Friday, January 31, 2003

SIX MONTHS OF LANGUAGEHAT. It feels a little silly celebrating a semianniversary, but everybody knows blog years are like dog years. (However, a book cannot be blog-eared. But I digress.) I worked hard on my first post (wanting to avoid the "Testing... testing... hey, this thing works!" syndrome), and I've tried to keep up an interesting mix of material somehow related to language (or, on occasion, hats). I'd like to take this occasion to thank everyone who's sent e-mails or left comments—and may I remind you all that my comment boxes, unlike some others, do not require an e-mail address, so even the shyest of you can freely indulge in commentary, silliness (hi quonsar!), or a combination of the two (I'm thinking of the mysterious aa's contributions to my Bad Etymology thread)—and I'll direct specific thanks to Songdog for helping me get started and saving me repeatedly from template disaster, to Renee and Pat for early encouragement, to Avva for collegiality and postcards, to the Mermaid for kind words and many stolen links (how do you find all those great links?), to Moira for inspiring me to add poetry to the mix, and to all those who cannot be mentioned because the revelation of their names would upset the balance of the space-time continuum: you know who you are.

When I began, my readership could be counted on the fingers of both hands—and the fact that the second hand was needed was due entirely to Pat's and Merm's brilliant mutual-backscratching invention, Linguablogs. It rose steadily to an average of several dozen a day, then shot upward this month because of a combination of the excellent Pepys' Diary site, to which I quickly became addicted, and the Jan. 28 MSNBC recommendation ("One of the most exciting blogspotting finds I’ve made while judging Bloggies is the large and active community of linguabloggers..."). I hope to keep everyone entertained for at least another half-year, if only with the spectacle of language names more bizarre (hi aa!) than you ever thought existed (Guugu Yimidhirr, anyone?). Y'all come back now, y'hear?

Thursday, January 30, 2003

HOW NOT TO SUPPORT A LANGUAGE. An article (via MetaFilter) on the Irish government's plans to finally do something about the country's notoriously poor signage ends thus:
"Never mind the countryside. I still get lost in Dublin," said Irish Times columnist Kevin Myers, a road-sign crusader who argues that the Irish have never understood the functional point of signs.

"You've got extraordinarily misleading signs and signs that tell outright lies, and most of these are new," he said. "Dublin Corporation is putting up signs at the moment that are designed to baffle anyone from outside Ireland."

"They refer to Dublin as 'an Lar,' which is Gaelic for the city centre — and it's a term that nobody uses because we all speak English here," Mr. Myers said. "Everybody in Europe would understand the word 'centre,' so naturally we can't use that. The powers that be are intent on putting up signs in a dead language for pseudo-cultural purposes and doing nothing to help visitors."
Incidentally, if anyone is as curious about the word lár 'center' as I was (I would have expected *cédar if they had borrowed Latin centrum), it originally meant 'floor,' and is in fact cognate with the English word; the transitional meaning is 'middle (of a hall).'
GUUGU YIMIDHIRR AND OTHER DELIGHTS. I really shouldn't go to the Strand; every time I do, I spend money. But if I didn't, I wouldn't find things like the first two volumes of Dixon and Blake's Handbook of Australian Languages at a ridiculously low price. The first volume includes descriptions of Guugu Yimidhirr (also called "Koko Yimidir" and other variants; the name means 'this way of talking, this kind of language,' guugu being the word for 'talk, language'), Pitta Pitta, Gumbaynggir, and Yaygir; the second includes Wargamay, Anguthimri (Mpakwithi dialect), Watjarri, Margany and Gunya (closely related Mari dialects), and a final, sad chapter describing the exiguous information available about the long-extinct languages of Tasmania. Most chapters include detailed descriptions of phonology, morphology, and syntax, as well as the all-important texts and vocabularies. I've always been fascinated by Australian languages, but all I've had to go on so far is the Lonely Planet Australian Phrasebook; excellent as that little volume is, this opens up a whole new realm.

First sentence of first Guugu Yimidhirr text: Yii milbi dhana gunbu dumbi 'This is a story (milbi) about how they had a great dance': "The expression gunbu dumbil, literally 'dance break', is the normal idiom for 'have a dance, have a corroborree.'" I can't wait to dive in.
ODORATIVE VERBS IN NENETS. From a recondite Yahoo search ("stress in evenki language") that showed up in my referrer log, I arrived at a grammatical sketch of Tundra Nenets (part of Tapani Salmanen's homepage, which includes links to other Nenets-related websites). This is a pretty detailed look at Tundra Nenets; if you want to know more, you'll probably have to either study with Prof. Salmanen or take a trip to the tundra. But what led me to tell you about it here is the fact that, along with more common types of denominatives (verbs based on nouns, e.g. søwa 'cap' => søbyiq- 'to have a cap, to use as a cap'; cf. English "to cap"), Tundra Nenets has a series of odorative verbs, e.g. xalya 'fish' => xalyayø- : 3sg xalyayi 'to smell of fish'. A pungent language!

Wednesday, January 29, 2003

NO PURITY HERE. I recently ran across the following highly expressive quote:
"The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."
—James D. Nicoll
I am delighted to report that LINGUIST List has solved the question of exactly when (1990) and how it originated. A tip of the Languagehat hat to all concerned.
WAGGISH. Another blog with meaty discussions of literature (recent entries on Kobo Abe, Olaf Stapledon, and Ismail Kadare) and music (Bill Dixon, Pierre Boulez) (and I'll bet not many of you faithful readers out there are familiar with all five names!) is I have no idea who's behind this cultural smorgasbord, but I offer them my deepest esteem for bringing to my attention the gorgeous and intricate graphic scores of Barry Guy; I had known him as a wonderful bassist and composer (of avant-jazz among other things), but had no idea he did this sort of thing. I've already added it to the "Visual pleasures" section of my blogroll. (I found Waggish via the delightful

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

CHEONG. Or jeong. That's the Korean word/concept at the center of this brilliant post by Stavros (of the always worthwhile If anyone out there knows the Chinese etymological equivalent so that I can find out more about the word (Korean isn't my strong point), please let me know, but everyone should go and read the essay on sentimentality, Jung, jeong, love, Korea, and all that jive.

Update. OK, I went to the Donnell branch during my lunch hour and determined that the Chinese equivalent is ch'ing (or qing; heart radical plus ch'ing 'blue/green' phonetic) 'feeling, emotion, sentiment, &c. &c.'; the Japanese derivative is jo (long o), defined the same way. So now my question is, does anyone out there know enough about the three languages, or any two of them, to give an idea of how the specific usages of these superficially identical words differ?

Monday, January 27, 2003

DERELICTION OF DIALECT. I've started reading a James Buchan novel called The Persian Bride, a tale of derring-do set in '70s Iran. Now, Mr. Buchan (no, not that Buchan) is a Brit (according to the jacket flap he lives with his wife and three children on a farm in Norfolk, England) with a good sense of language for a newspaperman. But that is not to the point. The point is that he can't pull off American dialogue. He creates an Iranian military man who is introduced thus:
"You think I give a damn, boy?" He spoke easy Texan English. "I've got an air force to run. It's Judge goddam Bordbar. Christ, I hate civilians."
So far, so good. But a couple of pages later this Tex-Iranian says "It's sorted out," meaning taken care of, dealt with. This idiom is not American, and it immediately dispels the illusion so carefully conjured up by the author. This is not an isolated case—I have never read an author from across the Atlantic who could write consistent American dialogue. It's easy to put in words and phrases you know are American; it's impossible to recognize all those that aren't. I'm sure the same is true in reverse, with American authors painstakingly putting in lorries and boots and lifts and then giving the game away with some locution no Englishman would utter. So why don't publishers have manuscripts vetted by readers familiar with the relevant dialect? (And then there are foreign names, which are even more of a problem, with English-speaking authors creating Russians named Esmeralda Hofstein Ivanovna or Arabs named Abdul Ibn-Istanbul or something. Why go to all the trouble of researching the tiniest practical details of some foreign location and blow it by mangling names? It drives me mad, mad I tell you. But we won't go into that. Sufficit diei malitia sua)

Sunday, January 26, 2003

WORD OF THE DAY. Pricklouse 'tailor.' From the OED:
pricklouse (‘prIklaUs). Now dial. Also [19th century] prick-the(-a)-louse. A derisive name for a tailor.
1500-20 Dunbar Poems xxvii. 5 Betuix a tel3our and ane sowtar, A pricklouss and ane hobbell clowttar [telyour 'tailor'; souter 'shoemaker, cobbler'; hobble 'cobble, mend (shoes) roughly'; clooter 'patcher, cobbler']. 1668 R. L'Estrange The Visions of Don Francisco Quevedo Villegas (1708) 151 The poor Prick-Lice were damn'dly startled at that, for fear they should not get in. 1709 O. Dykes Eng. Proverbs with Moral Reflexions (ed. 2) 117 What an ignorant Presumption..for an impudent Prick-lowse to set up for a Lawyer, or a Statesman. A. 1796 Burns Answ. to Tailor ii, Gae mind your seam, ye prick-the-louse, An' jag-the-flae. [jag 'prick, pierce' (hence the nickname "the Jags" for the Partick Thistles, a Glasgow football team familiar to fans of the wonderful Jack Laidlaw detective novels of William McIlvanney); flae 'flea' (ie, "jag-the-flae" is modeled on the traditional "prick-(the-)louse")]
Since the first quotation is from William Dunbar, let me here put in a plug for him as one of the great early modern poets; he wrote in Scots rather than southron English, but it's worth making the effort for such a brilliant poem as Lament for the Makars ("maker" was the traditional Scots term for 'poet'), with its refrain "Timor mortis conturbat me" ('The fear of death disturbs me'). And from this brief biography we learn that he
has the curious distinction of having been responsible for the first printed use of the word "fuck" (1508), thus establishing a long and noble tradition of which some critics of Kelman or Welsh appear to be quite unaware....

"The Flyting" is a verse-quarrel with the poet Walter Kennedy, and contains such choice insults as "wan fukkit funling" and "cuntbitten crawdon". Perhaps it was language such as this which had something to do with Scotland becoming the first country to try and make swearing illegal (1551). We might add as a parenthesis that the later English puritans, undeterred by the complete failure of the Scottish law, followed suit by making swearing at one's parents a capital offence (1649). Much later, Mussolini put notices up saying "For Italy's honour, do not swear", but look where it got him. Before leaving this interesting topic, it should be added that the powerful word which Dunbar put into print in 1508 was not decriminalised until 1960, only appearing in dictionaries after 1965, but by 1982 it was thought necessary to declare "fuck" unparliamentary language. Nevertheless, a hundred years earlier it had already showed up unexpectedly in "The Times" of all places, probably due to a mischievous compositor, in a Parliamentary report which stated: "The Speaker then said he felt inclined for a bit of fucking."

Friday, January 24, 2003

GENERATIONAL SHIBBOLETH. From ru_slang I got to this article (in Russian), which alleges (Russian readers can tell me how accurately) that the phrase na samom dele 'in reality, in (actual) fact' characterizes the positive, confident generation of intellectuals who grew up in the '60s and '70s, whereas kak by 'as if, as it were' characterizes the uncertain, postmodernist generation that grew up in the '80s and '90s. Example: On prishel 'He came'; Na samom dele on prishel '[There is an objective reality, and] he really came [—I know what I'm talking about]'; On kak by prishel 'It seems that he came [but reality is so fluid and indeterminate that there's no guarantee of anything].' Interesting.
LIBRARY SALE. I never cease to be amazed at what I find at library sales. Today I dropped by the Mid-Manhattan, and within a few minutes had found (and, of course, bought, for a total of $3) a dictionary of Romansch (Oscar Peer's Dicziunari rumantsch: ladin–tudais-ch, Lia Rumantscha, 1962) and a textbook of Moroccan Arabic (Henry Mercier's L'Arabe par l'image: textes ethnographiques, Les éditions la porte, Rabat, 1946). Neither was in the foreign-language section; I just have a nose for these things. And for an extra dime I couldn't resist a copy of Quotations from Chairman LBJ (Simon and Schuster, 1968), a true relic of the age (and of my youth).
POETRY/JAZZ BLOG. Wood s lot points me to Jonathan Mayhew's blog, which has been going since last September (and all of which is on a single page, so it takes a while to load: yo, Jonathan, how about showing a week at a time?); he discusses both poetry (he teaches and translates) and jazz (he drums—yes, I'm sure he knows the jokes as well as you do, so you can stop right now), and has interesting things to say about both. At the moment he's engaged in a series of entries describing his twenty favorite poets, and the first name that hit my eye when the page finally appeared was that of Lorine Niedecker, who's one of my favorites as well, so I was hooked. He doesn't have comments; if he did, I would have left one responding to this (from Monday, September 23, 2002):
The idea of translating in order to arrive at “what the poet would have written / had she written in English.” This is a cliché, of course. More than that, it is radically false. How do we know what kind of English Homer would have written? How would Mozart have phrased his solos on 52nd street in the 1940s? A sonnet in English might have a totally different rhythmic feel from a sonnet in Italian: yet many would accept this exchange as “formal equivalence.”
This (it seems to me) is very forced. Of course we can't "know what kind of English Homer would have written"; the point is that thinking in those terms can help us avoid falling back on our own linguistic habits and making everyone we translate sound like us. This, on the other hand (from Wednesday, September 25, 2002), strikes me as brilliant:
A brief poem by Antonio Machado, “Sobre la tierra amarga,” contains four words of Greek etymology: laberínticos, criptas, melancólicos, quimeras. I contend that these should be translated with their English cognates: labyrinthine, crypts, melancholy, and Chimeras, not, as one translator does, with maze, vaults, wistful, and fantasies. The Greek words form an “underlying network of signification,” to use a phrase from Antoine Berman: they have specific historical and linguistic resonance. A labyrinth contains a Minotaur in a way that a maze does not. A crypt is a tomb or something hidden, as in a “cryptic message.” A vault might be found in a bank. Burton did not write an anatomy of wistfulness. A Chimera is a specific mythological beast, etc... (Of course fantasy is also a Greek word, but not the one Machado chose!) Should the translator always go for the cognate? Of course not, but when the cognate is a richer, more resonant, or more specific word, the easiest solution becomes the best solution.
He mentions a story I'll have to read:
Harry Mathew's story "The Dialect of the Tribe" is the perfect Borgesian parable of translation. It speaks of a language that can be translated successfully while not revealing any substantive meaning. The story gradually fades out of English, as the narrator uses more and more words from the tribal language he is elucidating.
And this endears him to me: "I prefer irregular past tenses in English whenever possible. For me, the past tense of dream is "dreamt," not "dreamed." snuck, not sneaked, etc... "

(Oh, by the way, Jonathan—I have a copy of Robert Grenier's a day at the beach...)

Thursday, January 23, 2003

BAD ETYMOLOGY. I'm used to seeing dubious or just plain wrong etymologies, both online and off-, and usually I just ignore them. This site, however, is so bad that I feel the need to give it a public thrashing. It purports to list borrowed words by their languages of origin (and it's the number one Google hit for "borrowed words," so I'm not just picking on some obscure site no one will ever see). Let's take Akkadian, for which the entry is:
Babel (ancient city - from babul, gate of God), Babylon (ancient capital city - from babul, gate of God), cherub (gracious), dragoman (interpreter), Orion (constellation - from Uru Anna, light of heaven), ziggurat
Now, ziggurat is an Akkadian word; no problem there. Babel and Babylon are also from Akkadian, but the etymon is wrong. Here's the best description I've found on the early development of the name: "The Sumerian name for this small village was Ka-dingir-ra. In Semitic Akkadian it was called Bab-ilim. It seems that the name came not from Kadingirra, but from another name for the town, Babil, the meaning of which is unknown. Later the plural name Bab-Ilani 'the Gate of the Gods' was used." It's normal (if oversimplified) to say that Babylon is from Akkadian Bab-il/ilu/ili/ilani (take your pick) and define this as 'gate of God,' but "babul" seems to have been pulled out of a hat (perhaps by vague association with Kabul). The other entries are sheer fantasy. "Cherub" is, of course, from Hebrew. "Dragoman" is (via Italian and Greek) from Arabic tarjuman, which is from Aramaic turgemana. And Orion, as any schoolboy knows, is a Greek mythological figure; this etymology is probably taken from the Online Etymology Dictionary, which says "perhaps from Akkadian Uru-anna 'the Light of Heaven,'" but that's a very big "perhaps"—what a Greek hunter would be doing with an Akkadian name is anybody's guess, and "etymology unknown" is the only safe statement.

The Afrikaans entry lists "slim," which is from Dutch or Low German. The Albanian entry reads, in its entirety, "Carpathian (Eastern European Mountain Range - from karpë, rock)," which is ridiculous; "Carpathian" is from Greek, and while the Greek name may well have come from a local Thracian or Illyrian word related to Albanian karpë, that's like saying "Caucasus" is from "high" because there's a possibility the name is related to the Germanic root of the English word. Under Algonquin is listed "Oregon," which is of very disputed etymology; one theory is that it resulted from a French map engraver's having put the last four letters of "Ouariconsint" (the Wisconsin River) on a separate line, thus creating an apparent "Ouaricon" River, and "Wisconsin" is probably from an Algonquin name, but that's really pushing it. The next language listed is "American English," and I won't bother going through the words, because the whole category makes no sense—even if "raincoat" and "typewriter" were first used in the U.S., how can they be considered "borrowed"? An almost equally pointless category is "Anglo-Saxon" (more properly called Old English); most of the basic English vocabulary is "from" Old English in the sense of having developed from it by sound change, but the only words that could be said to be borrowed from it are scholarly ones like "witenagemot," and none of them are listed. Under Amoy is listed "ketchup," which is from Malay; under "Avetsan" (i.e., Avestan) is "bronze," which is from Italian (via French); under Basque is "bizarre," also from Italian; the sole entry for Beja is "bedouin," which is from Arabic; and under Breton is a whole raft of words, none of which have anything to do with Breton ("branch," "carry," "hurt," for heaven's sake?). I could go on, but why bother? Furthermore, the page is littered with misspellings, for example racoon, cumquat, attrium, and the aforementioned Avetsan. I don't blame the people who compiled the list, who are simply enthusiastic amateurs who love words and had no means of judging the validity of the etymologies they ran across, but it's depressing to think this is what people looking for information online will find and cite.

Here is a much more reliable list: only one word per language, but at least you can be pretty sure that word is correctly listed.

Addendum. A correspondent has brought to my attention this silly site, which purports to list "some of Shakespeare's many coinages!" What they mean, of course, is "words first attested in Shakespeare," but that doesn't sound nearly as sexy. And some of them aren't even that; "accused," for instance, is centuries older:
1297 R. Glouc. 523 "Sir Hubert de Boru.. Acused was to the king of mani luther prise ['wrongful takings']."
Do these people really think Shakespeare made up the word "alligator"?
THE ANAGRAMMATIST. This week's New Yorker has a "Talk of the Town" piece by Dana Goodyear on Demetri Martin, a Greek-American comedian obsessed with language games. Along with creating "one of the longest, non-computer-generated, sensemaking palindromes in English" (called "Dammit, I'm Mad"), he has composed the wonderful "All the Words Printed on a Bottle of Rolling Rock Beer in a Different Order":
Women, your ability to operate extra tender springs from birth.
Good machinery comes as your contents cause enjoyment.
Cash, beer, a car: rock and rolling.
During "it," the general warning:
"We may risk pregnancy according to old problems."

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

WORD OF THE DAY. Puckfist: 'an empty braggart.' Here's an abbreviated version of the OED entry:
puckfist ('pVkfIst). [app. f. puck sb.1 + fist sb.2 Cf. puff-fist, -foist, which appears about the same date.]

1 The Puff-ball, Lycoperdon Bovista. Also abbreviated puck.
1601 B. Jonson Poetaster iv. v, I'll blow him into aire, when I meet him next: He dares not fight with a puck-fist. 1893 S.E. Worc. Gloss. s.v., I shud like a drap o' drink, fur I feels as dry as a puck-fyst.

2 A term of contempt for an empty braggart.
1599 B. Jonson Ev. Man out of Hum. 1, To be enamour'd on this dusty turf, This clod, a whoreson puck-fist. 1605 Tryall Chev. iv. i. in Bullen O[ld English] Pl[ays] III. 328 Giue me leaue to incounter this puckfist, and if I doe not make him cry Peccavi say Dicke Bowyer's a powdered Mackrell. 1637 Shirley Example ii. i, Lady, he is no man..A very puckfist. Jacinta. What's that, I pray? Vain. A phantom, a mere phantom. 1821 Scott Kenilw. xviii, A base besognio, and a puckfist.
attrib. 1615 J. Taylor (Water P.) Urania xxiv. Wks. (1630) 3/2 Then loue him; else his puckfoist pompe abhorre.
[The serendipitous finding of this word was inspired by the ever-inspirational Caterina. And in case you were wondering, a besonio (or besognio) is 'a raw soldier; (term of contempt) a needy beggar, a base worthless fellow.']

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

DIVERSITY. Nature investigates why "Species and languages flock together: Cultural and biological diversity are highest in the same places." [Via Enigmatic Mermaid, via Plep.]
ANTHONY HECHT. One of my favorite modern poets is Anthony Hecht, an unprolific formalist with a bleak outlook on life whose verse goes down like good strong black coffee. The NY Times has a piece on him today that explains something of his bleakness; after the usual unhappy childhood Hecht was
a 20-year-old Jewish soldier in the 97th Infantry Division and arriving one day at the Flossenburg camp in Germany, where the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed for treason. What Mr. Hecht saw horrified him: starving prisoners, dying at a rate of 500 a day from typhus. He had a smattering of German and French and was assigned to translate the prisoners' accounts of the atrocities and the responses of their German guards, who had been captured. For years after, Mr. Hecht dreamed about the camp, waking up screaming...
More important than the biography, of course, is the work.
He is a poet's poet, a composer of what the poet and novelist Nicholas Christopher, a former student, calls symphonic verse, of dazzling surfaces and profound rhythms. "Reading his work is like hearing really powerful music," Mr. Christopher says, "Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky."

Still, over the years Mr. Hecht has been criticized for being ornate, obscure, old-fashioned. "At times he's been unpopular," says J. D. McClatchy, the poet and editor of The Yale Review. "He's not beating drums like Ginsberg. He's not detached like Wilbur, or confessional like Lowell. He went his own way. At the end he may last longer."

The library where Mr. Hecht sits is an expression of the man and the work — serene, with fluted pilasters and a frieze around the ceiling with lines from his "Death the Poet," written in gold leaf:

Those grand authorial earthshakers
Who brought such gladness to the eyes
Of the knowing and unworldly-wise
In damasked language long ago?
Call them and nobody replies.
Et nunc in pulvere dormio.
And now they sleep in dust.
The Latin is a variant of a line from (not surprisingly) the Book of Job: "ecce nunc in pulvere dormiam et si mane me quaesieris non subsistam." Job 7.21 (Behold now, I shall sleep in the dust: and if thou seek me in the morning, I shall not be.)

Several poems are online here, here, here, and here.

Monday, January 20, 2003

MONTREAL ENGLISH. English in Montreal is becoming a unique dialect, according to Charles Boberg in this article from the CBC site (via Pat).
It's so special because it's the only major city in North America where English is a minority language," says Boberg.

A Montrealer, for instance, might say she's looking for "a three-and-a-half close to a dépanneur" instead of a "one bedroom apartment near a corner store."

"You had the same sort of intimate contact between English and French in 11th century England as you do today in Montreal," according to Boberg.

"And that was responsible in the 11th century for the conversion of English from a basically pure Germanic language to a kind of a hybrid language."
More in this McGill Reporter interview.

Addendum. Desbladet rips Boberg a new trou; I should have remarked on the silliness of Boberg's last statement about a "hybrid language," and I am glad that Des has done it for me in his inimitable style. Another example of the latter, from his post on a Whorf quote translated as « ce que nous appelons la "pensée scientifique" n'est qu'une spécialisation du langage indo européen de type occidental... »:
Finno-Ugric-speaking persons! Desist from your desultory, doomed attempts to mimic the superficial trappings of European culture! Return, instead, to your caves and play "Pin the Definite Article on the Indo-European Noun Phrase" and other such traditional drinking games. As a sign of goodwill, here are some shiny glass beads which you can trade for "wodka". (It's made from potatoes, you know.)
Everybody go read him—just don't let him catch you saying something dumb!

Sunday, January 19, 2003

MY KIND OF POLITICS. In reading Isabel de Madariaga's Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great (heavy going at times, but much more informative than the many lurid biographies of Catherine) I discovered to my delight that the two main parties in mid-eighteenth-century Sweden were the Hat Party and the Cap Party. Here's a quotation from an online biography of Gustavus III:
To the conflicting interests of peasants, nobles, priests, and officials was added the struggle between the aggressive, pro-French, and aristocratic Hat party and the more conservative, pro-Russian Cap party.
I don't know which I would have supported, but the choice would have been more entertaining than Republican vs. Democrat.

Saturday, January 18, 2003

TAKING LANGUAGES SERIOUSLY. I recently bought Youssou N'Dour's new album Nothing's in Vain (Coono du reer), and having opened and played it today I am doubly delighted—not just by the music, which is wonderful, but by the booklet. For once, an African language (Wolof) is accorded the respect routinely given European ones: the lyrics are provided in the original as well as in translation. This parallels the recent trend in dictionaries to give exact etymologies even for African and Australian languages: where once "okra" was said to be "of African origin," now Merriam-Webster's says "akin to Ibo ókùrù okra." To celebrate, here are the first lines of the song "Tan bi" followed by their translation from the booklet:
Sedd bi ag tàngaay bi dafa mel ni yëppa yam
Bu ci xas yegsi ba jàll da nga naan mo la gënël
Seddaay bi, tàngaay bi
Koo gëjë gis nan ko xaar tàngaay bi

No matter what the weather, it's the same for us
In fact, we tend to prefer the season just ended
People you haven't seen for a long time reappear when the weather is warmer
It's time for outings again.
Addendum. Well, as I say, that's the booklet's translation. I suspected it was on the loose side, so I went looking for an online Wolof dictionary—and found a good one (pdf file). I'd have to know something about Wolof grammar to figure out the sentences, but tàngaay is 'warm weather,' seddaay 'cold weather,' and dafa mel 'is like,' so that gives some idea of what's going on in the first line. Anyway, if you have any interest in West African languages, check out that dictionary.

Friday, January 17, 2003

THERE ARE NO MORDVINS. Imagine a map of European Russia (you'll have to imagine it, or dig one up yourself, because I can't find a good one online [well, here's a sort of decent one]). Fifty miles south of Moscow the Oka River flows toward the east, having risen in the Central Russian hills far to the south, flowed north through Orel, and turned sharply east at Kaluga. At Kolomna it is joined by the Moscow River and proceeds, thus reinforced, to the southeast, past the ancient city of Ryazan, until it makes another sharp turn to the northeast, picks up the mosquito-ridden Moksha River from the south, passes through the even more ancient city of Murom, and finally joins the Volga at Nizhnii Novgorod. The reference books tell you that Nizhnii Novgorod was founded by a Russian prince in 1221. It wasn't. It was conquered by the armies of Murom, Ryazan, and other Russian towns from the Mordvins, a Finnic people whose main city it had been. The Mordvins, in fact, were the main power between Rus and the Volga Bulgars (both of which were shortly to be overwhelmed by the Mongols), ruling the region between the Oka and the Volga, only a small part of which is left to the truncated Republic of Mordovia after many centuries of Russian encroachment.

Except that there are no Mordvins. I had known that the Mordvin language included two main dialects, Erza (or Erzya; the z is palatal) and Moksha, that had little or no mutual comprehensibility, but I thought it was parallel to, say, Upper and Lower Sorbian. Turns out it's more like Spanish and Portuguese, if everybody else ignored that distinction and called them both "Iberian." The "Iberians" wouldn't like it, and neither do the "Mordvins." This was brought forcibly to my attention by an impassioned essay called "Erza We Are!" by Mariz Kemal. She will make you feel as bad as I do about referring to "Mordvins," but I honestly don't know what the alternative is, since absolutely nobody (except us, of course) has heard of Erza and Moksha. Anyway, hear her out:
Actually, neither Erzas nor Mokshas call themselves "Mordvinians". Asked about his or her nationality, any Erza would say, "Mon Erza". The only person to say "Mon Mordvin" is Prof. N. Mokshin who has nothing left to do, for he has defended his thesis on that subject. Yet Erza people, the true Erzas, consider the word "Mordvinian" to be a nickname. This is our common feeling. We do not like the word; indeed, who would be pleased to have been registered under a nickname for life? Once I was told by a school teacher from Orenburg District (the home to about 100 000 Erzans) that when young Erzan boys and girls obtain their passports, they prefer to be registered under virtually any nationality—most often Russian—but Mordvinian. If only they could have the "Erza" fixed in their passports, that would surely change the whole matter. I am used to people complaining of this situation. No one, however, has courage to question those who hold power: none dares to raise a voice of protest against being nicknamed throughout one's life.

Archaeologists have traced the division between the two peoples—Erza and Moksha—back to the beginning of the new era and possibly to an even earlier period. The separation completed by the 7th century. By the 12th century Erza and Moksha were already two different nations with culture, languages and anthropological types distinctively of their own.

The best way to preserve for the future these two languages—and the two nations as well—is to reject the idea of mixing Moksha and Erza into a single Mordvinian nation. The Finno-Ugrian world has already suffered great losses as a result of such "fusions". Let us recall the Meria, the Murom, the Viess, the Chud, the Meschera...

I am Erza and I declare: let my people never be mentioned in the list of those gone. My nation must survive and enter the 21st century bearing the name of Erza!

Thursday, January 16, 2003

THE HISTORY OF PHAT. A particularly welcome section from a Merriam-Webster page of excerpts from Flappers 2 Rappers, a history of youth slang by Tom Dalzell. [Via Prentiss Riddle.]

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

YUM. From a Calvin Trillin food rant in this week's New Yorker:
Shanghai Tang... listed on its menu, in addition to soup dumplings, dishes like Dry Fish Tripe with Pork Sinew. (Until some tweaking was done in the translation department a few years after the restaurant opened, that dish was actually on the menu as Dry Fish Stomach with Pork Sinus.)
TWO GOODIES FROM La Grande Rousse.

1. Alphabets. You won't believe the wonderful stuff on this site. A couple of examples: evolution from Phoenecian to Latin, and language families (useful for checking on French language names: of the Dravidian languages, "Telougou" is obvious, but "Tamoul" and "Canara" are not). Just scroll down the sidebar and keep clicking.

2. A nice little Anthologie de la poésie, with poems both French and translated (including Wendell Berry and Meleager). The best-represented author is Victor Hugo, and there will be no "Hélas" from me*; if you can read French and haven't read "Booz endormi," do so at once. The line "Tout reposait dans Ur et dans Jerimadeth" contains the pure essence of poetry.
*When Gide was asked who in his opinion was the greatest poet in the French language, he responded: "Victor Hugo, alas!"

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

MULTILINGUAL. I just saw (and immediately bought) a book that could have been published expressly for me... and, I suspect, for certain other frequenters of Languagehat, which is why I'm mentioning it here. NYU Press has published an amazing book called The Multilingual Anthology of American Literature, edited by Marc Shell and Werner Sollors, which presents each work in its original language with facing page translation. Over 700 pages long, it starts with Pastorius' remarkable Bee-Hive of 1696 (in English, German, and Latin, with bits of Greek, Italian, French, and Dutch thrown in for spice), a couple of early documents in Massachusett, the Walam Olum or the Red Score of the Lenape (with pictographs and transcriptions of the Lenape myths and migration stories), a poem by Lorenzo da Ponte, and (perhaps the most amazing find) the 1831 Life of Omar Ibn Said, Written by Himself—in Arabic! (The original manuscript, with its beautifully clear writing, is reproduced.) It continues through nineteenth-century works in French, Spanish, German, Polish, Russian, and (Nic, Pat, are you listening?) Welsh, and for the twentieth century adds Yiddish, Swedish, Norwegian, Navajo, Hebrew, Chinese, Hungarian, and Greek. There is a "Brief History of Bilingualism in Poetry" and a satisfyingly detailed section of notes ("Omar's construction is ambiguous; he does not use the past construction (kana) to indicate his previous religion. A literal translation would read: 'Before... my religion is the religion of Mohammed.'"). And there is the recurring pleasure of seeing American names in unusual linguistic contexts, such as Arabic ("Ya ahl Nu-Karulin ['O people of North Carolina']! Ya ahl Su-Karulin!") or Welsh ("Pan welais destynau Eisteddfod Granville, N.Y...."). I can't recommend this book highly enough.

I'll close with an excerpt from György Gyékényesi's "Occidental Cantata":
Bartókot láttam
amint rigódalt jegyzett
a Carolinákban
sej rigómadár ne szállj fel a fára
s New Orleans-i ütemre rándult a keze
the saints go marchin' in
the saints go marchin' out
míg hömpölygött a Mississippi

Monday, January 13, 2003

THIS IS EMBARRASSING. Over the weekend I downloaded Mozilla and started using it for various tasks (including eliminating pop-ups, which was a thrill). Eventually I got around to updating Languagehat. As soon as I hit Publish and checked the front page, I croaked in horror: the typeface was too large, the layout was wrong, links didn't work, the whole thing was farfoylt, farblondzhet, farkuckt. I tried everything I could think of; nothing helped. And of course today I have a record number of visitors, 179 so far. It's like having everyone in the neighborhood drop in on the very day your house has been savaged by the Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde. I hope you will take a look at the archives to see the clean, pleasing look of Classic Languagehat, and bear with me until order is restored. This will definitely happen in the next couple of weeks, because Jan. 31 marks the six-month anniversary of Languagehat, and I am determined to change to Movable Type by then. In the meantime, I don't want to leave you with nothing but bitching and moaning, so here are a fine discussion of Entish and a general query.

Query. There is an interesting thread on MetaFilter about collective terms for animals, from the normal (a pride of lions, a flock of geese) to the fanciful (an unkindness of ravens, and of course the famous "exaltation of larks"). S. Cody asked "whether this phenomenon occurs in other languages," and I said I wondered myself. More specifically:
I'm sure hunters elsewhere had comparable terms, but they would have stayed within the professional circle (so to speak) and never have penetrated the wider world of literature, and thus would have died out with the premodern culture of hunting. But it's possible that other languages have comparably specific terms (though probably without the facetious additions) that simply don't show up in bilingual dictionaries, like other rare words that aren't of much use to anyone but specialists.
So... anybody know? (Avva, if this exists in Russian, I'm sure you know or can find out.)

Update. As you can plainly see, the template has been unfarblondzhet. I owe Songdog several beers.

Sunday, January 12, 2003

FALSE FRIENDS IN PEPYS. Phil Gyford has had the brilliant idea of starting a Pepys' Diary blog; the diary begins on Jan. 1, 1660 (or 1659 if you want to be technical, since in those days the new year didn't start until March 25), and on Jan. 1 of this year Phil began posting an entry at the end of each day. To his surprise, the site has been getting a lot of attention, both from the press and from people (like me) who always intended to read Pepys but might never have gotten around to it without this stimulus. I should add that one of the best features of the site is that, like most blogs, it allows comments, which means that people who tend to look things up and enjoy sharing what they find can leave annotations for the general good.

So I encourage everyone to join in the fun—but I also want to warn against linguistic complacency. Some usages are unfamiliar, so that if we don't look them up we are at least aware of our ignorance (like "a collar of brawn"), but it's easy to glide over words that look familiar without realizing they are being used in a very different sense. As a sample of what one has to be on the lookout for, herewith some faux amis of the seventeenth century (modern meanings after the colon):

able: wealthy
affect: be fond of, be concerned (similarly, affection: attention)
amused: bemused, astonished
approve of: criticize
beard: any facial hair
blur: innuendo, charge
caress(e): make much of
cheapen: ask the price of, bargain
club: share expenses (also as noun: share of expense, meeting at which expenses are shared)
cosen, cousin: any collateral relative
daughter-in-law: stepdaughter (similarly mother-in-law, etc.)
dress: cook, prepare food
effeminacy: love of women
family: household (including servants)
grief: bodily pain
ingenious, ingenuous: clever, intelligent
lean: lie down
light: window
meat: food
nearly: deeply
owe: own
policy: government; cunning; self-interest
ready: dressed (similarly, unready: undressed)
resent: receive
sewer: stream, ditch
speed: succeed
strangers: foreigners
tale: reckoning, number (similarly, tell: count)
ugly: awkward
vaunt: vend, sell
warm: comfortable, well off
watch: clock

For further information, see the Latham and Matthews edition of the Diary (condensed list after each volume, full description in the Companion volume).

Saturday, January 11, 2003

LEARN SOMETHING EVERY DAY. From a thread at Avva I learned that the Russian family name Chaadaev (well known because of the nineteenth-century Westernizer) comes from the Mongolian name Chaghatai (well known because of Genghis Khan's son, who inherited Central Asia and founded a dynasty). This was interesting enough, but in the course of the discussion someone asked if the name was Turkic or Mongolian, apologizing for his bukvoedstvo. This was a new word to me; it means 'pedantry' but is literally 'letter-eating' (bukva 'letter (of the alphabet)' + ed- 'eat'). I love it, and will henceforth proudly identify myself as a bukvoed.

(Bukva, incidentally, is ultimately borrowed from Germanic boko 'beech tree,' which is also the source of English book. And while I'm at it, the plural of book should historically be beech, which is the result of applying the regular sound changes to the Old English plural bec, with long e. Isn't linguistics fun?)

Friday, January 10, 2003

IKIRU. Yesterday I realized that it was the last day Kurosawa's 1952 movie Ikiru (To Live) would be showing at the Film Forum, so I dashed down after work and saw it. I knew it was considered one of his best, but I didn't realize it was going to wind up on my short list of Greatest Movies Ever Made (along with Rules of the Game and Mirror and A Brighter Summer Day... but that's a list for another entry). Takashi Shimura gives the performance of a lifetime as a government bureaucrat who's been effectively dead for twenty years and only learns to live when he discovers his time is about to run out. The scene in which a dissolute writer shows him how to carouse and spend money rivals the "Nighttown" episode of Ulysses, and his drunken basso profundo rendering of "Life is Short" ("that old song from the teens," ie, from the days when he was courting his long-dead wife) silences the nightclub and lacerates the viewer's heart. Since this is Languagehat, I should provide the lyrics:
Inochi mijikashi
Koi se yo otome
Akaki kuchibiru
Asenu ma ni
Atsuki chishio no
Hienu ma ni
Asu no tsukihi wa
Nai mono wo
("Life is short; fall in love, young maiden, before the colour in those crimson lips fades, before that passionate blood turns cold—for there is no tomorrow.")

But my appreciation for the movie is influenced by a couple of extraneous factors. For one thing, the movie shows the time and place in which I spent my earliest years, which may add to its effect on me. And for another, a hat is one of the main characters; in fact, I consider it a travesty that it did not win a Best Supporting Actor award.
ROBINSON JEFFERS. From wood s lot comes this remarkable exhibit on the craggy poet Robinson Jeffers, who much preferred hawks to people. "Shine, Perishing Republic" is famous and unforgettable, but like Mr. Woods, I will quote another poem that is all too timely:
Ave Caesar

No bitterness: our ancestors did it.
They were only ignorant and hopeful, they wanted freedom but wealth too.
Their children will learn to hope for a Caesar.
Or rather—for we are not aquiline Romans but soft mixed colonists—
Some kindly Sicilian tyrant who'll keep
Poverty and Carthage off until the Romans arrive,
We are easy to manage, a gregarious people,
Full of sentiment, clever at mechanics, and we love our luxuries.

Thursday, January 09, 2003

CRITICAL IGNORANCE. In the 3 October issue of the London Review of Books, Daniel Soar reviews Jeffrey Eugenides' new novel Middlesex. The novel's protagonist comes from a village near the city of Bursa in Asia Minor, and this village is "on the slopes of Mount Olympus." The reviewer gets a good deal of mileage out of this mythologically rich name: "Olympus is a reasonable location for a view of the beginnings of a disaster that is the story's catalyst... the reflective parts of the narration that follows deal in Odysseus, the Minotaur, and Zeus creating the world from an egg.... One advantage of Olympus for the storyteller is its mythical altitude... " and, bringing it back for an encore at the end, "It's a great pity that this type of very un-Olympian compression... has to be so resolutely disguised in the book." The only problem is that the Olympus with the gods is in Thessaly, in mainland Greece. This one is in Mysia, in what's now Turkey; its modern name is Ulu Dagh.

Just as I was saying to myself "What can you expect from those slackers at the LRB, you have to go to the TLS for real expertise," I picked up the September 27 issue of the latter and began reading Stephen Abell's review of Ben Okri's latest novel, In Arcadia. He mentions the famous Poussin painting that "shows three shepherds and a shepherdess standing before a tomb marked with the inscription 'Et in Arcadia ego': 'I too lived in Arcadia'." This is a common misunderstanding, but the Latin will not bear the interpretation; it means rather 'Even in Arcadia am I [ie, death].'

I'd say "O tempora, o mores," but the good people at LRB and TLS would probably think "Right, eels fried in batter."
300 TANG POEMS. Via Plep comes this wonderful site presenting the classic Chinese poetry anthology in bilingual versions. The translations are mostly by Witter Bynner, who isn't my favorite but will do; I can't actually get the characters (I see gibberish on my screen), but I will bookmark the site in the expectation that someday I will be able to see the originals, and I assume that some of my readers can do so already. Give it a try.
GAELIC GOOGLE. Languagehat is the #2 hit for a Google search on Gangs of New York Gaelic language. This did not surprise me; what did surprise me, and very much please me, was that the page with the search results was in Irish! "Cuardaíodh an gréasán le haghaidh Gangs of New York Gaelic language.  Torthaí 1 - 10 as timpeall 319. Mhair an cuardach 0.24 soicind." Love that Google... (And may I take this opportunity to express my relief that people seem to have finally stopped looking for "nvde R0manian g&mnasts," which looked like it might one day replace "Charlie Ravioli" as my all-time referral king. Which reminds me: Adam Gopnik, if you're reading this, you never thanked my wife for the CDs; I know you're a busy man, but when you finish your next brilliant New Yorker essay, you might drop her a line.)

Wednesday, January 08, 2003

CENSORSHIP IN NEW YORK STATE. Last June there was a ruckus when an eagle-eyed parent named Jeanne Heifetz noticed that literary excerpts on the Regents' exam her stepdaughter brought home had been altered, apparently with the intention of removing anything that might possibly give offense to anyone (including all references to religion), in the process seriously altering the meaning of the passages. After prolonged and well-deserved ridicule, the Department of Education caved and promised that changes would be made. The story faded from view.

Now Michael Winerip reveals in today's NY Times that (as might have been expected by anyone with a healthy degree of cynicism) nothing has in fact changed.
Ms. Heifetz, bless her, recently got a look at August's English exam. In new guidelines, the state promised complete paragraphs with no deletions, but an excerpt from Kafka (on the importance of literature) changes his words and removes the middle of a paragraph without using ellipses, in the process deleting mentions of God and suicide.

The new state guidelines promised not to sanitize, but a passage on people's conception of time from Aldous Huxley (a product of England's colonial era) deletes the paragraphs on how unpunctual "the Oriental" is.

But the saddest example of how standardized testing is lowering academic standards (as a recent national study by Arizona State University reports) can be seen in the way New York officials butchered an excerpt from a PBS documentary on the influenza epidemic of 1918.

Like any good historical work, the documentary on this epidemic, which killed half a million Americans, included numerous interviews with historians, novelists, medical experts and survivors, and quoted primary sources of the era. But the three-page passage read out loud to students on the state exam is edited to make it appear that there is only one speaker.

Though the new guidelines promised to identify the authors of any excerpts, the state does not identify the documentary's author, Ken Chowder. It does identify the narrator, although — oops! — incorrectly: the narrator was Linda Hunt, not David McCullough. As Ms. Heifetz says, any student who melded the words of a dozen people into one and then misidentified the narrator would surely be flunked.

The state version cuts out the passages with the most harrowing and moving accounts of the epidemic, as when children played on piles of coffins stacked outside an undertaker's home. It removes virtually all references to government officials' mishandling the epidemic. It deletes the references to religious leaders like Billy Sunday, who promised that God would protect the virtuous, even as worshipers dropped dead at his services.
Furthermore, "Ms. Heifetz believes that one test question based on the influenza reading has three correct answers"—and the professor featured in the documentary agrees:
To get a second opinion on Question 2, I tracked down Dr. Alfred Crosby, a retired University of Texas professor who was featured in the PBS documentary and has written the book "America's Forgotten Pandemic." I sent him a copy of the state's sanitized excerpt and the multiple-choice questions. Dr. Crosby loves history's complexity and was offended by the state's single-speaker vision of the past.

He believes all three answers to Question 2 were implied in the state excerpt and said that if he were marked wrong for responding with Answers 2 or 3, he'd be angry. "That's the problem," he said, "with a multiple-choice test."
Visit the National Coalition Against Censorship site for more information on this and other stories, and suggestions on What You Can Do.

Tuesday, January 07, 2003

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

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

Monday, January 06, 2003

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 05, 2003

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 04, 2003

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

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

Friday, January 03, 2003

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

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

Thursday, January 02, 2003

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 01, 2003

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

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