Latvian as Code and Oddly Named Parisians.

I’ve finished Dominic Lieven’s Russia Against Napoleon and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the Napoleonic Wars; Lieven not only covers the whole period from the 1812 invasion (and its origins) to the Allied entry into Paris in 1814, he is apparently the first English-language historian to do so using the rich Russian sources. As he says, Russians tend (understandably) to focus on the 1812 campaign, with its dramatic defense of the fatherland (that’s where War and Peace ends, for example), and the history of 1813-14 tends to be written from the German point of view (which is why it’s often called the War of Liberation), but you can only get a useful perspective by viewing the campaign as a whole. In the process he does much to rescue the reputation of Tsar Alexander, and he is constantly drawing the reader’s attention to the vital role of supplies for soldiers and horses (and the dogged heroism of the people who got supplies from Russia to France in good condition and in time to make the final push to Paris possible). I’ll issue the ritual complaint about insufficient maps, but hell, in this age of the internet you can find all the detailed battle maps you want. It’s a superb history.

But this is not a history blog, and I’m just going to pass along a couple of tidbits of LH interest. The first is this, concerning the period in March 1814 when the Allies, approaching Paris, had to deal with the news that Napoleon had wheeled around and was attacking their lines of communication:

Now urgent orders went out to him from Barclay to take emergency measures to preserve Russian bases, supplies and treasuries. Oertel did well on this occasion and reported his arrangements to Barclay, a fellow Balt, in Latvian, a language which the commander-in-chief understood. If the orders were intercepted, it would be a very unusual Frenchman who could decipher them.

When the Allies entered Paris, Alexander stayed at Talleyrand’s residence, the hôtel de Saint-Florentin, on the street named for it, the rue Saint-Florentin. Naturally I looked it up in my font of information on Paris locales, Jacques Hillairet‘s magnificent two-volume Dictionnaire historique des rues de Paris (my most treasured souvenir of my visit to the City of Light), and what I found was a series of inhabitants with some very un-French names. It was first occupied by Louis Phélypeaux de Saint-Florentin, whose name is merely weird, but who was apparently disliked enough to earn this sardonic epitaph:

Ci-gist, malgré son rang, un homme assez commun,
Ayant porté trois noms, il n’en laissa aucun.
[Here lies, despite his rank, a common enough man:
Having borne three names, he left behind not one.]

But after him come le duc de Fitz-James and la princesse de Salm-Salm, duchesse de l’Infantado, and after Talleyrand came the duchesse de Dino, the princesse de Liéven (née Dorothée-Christophorowna de Benckendorf, and presumably a distant relative of the author, like the various General Lievens he mentions), and James de Rothschild. What a motley collection!

Quotation and Originality.

I forget where I came across a link to Emerson’s essay “Quotation and Originality” (first given as a lecture in 1859), but as Emerson himself would tell you, it doesn’t really matter. He’s not an especially disciplined thinker — he argues every side of the question and doesn’t really come to a conclusion — but he’s always worth reading, and I like this paragraph in particular:

There is, besides, a new charm in such intellectual works as, passing through long time, have had a multitude of authors and improvers. We admire that poetry which no man wrote, — no poet less than the genius of humanity itself, — which is to be read in a mythology, in the effect of a fixed or national style of pictures, of sculptures, or drama, or cities, or sciences, on us. Such a poem also is language. Every word in the language has once been used happily. The ear, caught by that felicity, retains it, and it is used again and again, as if the charm belonged to the word and not to the life of thought which so enforced it. These profane uses, of course, kill it, and it is avoided. But a quick wit can at any time reinforce it, and it comes into vogue again. Then people quote so differently one finding only what is gaudy and popular; another, the heart of the author, the report of his select and happiest hour; and the reader sometimes giving more to the citation than he owes to it. Most of the classical citations you shall hear or read in the current journals or speeches were not drawn from the originals, but from previous quotations in English books; and you can easily pronounce, from the use and relevancy of the sentence, whether it had not done duty many times before, — whether your jewel was got from the mine or from an auctioneer. We are as much informed of a writer’s genius by what he selects as by what he originates. We read the quotation with his eyes, and find a new and fervent sense; as a passage from one of the poets, well recited, borrows new interest from the rendering. As the journals say, “the italics are ours.” The profit of books is according to the sensibility of the reader. The profoundest thought or passion sleeps as in a mine until an equal mind and heart finds and publishes it. The passages of Shakspeare that we most prize were never quoted until within this century; and Milton’s prose, and Burke, even, have their best fame within it. Every one, too, remembers his friends by their favorite poetry or other reading.

More on the subject at Love and Theft.

Spoken British National Corpus 2014.

Tim Dowling at the Guardian writes about a worthwhile new project:

Almost nothing is marvellous these days, but everything is awesome. According to a study by Lancaster University and Cambridge University Press, Britain has all but abandoned the former adjective in favour of the latter.

Early evidence from their project, the Spoken British National Corpus 2014, shows that “awesome” now turns up in conversation 72 times per million words. “Marvellous”, which 20 years ago appeared 155 times per million words, now appears just twice per million. “Fortnight” is also on the endangered list, as is “cheerio”. …

The project is now calling on people to send in MP3s of their conversations – they’ll even pay a small amount – in order to gain a wider sense of how the language as it is spoken has changed over the years.

The press release is more specific: “For each hour of good quality recordings we receive, along with all associated consent forms and information sheets completed correctly, we will pay £18.” See the link for further details, and send in those MP3s. (Thanks, Eric!)


Haaretz has a “Word of the Day” feature, and Shoshana Kordova writes about “Firgun: The art of tooting someone else’s horn”:

You tell your friend how much she deserves the prize she just won – and you really mean it. Or perhaps your coworker comes up with such a great idea that you can’t stop going on about how much you like it. … What you’re engaged in is firgun – a vicarious, ungrudging joy for someone else or pride in another person’s accomplishments. The concept doesn’t have an exact one-word translation in English.

“It describes a generosity of spirit, an unselfish, empathetic joy that something good has happened, or might happen, to another person,” writes Israeli-born U.S. journalist Irin Carmon, adding that she had once “incompletely” translated firgun as “the opposite of schadenfreude.”

Lefargen, to use the infinitive, is to make someone feel good without any ulterior motives or nasty thoughts. This absence of negativity is an integral part of genuine firgun.

Which is interesting in itself, but I probably wouldn’t have posted about it without the final section of the article, which has an unexpected etymology (unexpected to me, with my patchy German) and a nice example of failed and foolish peevery:

Many have wondered how to succinctly get across the meaning of this Israeli word – a Hebraization of the Yiddish farginen (which was actually often used in the negative to mean “to begrudge”), which comes from the German vergonnen [actually vergönnen -- LH] – in another language.
. . .

Firgun may widely be considered a part of the Hebrew language today, but for decades, Hebraists, too, wondered how to convey this word in Hebrew, rather than letting the Yiddish seep into the language unfiltered.

A 1978 language column by Chaim Izak in Davar railed against the use of lefargen, in part citing a letter criticizing the newspaper for using it in its own articles, including the headline “Dayan doesn’t mefargen Peres.” “It has become clear to me that even people of high intellectual level cannot find a fitting word for the concept,” the letter states, calling on the Academy of the Hebrew Language to intervene and find a Hebrew alternative.

Izak suggests using longer, rather unwieldy phrases that convey the meaning of the word in Hebrew but lose its oomph, such as “with all my heart I think he deserves it.” He also mentions what he calls a “heretical comment” from an acquaintance originally from the United States who doesn’t understand why, if Americans can create Yiddish-derived verbs like “to schlep” and “to kibitz,” Hebrew can’t do the same. Izak’s response? “The young, feeble Hebrew… cannot allow itself what more established languages allow themselves.”

Hebraists tried to come up with alternatives, primarily ritui, a rarely used word from the time of the Sages meaning leniency, mildness or resignation. Some thought this could be tweaked a bit to include the meaning of firgun, but it never really took.

As for the Academy for the Hebrew Language, it did end up discussing an official Hebrew alternative and came up with a few potential options, like “lirot b’ayin tovah,” literally “to see with a good eye.”

But the academy ultimately decided against choosing a single Hebrew word or phrase to act as a replacement. Perhaps its members realized they didn’t stand much of a chance against the power of firgun.

I love that attempt to defend “young, feeble Hebrew” against the depredations of that bully Yiddish. (Thanks, Kobi!)

Suddenly Popular.

An xkcd of obvious linguistic relevance; since you’ll wonder: lahar. Don’t miss the mouseover text, and just to get it out of the way: I, for one, welcome our new God-Empress overlord. (Hat tip to John Cowan for sending me the link.)

Nixes Nicettes, Nice Nicors.

The always enticing wood s lot sent me to Apollinaire’s “Automne malade” (here‘s a pretty good translation by John Hayes — I didn’t like the one at the s lot), and I was struck not only by Apollinaire’s lush sonic landscape but by a line with two words that I didn’t understand and weren’t in any of my French-English dictionaries: “Sur les nixes nicettes aux cheveux verts et naines.” Fortunately, the Trésor de la langue française informatisé came to my rescue; it turns out that nixe is a water spirit, a neck, nicor, or nixie, and nicet (fem. nicette) is a diminutive form of nice, an archaic or dialectal adjective meaning ‘foolish, simple, ignorant,’ to quote the OED s.v. nice, which is borrowed from the French word — as the OED says, “The semantic development of this word from ‘foolish, silly’ to ‘pleasing’ is unparalleled in Latin or in the Romance languages.” Classical Latin nescius, the source of the French word, is transparent in formation: the negative particle ne- plus scīre ‘to know’ (compare the uncommon English adjective nescient ‘ignorant,’ borrowed directly from Latin). Of the water sprite, the OED (s.v. nicker, updated September 2003) says:

Cognate with Middle Dutch necker, nicker (Dutch nikker demon (now obsolete in this sense and employed as a term of racial abuse)), Middle Low German necker, Old High German nichus, nihhus, nikhus (masculine) crocodile, water sprite (Middle High German nickes, nikhus (masculine) water sprite, crocodile, German Nix water sprite, merman (> nix n.2)), nicchessa (feminine) nymph (Middle High German nikese, nikse (in surnames), -nixe (in compound wazzernixe siren), German Nixe (> nixie n.1)), Old Icelandic nykr (Icelandic nykur), Swedish näck, Norwegian (Bokmål) nøkk, Norwegian (Nynorsk) nykk, Danish nøkke), perhaps ultimately < the same Indo-European base as Sanskrit nij-, ancient Greek νίζειν, Early Irish nigid (Irish nigh) all in sense ‘to wash’.

Incidentally, all the translations I’ve seen treat naines as an independent noun and render it “dwarves,” but I agree with Timothy Mathews in Reading Apollinaire: Theories of Poetic Language (p. 45), who treats it as an adjective modifying nixes: “The unusual position of the adjective at the end of the line — the fact that it is significantly separated from the the noun it qualifies — further strains the relation of adjective to noun. ‘Naines’ is spatially close to ‘cheveux’, but because of the discrepancy in gender, there is no adjectival chain established between ‘naines’ and ‘verts’, and the reader is brought up against a qualifier in an unfamilial context, or comes across a word without remembering where it belongs.” (Apollinaire quoted previously on LH.)

A Bilingual Challenge.

Earlier this year I posted about writers who publish in languages other than their own; John Cowan sent me a link to this piece by Francois Grosjean about writing a book in one of the two languages he’s fluent in:

The actual writing process was far harder than I had imagined even though I write French without any problem and have lectured in that language for the last twenty years. I quickly realized that my writing style, very much influenced by my years of writing in English, simply had to become more French. I usually write short sentences with few clauses but written French requires far longer sentences with many subordinate clauses. In addition, written French usually takes on an impersonal, rather formal, tone. For example, I simply didn’t feel I could give personal examples the way I do in English.

I also left out people’s testimonies which have their place in non-fiction prose in English. Thus, at the beginning of my book Bilingual: Life and Reality, I describe the many bilinguals I had met on a particular morning–the baker’s wife, my garage mechanic, even children in the local day-care across from where I live. I didn’t feel this would be appropriate for French-speaking readers, and so I opted to start with the bilingualism of famous French people such as Napoleon (his first language was Corsican and he only learned French at age six), the famous researcher and Nobel laureate, Marie Curie, who was originally Polish but had done all her work in France, as well as the bilingual writer Samuel Beckett, also a Nobel prize winner, who wrote his books in both English and French.

There’s plenty more good stuff in there (e.g., “On the level of vocabulary, written French has a tendency to use unfamiliar, rather specialized, terms which must not be repeated too soon after having been used. Writers have to find ways around this either by using pronouns or finding synonyms”); thanks, John!

Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch Online.

I was just informed (thanks, Valery!) that if I followed etymonline on Facebook I would know that “he posted today that Wartburg’s Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch is now available/searchable online.” I have now “liked” the FB page, and I pass on to you both the suggestion and the link — I presume there are other people than me out there who 1) are interested in French etymology and 2) didn’t already know.

RIP Richard Dauenhauer.

A nice LA Times obit by Jill Leovy of Richard Dauenhauer, “a linguist, anthropologist, playwright and former Alaska poet laureate who died Tuesday of cancer in Juneau, Alaska”:

Dauenhauer, 72, made recording, transcribing and advocating for the Tlingit language his life’s work. He trained a cadre of teachers and translators to continue his efforts. He sought not just to revive the fast-disappearing tongue, largely relegated to the thoughts of a few surviving tribal elders, but to win acceptance for its use.

Alaskans can now elect to study Tlingit from kindergarten through college and read translated works of Tlingit oratory. “Everyone who is currently teaching Tlingit has been taught by Richard Dauenhauer,” said Lance Twitchell, assistant professor of Alaska Native Languages at University of Alaska Southeast who is one of Dauenhauer’s former students.
. . .
Dauenhauer sought to dispel the shame and fear once inflicted on native speakers. He gave Tlingit oral history the status of literature, “the same as the highest forms of English literature,” Twitchell said. And his poetry celebrated literary possibilities of what had been exclusively oral traditions.
. . .
A bearded poet and “teacher at heart,” Dauenhauer was still attending to his scholarly duties weeks before he died, Twitchell said. He claimed reading proficiency in a dozen languages and also worked to preserve Haida and Tsimshian, also indigenous Alaska languages.

Dauenhauer argued that translation belonged more to creative writing than scholarship. He was interested in the way culture embeds itself in the mechanics of language. He sought to avoid dumbing things down — to avoid the common error of representing indigenous folklore as children’s tales, for instance. His “Beginning Tlingit” textbook is still used at the university.

His specialty was “oral literature,” Worl said. “That sounds like a contradiction. He made it not a contradiction.”

That’s my kind of scholar. (Thanks for the link, Eric!)

A Silly Man, Though Lewd.

James Harbeck, “a professional word taster and sentence sommelier (an editor trained in linguistics),” has some fun with the etymological fallacy, “the idea that the true meaning of a word is whatever it ‘originally’ meant,” creating a story that uses words with their “true” meanings:

Our local lord – I mean the baker, of course – is a silly man, though lewd, and so is a favorite of the local ecclesiastics. One day, the bishop – a truly awful and egregious man, and among the most enthusiastic spellers you could ever find – came to town on a holiday to have a thing with the local priests. He came to the lord to get a loaf, but the lord was not there, so his queen gave him a special one she had thrown around.

Walking back to the church, the bishop saw a harlot. “Can you help me and my girls?” said the harlot, gesturing towards several knaves around him.

“My whore,” said the bishop, “I hope you are not pretty.”

“No,” said the harlot, “I am just a nice pastor, but I cannot win.”

As the bishop extracted his meat, the lord came running down the lane carrying several more loaves, and shouting, “I pray, do not give that loaf to the harlot and his girls, it’s sophisticated!”

The lord was a crafty man, but not always a clever one, and as he neared the bishop he offended and warped the loaves. The bishop attended to the loaves, but he too offended, killed his head on a cute peter, and was astounded.

At first the lord and the harlot thought the bishop had starved, but a small deer – a hound – licked his face and he awoke. The bishop, too, was a crafty man, and full of animosity, and he declared that the accident had been a small enormity and nothing noisome. He gave some bread to the harlot, saying “May you be silly and no longer nice,” and went on with the gaudy lord to join the priests in their thing.

For “a translation into the words people would usually use now, ‘wrong’ though they may be,” visit the linked post.