Discovering Real Poetry.

I’ve started Valentin Kataev’s 1967 memoir Трава забвеня (translated by Robert Daglish as The Holy Well) and have already fallen in love with it. He starts off describing a nervous visit to Ivan Bunin sometime in the early 1910s accompanied by a high-school classmate, each of them with poems they want the great man to look at (and hopefully praise). Then he backs up to explain how he came to know about Bunin. He grew up in Odessa as a not particularly literary adolescent, but like every literate person in the Russian Empire around the turn of the century he was obsessed with poetry and filled a journal with verse that he recited to everyone he knew; nevertheless, he felt he was ignorant of some vital secret that would explain what all those rhymes and meters and stanzas meant. He describes making the rounds of the newspaper offices and being told “Poems? Fine. Drop them off and come back in two weeks.” When he returned, he’d usually be told they weren’t needed (“We’re not taking poems any more, we’ve got too many”), but once in a while he’d be told one had been accepted:

“Which one?”
“I don’t remember — something about nature. Eight lines. As filler.”

Eventually one editor takes pity on him and says “Listen, kid, I’ll tell you the truth — nobody here knows a thing about poetry, including me. You should have a real writer read your stuff.” And he says there happens to be a real writer living in Odessa. We’re primed to think “Ah, now he discovers Bunin!” But no, the editor names Aleksandr Mitrofanovich Fyodorov. “You’ve surely heard of him?” “I haven’t.” He quotes a line about a barrel-organ playing outside a window at evening, wipes away a tear, and says “You have to know him. A. Fyodorov! He’s even in the encyclopedic dictionary!” This is marvelous comedy; the doughty Fyodorov was a writer, all right, who had an eight-volume Collected Works published in 1911-13 and even has his own Wikipedia entry, but he was never of more than local significance, and all the time we’re thinking “Bunin! What about Bunin?!”
[Read more…]

Yom huledet.

I’ve linked to Balashon, the “Hebrew Language Detective,” many times (I greeted its arrival on the scene in 2006), and there’s another post so interesting I have to link to it, yom huledet:

The Hebrew phrase for “birthday” is יום הולדת yom huledet. While it’s certainly a familiar phrase, it’s actually kind of a strange construct. Huledet is the hufal (passive and causative) form. Why not use the simpler יום הלידה yom haleida – “day of birth”? [The Bible and Rashi are quoted.]

In other words, a better translation for yom huledet would be “the day [he] was delivered” instead of “birthday,” even though both phrases refer to the same date. (An alternate suggestion, by Radak and Rabbeinu Bachye, is that this was the day a son was born to Pharaoh.) This can also help us understand why the phrase is yom huledet et paro, where Pharaoh is the object of the phrase, instead of yom huledet paro, which is how we would say it today. Pharaoh was the object – he was delivered on that day. According to this article, the verse describes the historical record of “a ceremony at which the Pharaoh was born again as far as Egyptian protocol was concerned.”

So this usage could explain why yom huledet is the phrase we use for “birthday.” However, there are other phrases used to describe birthdays in the Bible […] So why didn’t any of the above become the standard term for “birthday”?

I couldn’t find an proven answer to this question. However, it seems that birthdays weren’t a big deal in Judaism until recently. And so there wasn’t need for a standard Hebrew phrase for the concept. I didn’t find yom huledet mentioned in Rabbinic sources that weren’t discussing the verses in Bereshit or Yechezkel until relatively recently. […] The usage (of the full spelling) really starts spiking around the 1960s. I assume that most of the earlier occurrences were discussing the biblical examples.

But as we saw, there were other choices – yom hivaldo or yom haleida. Why not them? My guess is that people were very familiar with the yom huledet of Pharaoh, due to the weekly Torah reading. And although Rashi gives it a slightly different explanation than “day of birth,” that wasn’t enough to prevent it from becoming the popular phrase.

Makes sense to me, and I love that kind of historico-semantic investigation.

Much Sass State.

As a resident of the Much Sass State myself (specifically, of Hey, Lad, between Tampon Thorn and Hamster), how can I resist passing along this brilliant map from Bostonography? It was originally posted on May 17, 2016 by Andy Woodruff and Tim Wallace, who said “Can you believe it’s almost the 400th anniversary of the the Pilgrims arriving at Hot Lumpy?” and added “Anagrams were all generated by the amazing Internet Anagram Server (or I, Rearrangement Servant).” They have other maps as well, for those who enjoy maps.

Also, I keep forgetting to mention that a couple of months ago LibraryThing dropped all membership fees and limits:

Our plan was to go free when we rolled out “LT2,” our upcoming redesign. But the coronavirus has changed our plans, along with everyone else’s. A lot of people are now stranded at home, with nothing to do but read and catalog their books, movies, and music. A lot of kids are at home too—free cataloging help. And with the economy in freefall, many are worried about money. We want everyone to be able to use LibraryThing. This is the right time to go free.

So, starting today,, both on the web and using our cataloging app, are free to all, to add as many books as you want. And, no, we’re not going to add ads. (We will keep showing a few Google ads to visitors, but they vanish as soon as you become a member.)

I’ve been a member for almost 15 years — I posted about it right after it opened — and I highly recommend it as an easy way to keep your books catalogued. And you can enter books in all sorts of languages.

Poems from the Edge of Extinction.

Alexander Adams reviews a new anthology:

Poems from the Edge of Extinction: An Anthology of Poetry in Endangered Languages collects short poems in languages close to disappearing, allowing us to glimpse a little of the poetry of ancient cultures. There is an attempt to anthologise new work by living poets or recent transcriptions of traditional poems. Each poem is presented in its original language, facing an English translation and a short discussion of the language, poet and some aspects of the poem.

Languages include those from cultures close and far. The British languages include Manx, Cornish, Scottish Gaelic and Shetlandic. Some readers will be surprised to encounter the very rare form of Norman – Lé Jérriais – spoken on Jersey. European languages include Occitan (from Provencal), Saami (the language of the indigenous nomads of northern Scandinavia), Sardinian, Faroese and Belarussian. Others include Maori, Navajo, Assyrian and Hawaiian. The selection is not entirely confined to languages in danger of extinction. Welsh, Pashto, Rohingya are not vulnerable, but they are selected because they are minority languages.

But some languages are so rare, as in the case of Gorwaa in Tanzania, that ‘there is no published dictionary, grammar, texts or standardised writing system’. The Gorwaa poem here features some poetic sounds in the singing of the text, and some audience participation, too. Indeed, each language example brings to the fore different values, such as rhythm, assonance, alliteration, rhyme, repetition, call and response and other parts of spoken verse. […]

Translation is, of course, a very inexact process. […] Obviously, sounds, rhymes and rhythms are lost in the translation of verse. What’s more, the very obscurity of these languages leads to problems with translation. One simply cannot find someone to translate directly into English; hence we get descriptions, such as ‘translated from Ainu into Japanese, translated from Japanese into English’. Although we get the original text, this chain translation does make one question the English language version’s fidelity to the original.

Artistically speaking, the poems vary in quality. But there is a beautiful poem in Navajo by Laura Tohe, translated by the poet herself. She is bilingual and able to approximate the original in her own translation, which aids fluency and the power of her imagery of cranes migrating. Likewise, Joy Harjo’s bilingual poem in Mvskoke (of the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole nations) is rich and evocative.

The review starts by quoting a brief poem by John Elvis Smelcer in both Ahtna and English. Thanks, Trevor!

Not really LH material except that I’ve long loved both the legend of the sunken city of Kitezh and the fantastic wooden structures of Kizhi, so I’m smuggling this in here: Studiolum’s Kizhi and the submerged Karelia at Poemas del río Wang. He quotes Polish journalist Mariusz Wilk as writing “The most important event in Russia in the twentieth century was the destruction of the village,” and adds:

In this sense, Kizhi is really Kitezh. A submerged city in the middle of the lake, where the beauty and civilization of the former Karelia retreated from the advancement of barbarism.

It’s long and filled with gorgeous photographs and forgotten history. Highly recommended.


I’m reading David Graeber’s Debt (an eye-opening and thought-provoking book) and I just got to this passage:

One of the most important forms of currency in England in Henry’s time were notched “tally sticks” used to record debts. Tally sticks were quite explicitly IOUs: both parties to a transaction would take a hazelwood twig, notch it to indicate the amount owed, and then split it in half. The creditor would keep one half, called “the stock” (hence the origin of the term “stock holder”) and the debtor kept the other, called “the stub” (hence the origin of the term “ticket stub.”)

I found this delightful but suspected it was too good to be true; when I checked the OED, I discovered that the entry for stock (not fully updated since 1917) listed 59 senses, #52a being:

The subscribed capital of a trading company, or the public debt of a nation, municipal corporation, or the like, regarded as transferable property held by the subscribers or creditors, and subject to fluctuations in market value. Also, in particularized sense, a kind of stock, a particular fund in which money may be invested.
In expressions like to buy or sell stocks, the word may be partly an application of sense A. 42, ‘tally’. Cf. quot. 1714 under that sense [F. Atterbury Eng. Advice to Freeholders 4 Boroughs are rated on Royal Exchange, like Stocks and Tallies.].

It’s placed under section VI. “A fund, store,” where we find this paragraph appended:

The senses grouped under this head are not found in the other Germanic languages except by adoption from English. Their origin is obscure, and possibly several different lines of development may have blended. Thus the application of the word to a trader’s capital may partly involve the notion of a trunk or stem (branch I) from which the gains are an outgrowth, and partly that of ‘fixed basis’ or ‘foundation’ (branch II): cf. fund n. Sense A. 47 may be derived immediately from that of ‘money-box’, and have given rise to uses coincident with senses of different origin. The application to cattle is primarily a specific use of the sense ‘store’, but the notion of ‘race’ or ‘breed’ (sense A. 3) has had some share in its development.

Sense A. 42, “The portion of a tally which was given to the person making a payment to the Exchequer,” is placed under IV. “The more massive portion of an instrument or weapon; usually, the body or handle, to which the working part is attached.” So it’s all much fuzzier than Graeber makes it out to be, and a good illustration of how difficult both lexicography and etymology are; it’ll be interesting to see what the OED does with this entry when the Third Edition gets around to updating it. Meanwhile, Wiktionary says:

From Old English stocc, from Proto-Germanic *stukkaz (“tree-trunk”), with modern senses mostly referring either to the trunk from which the tree grows (figuratively, its origin and/or support/foundation), or to a piece of wood, stick, or rod. The senses of “supply” and “raw material” arose from a probable conflation with steck (“an item of goods, merchandise”) or the use of split tally sticks consisting of foil or counterfoil and stock to capture paid taxes, debts or exchanges. Doublet of chock.

Arabic and Contact-Induced Change.

Last December, I mentioned C. Lucas & S. Manfredi (eds.), Arabic and Contact-Induced Change: A Handbook as forthcoming; it has now come forth, and as bulbul wrote me, like all LSP books, it is completely free. Among the thirty chapters, from “Pre-Islamic Arabic” to “Contact and the expression of negation,” there are two of particular interest to LH readers: “Maltese,” by Christopher Lucas and Slavomír Čéplö (aka bulbul), and “Berber,” by Lameen Souag. Bulbul says, “The other recent book I was involved in and your readership may find of interest is, naturally, Maltese Linguistics on the Danube“; it ain’t free, but he says he might be able to help out LH readers — drop him a line if you’re interested.

Unrelated, but I recently finished reading Kataev’s excellent 1966 memoir Святой колодец [The Holy Well], about half of which consists of accounts of various trips to America in the late ’50s and early ’60s; at one point he’s in Houston describing its boom-town growth, and says that you can look out at a stretch of land that seems completely empty, but in fact a whole neighborhood can spring up there overnight because the нулевой цикл [nulevói tsikl] has already been laid down, so prefab houses can immediately be plugged into the sewer system, electricity lines, etc., and be ready for occupancy. I have had no luck finding an official translation for the technical term нулевой цикл, which literally means ‘zero cycle’; people online suggest things like “foundation work.” I thought maybe some knowledgeable LH reader (AJP?) might know the terminology.


In an ideal world, I’d post this on New Year’s Eve, but in the world we live in, there’s no way I’d remember it that long, so here is the Atlas zur deutschen Alltagssprache’s Neujahrswünsche page. There’s one map for what you say on the eve, and another for what you say on New Year’s Day itself. Thanks, Nick!

Stretchable Words.

Public Library of Science reports on an article by Gray, Danforth, and Dodds in PLoS ONE:

An investigation of Twitter messages reveals new insights and tools for studying how people use stretched words, such as “duuuuude,” “heyyyyy,” or “noooooooo.” Tyler Gray and colleagues at the University of Vermont in Burlington present these findings in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on May 27, 2020. In spoken and written language, stretched words can modify the meaning of a word. For instance, “suuuuure” can imply sarcasm, while “yeeessss” may indicate excitement. Stretched words are rare in formal writing, but the rise of social media has opened up new opportunities to study them.

Gray and colleagues have now completed the most comprehensive study to date of “stretchable” words in social media. They developed a new, more thorough strategy for identifying stretched words in tweets and used it to analyze a randomly selected dataset of about 10 percent of all tweets generated between September 2008 and December 2016—totaling about 100 billion tweets. […]

They also identified two key ways of measuring the characteristics of stretchable words: balance and stretch. Balance refers to the degree to which different letters tend to be repeated. For instance, “ha” has a high degree of balance because when it is stretched, the “h” and the “a” tend to be repeated just about equally. “Goal” is less balanced, with “o” repeated more than any other letter in the word.

Stretch refers to how long a word tends to be stretched. For instance, short words or sounds like “ha” have a high degree of stretch because people often repeat them many times (e.g., “hahahahahahahaha”). Meanwhile, regular words like “infinity” have lower stretch, often with just one letter repeated: “infinityyyy.”

Interesting stuff; my only quibble would be that “goal” is in a category of its own, since it is notoriously stretched almost to infinite length by announcers and was frequently written with many “o”s to reflect that long before Twitter was dreamed of. Thanks, Jonathan!


I’m not an anime buff, but even I am aware of Studio Ghibli and have enjoyed some of their movies. I always pronounced it /ˈgɪbli/ because duh, how else would you pronounce it? But I just heard someone on the radio say /ˈdʒɪbli/, so I turned to Professor Google and got the Wikipedia article linked above, which begins “Studio Ghibli, Inc. (/ˈdʒɪbli/) (Japanese: 株式会社スタジオジブリ, Hepburn: Kabushiki gaisha Sutajio Jiburi)…” This infuriated me; why in the name of heaven would you spell Jiburi “Ghibli” in English? But then I got to the Name section:

The name Ghibli was given by Hayao Miyazaki from the Italian noun ghibli, based on the Libyan-Arabic name for the hot desert wind of that country, the idea being the studio would “blow a new wind through the anime industry”. It also refers to an Italian aircraft, the Caproni Ca.309 Ghibli. Although the Italian word is more accurately transliterated as ギブリ (Giburi), the Japanese name of the studio is ジブリ (Jiburi).

What a mess! But I feel licensed to continue using /ˈgɪbli/, which accurately reflects the etymon; it’s not my fault if the Japanese choose to misrepresent it. And if you’re curious (which of course you are), Italian ghibli is “from the Libyan Arabic form of Standard Arabic قِبْلِيّ‎ (qibliyy, ‘coming from the qibla’), pronounced with an initial [ɡ] in Libyan Arabic.”

An Introduction to Chaghatay.

Eric Schluessel has published An Introduction to Chaghatay: A Graded Textbook for Reading Central Asian Sources and made it freely available (287-page pdf) — what a great service to everyone interested in the Turkic languages! As the publisher’s blurb says:

The Chaghatay language was used across Central Asia from the 1400s through the 1950s. Chroniclers, clerks, and poets in modern-day Afghanistan, Xinjiang, Uzbekistan, and beyond wrote countless volumes of text in Chaghatay, from the famed Baburnama to the documents of everyday life. However, even more and more material in Chaghatay is becoming available to scholars, few are able to read the language with ease.

Thanks go to Wm Annis, who sent me the link and added:

I wish he cared a bit more about the vowels, but this seems to be aimed at getting Sinologists into reading original sources. On the other hand, it does try to help readers learn to deal with Nasta’liq.