous site that "presents Chinese, pinyin and English texts of poems by some of the greatest Chinese poets." What I would have given for such a resource back when I was struggling with texts and translations and Mathews! They have dozens of poems by Du Fu (Tu Fu), as well as many poems by Bai Juyi (Po Chü-i), Du Mu, Han Yu, Li Bai (Li Po), Li Shangyin (one of my personal favorites), Li Yu, Meng Haoran, Su Shi, Tao Qian, Wang Wei, and others. I went to the Li Bai page and the first thing my eye lit on was "Changgan Memories," which is the poem Pound rendered as "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" (one of the most beautiful poems in the English language). They have the poem in characters, in pinyin transcription ("Qie fa chu fu e/ Zhe hua man qian ju/ Lang qi zhu ma lai..."), in character-by-character literal translation ("My hair first cover forehead/ Break flower gate before play/ You ride bamboo horse come..."), and in a poetic translation:
When first my hair began to cover my forehead,
I picked and played with flowers before the gate.
You came riding on a bamboo horse...
And they have notes ("bamboo horse: a bamboo cane used as a toy horse"). Dayenu! But that's not all, folks; they continue:
This poem also exists in a famous translation by Ezra Pound. Analysis of this translation and comparisons of different versions can be found here. Pound's source material and other translations are here.
Other Chinese poems about Separation and Autumn.
I won't say it's impossible to imagine a better Chinese poetry site, because the human imagination is limitless, but this is a damn good one and deserves bookmarking by anyone with the slightest interest in the subject.

Addendum. Avva, having come across Chris's comment (quoting si shi si, shi shi shi...), found an entire page of Chinese and English tonguetwisters. And he provided me with a Russian moniker; after trying out the adjectives yazycheskii 'pagan' and yazykatyi 'sharp-tongued,' he settled on yazykovoy 'pertaining to language, linguistic,' and I became Yazykovaya Shlyapa. Size 7¼.