Gilgamesh and Buluqiya.

I was reading Marina Warner’s NYRB review (subscriber-only) of Stephen Greenblatt’s The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve when I was startled by an implausible-looking equation. But before I get to that, I’ll quote the amusing opening of the review:

In 1872, when the brilliant young Assyriologist George Smith found a cuneiform tablet in the British Museum inscribed with part of the story of the Flood, he became so excited that he began undressing, though the comparative literature scholar David Damrosch thinks that he might have been merely loosening his collar, Stephen Greenblatt tells us—still sign enough to alarm Smith’s Victorian confreres into fearing that he was overborne with passion.

OK, so later on Warner parenthetically notes that “The Orientalist Stephanie Dalley has argued that the name of the hero Buluqiya in a long quest tale in the Arabian Nights derives from Gilgamesh.” That made me sit up and take notice, since the two names seem very different; fortunately, JSTOR provided me with Dalley’s article “Gilgamesh in the Arabian Nights” (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Third Series, 1.1 [Apr. 1991]: 1-17), where we find the following explanation:

The two personal names Buluqiya and al-Khidhr can be connected with extreme antiquity. Buluqiya is not an Arabic name, nor is it a name for a king of Israel, even though Tha’labi’s version calls him son of Josiah. The name can be explained as a hypocoristic of Gilgamesh’s name in a pronunciation attested both in Sumerian and in Hurrian: Bilgamesh. In the element bilga the third consonant exhibits a standard change, from voiced G to unvoiced K, the Akkadian hypocoristic ending –ya is added, and the second element mesh is omitted. The name Gilgamesh is presumed to be Sumerian, although it does not conform to any clear type of name in that language. The affix –ya is typical of Akkadian names, and it corresponds very closely to the Sumerian hypocoristic affix –mu. The ending –ya is, however, capable of an alternative interpretation; as a short, theophoric element standing for Yahweh. This analysis would give credence to the secondary use of the name for a supposedly Israelite king, even though no such king is named in the Bible. If this is the correct explanation of the name, it would imply that the pronunciation Bilgamesh continued alongside Gilgamesh during the first millennium B.C. Vowel changes in abbreviated Akkadian names are regularly found, such as Šūzubu from Mušēzib-Marduk. This analysis of Buluqiya as a form of Gilgamesh goes hand in hand with the choice of Mesopotamia’s most famous hero for showing that the coming of Muhammad was pre-ordained. Pseudo-prophecies such as this are always put into the mouths of famous men of old, to give them the stamp of authority. […]

Why has it taken so long to discover Gilgamesh in the Arabian Nights? Since the Epic was first discovered in Akkadian, written on clay tablets found in the ruins of Nineveh, progress in its decipherment and piecing together fragments has been slow. For a start, the name of the hero himself was wrongly read as Izdubar until late in the nineteenth century, when it was first correctly read as Gilgamesh. Not until about 1960 was the Sumerian and Hurrian pronunciation as Bilgamesh appreciated. As for the story itself, three episodes came to light quite early, and were the hallmarks by which the epic was recognised, namely Enkidu’s seduction by the harlot; the main heroic episode of Gilgamesh and Humbaba, and the Flood. None of these episodes is found in any version of the Buluqiya story.

I confess I have no idea how much credence to give to this. I’m automatically suspicious of any argument that depends on general similarity of content and ad hoc explaining-away of phonetic dissimilarity (“the consonants count for very little and the vowels for nothing at all”), but obviously this is a topic that has been much discussed by experts in a field where I am only a distant onlooker, so I turn to the assembled Hattery: does this Gilgamesh/Buluqiya thing seem plausible?

Persian Language Education in Colonial India.

I’ve posted about the spread of Persian as a lingua franca before (2013, 2018), and Amanda Lanzillo has a very interesting essay at Ajam Media Collective about an aspect of its history in India I wasn’t aware of:

In the standard narrative of the decline of Persian in India, as the Mughal Empire and its successor states waned and the British East India Company consolidated power on the subcontinent, Persian was displaced as a literary, intellectual, and administrative language. In this narrative, a loss of patronage, the slowing of migration from Iran and Central Asia, and elite use of “vernacular” Indian languages like Urdu all sped the downfall of Indian Persian. This narrative captures several processes by which Indian Persian declined between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. However, it also obscures the dynamic language politics of colonial India, in which users of Persian negotiated the place of the language with the colonial state. The narrative of a linear displacement of Persian by Indian vernacular languages and English was a colonial ideal concealing a messier reality.

Persian was a major language of literary and intellectual production among North Indian Muslim elites from the twelfth century. By the sixteenth century, through Mughal patronage, it crystallized as the language of empire and the most prominent language of North Indian written discourse. Written Indo-Persian provided a shared idiom for the polyglot empire. Strong knowledge of Persian became a requisite for employment in many professional positions, including those traditionally held by Hindus; both Hindus and Muslims also sought Mughal literary patronage through mastery of Persian. Deccani dynasties likewise patronized Persian, and in both North Indian and Deccani contexts Iranian and Central Asians migrants contributed to the language’s prestige.

The British East India Company initially maintained Persian’s official position, relying on it to communicate with local power-brokers. However, following the administrative switch to English in the 1830s, Persian was increasingly marginalized in Indian society, to the degree that it largely disappeared from the public sphere by Indian independence. […] For colonial administrators, Persian had little claim to “Indianness” because it lacked inherent religious relevance or a vernacular constituency. By the mid-nineteenth century the regime encouraged vernacular education in languages like Urdu. Due to both Indian patronage and colonial encouragement, Urdu — a Persianized register of Hindustani — emerged as both a language for popular Islamic discourse and a shared secular idiom for discussing law, politics, and literature. […]

[Read more…]

Just the Ticket.

I used the phrase “just the ticket” today and suddenly thought “What is ‘the ticket’?” Of course I turned to the OED, which doesn’t have the phrase in that form but does have (in the ticket entry, from 1912):

9. slang.
a. The correct thing; what is wanted, expected, or fashionable; esp. in that’s the ticket.
Perhaps from 8; or, as some have suggested, from the winning ticket in a lottery.

1838 T. C. Haliburton Clockmaker 2nd Ser. xxi. 323 They ought to be hanged, sir, (that’s the ticket, and he’d whop the leader).
1843 E. FitzGerald Lett. (1889) I. 117 I fancy that moderately high hills (like these) are the ticket.
1847 E. FitzGerald Lett. (1889) I. 179 This [idealizing of portraits] is all wrong. Truth is the ticket.
1853 Thackeray Newcomes (1854) I. vii. 66 Somehow she’s not—she’s not the ticket.
1866 Routledge’s Every Boy’s Ann. 411 That’s the ticket! That’s the winning game.

Sense 8, mentioned in the small print, is:

In politics (orig. U.S.): the list of candidates for election nominated or put forward by a party or faction. Also, the subject or theme of an election campaign; the principles of a political party as presented for an election.
1711 I. Norris in Penn-Logan Corr. (1872) II. 438 Chester [Pennsylvania] carried their ticket entire.

I guess that’s as plausible a source for the idiom as any; I’m surprised it goes back as far as 1711 (and it can doubtless be antedated).


It’s not often one runs into a sense that hasn’t made it into the updated OED, but such is the case with notability in this quote from The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894–1924 by Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi:

The major urban Armenian communities were divided into three groups: a religious-clerical hierarchy headed by the patriarch, a notability, and the mass of cityfolk, most of whom were associated with professional guilds known as esnafs.

Of course I understood that notability here meant ‘a group of notables [=eminent people],’ but I’d never run across it used that way, and when I checked the OED entry (updated December 2003) I found only these senses:

1.a. A notable fact or circumstance. Obsolete.
b. A famous or prominent person.
1832 J. S. Mill Lett. (1910) I. 33 There is need that the march of mind should raise up new spiritual notabilities; for it seems as though all the old ones with one accord were departing out of the world together. In a few days or weeks the world has lost the three greatest men in it in their several departments—Goethe, Bentham, and Cuvier.
1851 Fraser’s Mag. 43 257 Along with other ancient ‘notabilities’, Cleopatra and Mark Antony were addicted to the pastime.
1897 ‘S. Tytler’ Lady Jean’s Son 193 Another notability was the gypsy beauty.
1934 D. Thomas Let. Dec. (1987) 178 I have met a number of new notabilities including Henry Moore, the sculptor.
1986 A. Powell Fisher King i. 8 Gary Lament..would, as a Fleet Street notability, undoubtedly have taken up a place at the Captain’s table.
c. A noteworthy object or feature. rare.
2.a. Noteworthiness, distinction, prominence; an instance of this.
b. Competence and efficiency in household matters (usually as a quality of a woman); = notableness n. 2. Obsolete.
1756 C. Powys Passages from Diaries Mrs. Powys (1899) 10 I’ve heard Mr Jackson talk of Lady Leicester’s great notability… Her dairy is the neatest place you can imagine, the whole marble.
a1865 E. C. Gaskell Wives & Daughters (1866) II. xxv. 261 Mary has infected me with her notability, and I’m going to work mamma a footstool.

I’ve included all the citations for the sense closest to the one I was investigating, and the first and last for the unexpected 2.b. Of course, it’s possible it’s simply an error, but it doesn’t strike me that way; it’s parallel to collective nouns like gentry and professoriat(e), and I suspect it’s used in the academic niche that talks about “notables”… but it’s hot, and I’m too zonked to investigate further.

Vanka Kain.

Richard Pipes was unquestionably a good historian; I’ve got a number of his books and have found them useful. As I wrote here, however, they are a mixture of annoying generalizations and enlightening details, and I dislike his general attitude — I didn’t mind his fervent anticommunism, which I share, but he also seemed to have it in for Russia and its culture in general. That’s understandable, since he was both Jewish and a native of Poland, but it still gets my back up. Anyway, I’m currently reading his The Degaev Affair: Terror and Treason in Tsarist Russia, and I recommend it without reservation — I bought it because it was praised highly by Stephen Kotkin, and it lives up to the praise. It’s short, well written, and tells an astonishing tale of betrayal and reinvention. But because I dislike Pipes, I was uncharitably pleased to come across an idiotic error on p. 115. He quotes a letter by Degaev to a fellow revolutionary in which he complains about being treated as “some kind of Van’ka-Cain” (as Pipes renders it), and there is a footnote that reads: “Van’ka-Cain: a play on the expression van’ka-vstan’ka, a person who always talks himself out of trouble.” Ho ho, no it isn’t!

Vanka Kain was “one of the most infamous criminals in Russian history… Born as the serf Ivan Osipov, he became a thief and gang leader, then worked as a police informer, and finally became a respected member of Moscow high society.” That quote is from Oleg Yegorov’s Russia Beyond article, where you can read all about his career. Furthermore, he was the protagonist of Matvei Komarov’s 1779 Obstoyatel′noe i vernoe opisanie dobrykh i zlykh del rossiiskogo moshennika, vora, razboinika i byvshego moskovskogo syshchika Van′ki Kain [A detailed and true description of the deeds good and evil of the Russian scoundrel, thief, robber, and former Moscow detective Vanka Kain]; known for short as Van′ka Kain, it “reached more readers than almost any other Russian novel, with a publication history spanning close to one hundred years,” according to David Gasperetti’s article on Komarov in the Dictionary of Literary Biography (see this LH post). As you can see at the Национальный корпус русского языка, he’s still being referred to in this century. It betrays an astonishing ignorance of Russian culture not to recognize the name; this is what happens when you specialize in the history of a country you can’t stand. You learn the basics, but you don’t pick up the fun stuff.


Keston Sutherland is a poet (who “used to play guitar […] in Pence Eleven,” per Wikipedia) and a Marxist (he wrote a book on Marx and poetry, Stupefaction); in a 2008 essay he discusses the importance of the style of Das Kapital and how it’s been betrayed in English translation, and one of the terms he focuses on is the word (unfamiliar to me) Gallerte ‘gelatinous mass’:

The most important way in which the meaning of Marx’s thinking is transformed, not only by his translators, but likewise and as though collaboratively by current literary theorists, is through their elimination of satire from Capital. […]

Capital does not include the idea, central to Das Kapital, that “abstrakt menschliche Arbeit” is a “bloße Gallerte unterschiedsloser menschlicher Arbeit.” It includes instead the substitute idea that “human labour in the abstract” is “a mere congelation of homogeneous human labour.” This substitute, imposed by Moore and Aveling and continued by Fowkes, has the considerable advantage that its conceptual content is much easier to specify than the conceptual content of Marx’s original phrase. Moore and Aveling’s extremely influential account of abstract human labor is as follows. Human labor described as having, in effect, a single origin (“homogeneous”), since we cannot see the multitude of its real origins in the commodities that are its products, is frozen in commodities: it is a “congelation,” from the Latin verb congelare, “to freeze together,” and the Latin noun gelum, “frost.” Human labor is abstract when it is frozen: lifeless, cold and immobilized. The important word used in Das Kapital to describe the opposite condition of labor, that is, unabstract, living human labor, must then be flüssig, “flowing,” as when Marx writes that “Menschliche Arbeitskraft im flüssigen Zustand oder menschliche Arbeit bildet Wert, aber ist nicht Wert:” “Human labour-power in motion, or human labour, creates value, but is not itself value,” or “Human labour-power in its fluid state, or human labour, creates value, but is not itself value.” […] But whereas “flüssig” is a direct antonym of “congealed” and of “frozen,” “flüssig” is not a direct antonym of the word that Moore and Aveling and Fowkes translate as “mere congelation” and as “congealed quantities.” The word they translate using the abstract noun “congelation” is “Gallerte.” Gallerte is not an abstract noun. Gallerte is now, and was when Marx used it, the name not of a process like freezing or coagulating, but of a specific commodity. Marx’s German readers will not only have bought Gallerte, they will have eaten it; and in using the name of this particular commodity to describe not “homogeneous” but, on the contrary, “unterschiedslose,” that is, “undifferentiated” human labor, Marx’s intention is not simply to educate his readers but also to disgust them.

The image of human labor reduced to Gallerte is disgusting. Gallerte is not ice, the natural and primordial, solid and cold mass that can be transformed back into its original condition by application of (e.g. human) warmth; it is a “halbfeste, zitternde,” that is, a “semisolid, tremulous” comestible mass, inconvertible back into the “meat, bone [and] connective tissue” of the various animals used indifferently to produce it. The sixth volume of the popular encyclopaedia Meyers Konversations-Lexicon, published in Leipzig in 1888, provides the following entry. […] The jargon in this entry overflows. Gallerte is the undifferentiated mess of glue-yielding “tierischen Substanzen,” animal substances industrially boiled down into condiments, that is, into “Beigaben,” “additions” to meals rather than the staple nutrition of the meal itself. Marx says that “abstract human labour,” that is, both the units of human labour reduced to “labour power” and wages in the calculations of the capitalist (calculations conducted in “the jargon of Political Economy”), and human labour in general as “value” expressed in commodities, is “a mere Gallerte of undifferentiated human labour.” This “mere Gallerte” is the product not of reversible freezing but of irreversible boiling followed by cooling. Abstract human labour is, in Marx’s words, undifferentiated and not homogeneous, because it has a multitude of material origins (many workers contribute to the manufacture of each commodity, as political economy had recognised since Adam Smith’s analysis of the division of labour in The Wealth of Nations), but these multiple origins cannot be separately distinguished in the commodity which is the product of the aggregate of their activity. All that is meat melts into bone, and vice versa; and no mere act of scrutiny, however analytic or moral, is capable of reversing the industrial process of that deliquescence.

It is important to recognise that this account of abstract human labour in Das Kapital is not just an isolated instance of merely graphic metonymy. Marx does not simply use the word Gallerte as literary flavouring to his theory, a delectable condiment to the staple nutrition of concepts. It is not a word that can be separated out from the sentence that accommodates it and enjoyed as style rather than specified as a concept. On the contrary, it changes the meaning of other passages in the text. It makes possible part of the thinking that happens later on in Das Kapital. […] The worker who starts out a real body and brain is reduced to Gallerte through submission to capitalist wage labor; and the capitalist who is in essence nothing but capital itself nonetheless assumes in his interactions with human beings the local habitation of a body and the name of an individual. This is what the worker and the capitalist are in Marx’s allegorical satire on consumption, but Marx also says that this is what they are in reality, that is, in their “real economic relation” of which all juridical relation “is but the reflex.”

I don’t much care about Marxism, but I always enjoy this kind of detailed delving into language and style, and of course a poet is likely to do it stylishly — I particularly like “All that is meat melts into bone” (see this LH post). The word Gallerte is from Late Latin gelatria, geladia < Latin gelata ‘frozen’; it’s stressed on the second syllable, but there is an alternative form Gallert that is stressed on the first. I am of course curious to see what my German-speaking readers have to say about the word and Sutherland’s analysis.

Emoji as a Substitute for Gesture.

Lauren Gawne of La Trobe University writes for The Conversation about some research she’s been doing:

Over the last three decades, psychologists, linguists, and anthropologists, along with researchers from other traditions, have come together to understand how people gesture, and the relationship between gesture and speech.

The field of gesture studies has demonstrated that there are several different categories of gesture, and each of them has a different relationship to the words that we say them with. In a paper I co-authored with my colleague Gretchen McCulloch, we demonstrate that the same is true of emoji. The way we use emoji in our digital messages is similar to the way we use gestures when we talk.

She goes on to write about what gestures and emoji have in common, illustrative and metaphoric emoji, “beat” gestures, and the limitations of emoji:

Gestures and speech are closely synchronised in a way emoji and text can’t be. Also, the scope of possibilities with gesture are limited only to what the hands and body can do, while emoji use is limited to the (currently) 2,823 symbols encoded by Unicode.

Thanks, Trevor!

For those who don’t know, emoji has nothing to do with emotion; AHD:

Japanese: e, picture (from Old Japanese we, from Early Middle Chinese γwəjh) + moji, writing (from Old Japanese monji, moji, from Early Middle Chinese mun dzɨh (also the source of Mandarin wénzì) mun, mark, writing (from Old Chinese , soot + –n, n. suffix, since Chinese ink is traditionally made from soot) + dzɨh, symbol, character; see KANJI).

And totally unrelated but worth noting: Erik McDonald of XIX век has made his translation of “It Didn’t Come Off” (Не сошлись), an 1867 novella by Sof’ia Engel’gardt (see this LH post), available for free download as a dual-language e-book — links in .epub, .mobi/Kindle, and .pdf format here.

Don Kulick on BookTV.

My wife and I often watch C-SPAN’s BookTV on the weekends, and last night they had one of the best author interviews I’ve ever seen (there’s a transcript, “compiled from uncorrected Closed Captioning”): journalist Carl Hoffman talked with anthropologist Don Kulick about the latter’s new book A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea. I only took one anthropology class in college, but it fascinated me, and I’ve read about the subject off and on ever since; I understand the criticisms of anthropology as inherently colonialist, appropriating cultural goods and so on (and Kulick discusses them sensibly towards the end), but I refuse to believe it’s not a good thing for people to try to learn about the lives and beliefs of people different from themselves, and I honor the people who do it well and sensitively. Around the 12:00 mark he starts talking about the languages of Papua New Guinea, how they were first classified (by how they say ‘no,’ among other things), and how they die, as well as how he came to study Tayap; the last question was whether he spoke the language himself, and he said he had spent years studying it and had just written a 500-page grammar, but he never acquired a good speaking ability, because it’s rapidly being replaced by Tok Pisin, and it was in that creole that he had to communicate with the villagers. This hour-long talk gave me so many new thoughts and ideas that I’m listening to it again as I type this so that I can cement them in my memory; if you have any interest in that sort of thing, I promise you it’s worth your while.

Not LH material, but another talk broadcast last night was almost as gripping: “Chris DeRose talked about Star Spangled Scandal: Sex, Murder, and the Trial that Changed America. In his book he recounted the murder of Francis Scott Key’s son, Philip Barton Key, by New York U.S. Representative Daniel Sickles in 1859.” Absolutely mind-boggling stuff!

Anna Karenina: The Summing-Up.

I’ve finally finished Anna Karenina (see LH posts from May and June), and it’s hard to know what to say about it except “Damn, what a great novel.” So I’ll quote a comment my brother made when I wrote him about it — “Do you find Levin as insufferable as I did?” — and my response:

Yes, Levin is pretty insufferable, but that’s because he’s a self-portrait and Tolstoy was insufferable in the same ways. The way I reconcile myself to that whole story line is that the novel wouldn’t exist without it — he’d gotten bored with it and the only way he could get himself to finish it was using it as a venue for his exciting theories about the peasants’ and landowners’ relation to the land. (And, to be fair, that’s what excited Dostoevsky about the novel; he goes into it at length in his Writer’s Diary, which I’m currently reading.)

I do have one interesting fact to report about my experience of the novel; as a result of my obsessive commitment to chronological reading, I put off reading Part 8 (sometimes called the epilogue) for some weeks, because the editor of Russkii vestnik, which published the rest of the novel from Jan. 1875 through Mar. 1877, refused to print the final part, which had to wait for a separate edition at the end of June 1877 (the reactionary Katkov objected to its skeptical attitude toward the enthusiasm of the Russian public for the Serbian cause in the Balkan crisis — a striking parallel to Nabokov’s Dar [The Gift], which had a chapter missing from its periodical publication in 1938-39 because the radical editors objected to the author’s skeptical attitude toward the sainted Chernyshevsky). Accordingly, I did what the readers of the day had to do and read other stuff that was published in between. This turned out to be fortunate, because the impact of Anna’s suicide had worn off enough that I could turn to the final part almost as a separate story, something like Paul Scott’s Staying On, a sequel to his magnificent Raj Quartet (I strongly recommend both the novels and the BBC series based on them, The Jewel in the Crown). You could say I was as fickle as that jerk Oblonsky, who “had completely forgotten his own despairing sobs over his sister’s corpse” and “saw in Vronsky only a hero and an old friend,” but then I’m just a reader, not her brother. At any rate, I was able to enjoy Levin’s struggles with the Meaning of Life without feeling it as a letdown after the tremendous end of Part 7.

I’ll leave you with an interesting piece (thanks, Gary!) by Bob Blaisdell, who is “completing a biographical study of Tolstoy writing Anna Karenina”: Part I, Part II. He thinks Tolstoy “has become so disenchanted with Oblonsky, four years into composing the novel, that he unfairly and unbelievably represents Stiva’s experience of Anna’s suicide as superficial,” but I disagree: Stiva was selfish and superficial all along, and his reaction at the end is completely in character. Blaisdell has been seduced, like all who met Stiva, by his ever-smiling charm, but as Hamlet tells us, one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.

African Storybook.

African Storybook provides “Open access to picture storybooks in the languages of Africa. For children’s literacy, enjoyment and imagination.” Corey Allen wrote about it for UBC News in 2014:

The African Storybook Project is an open access website that collects stories for download and translates them into a variety of African languages to be shared in the classroom through mobile phones, donated projectors and laptop computers. The project currently has 120 stories translated into 18 different languages. The stories address a lack of resources in the continent’s current education system.

Curriculum in many African countries stipulates children be taught in their native language until around Grade 4 and then transition to the country’s official language, often English or French. A lack of resources makes it difficult to teach children in their first language.

“If you want kids to be literate in English, it is helpful to be literate in their mother tongue first,” explains Bonny Norton, the project’s research advisor and professor in Language & Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia. “Reading is the foundation of learning. Without literacy, kids can’t excel in other subjects.”

The navigation takes getting used to (you can’t use the back button on your computer, you have to use their back arrow; to move ahead a page, click near the right side of the image; there’s a pull-down menu for languages), but it’s well worth it. Kids’ books are a great way to get some practice when you’re beginning a language, and of course they’re vital for the actual kids the project is aimed at. It’s interesting that the three books in Nigerian Pidgin are in English spelling as opposed to the kind of phonological orthography used by linguists; see the discussion in this recent thread.

Via MetaFilter, where there are more links.