An Obscure Linguistic Item.

Jeremy Adler reviews (TLS, Oct. 16, 2015) a book by “the writer Schuldt, who never uses his first name” that is obvious LH material:

The reappearance, after more than thirty years, of one of his finest short works, In Togo, dunkel (In Togo, Dark), at long last coming out from a leading publisher, thus provides cause for celebration. The book could perhaps best be described as ethno-fantasy. In style, the title text, for example, veers disconcertingly between a short story, a philological investigation and an anthropological field study. Throughout its several twists and turns, In Togo, dunkel teeters on the edge between factual report and fancy, tricking the reader into believing that its clever concoction is just plain true. An African tribe, so the story goes, uses an obscure linguistic item, both rather like a noun and rather like a verb, mostly at the end of a sentence, and especially after exclamations. The trick lies in the detective work required to explain the etymology of this most puzzling artefact. If this seems unpromising material, Schuldt develops it with wit, artistry and consistent intensity, making this little exercise in style a tour de force of inventiveness.

Though Adler calls him “one of the youngest and most interesting figures in that remarkable group of experimentalists who came to play such a prominent role in the German literature of the last third of the twentieth century,” the internet seems to know nothing about him beyond this book; if anyone knows anything else, feel free to pass it on.

The Ancient Bookshelf.

I’ve discovered another interesting blog, The Ancient Bookshelf, whose motto (with which I cannot disagree) is “Old stuff is exciting!” It’s run by James Hamrick, and lately he seems to be concentrating on Ge’ez (classical Ethiopic), a language that’s always intrigued me but that I’ll probably never do anything about. He has a brief introduction to it here, and here he lists the few colleges that currently offer courses in it: Munich, Toronto, and Washington. Here‘s a Star article by Megan Dolski about the Toronto course that not only shows John 1:1 in Ge’ez but lets you listen to a reading of it, which is the first exposure I’ve had to it as a spoken language; thanks, Jeffry!

Pisemsky’s Bitter Fate.

After reading minor works by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, I’ve read a major one by Pisemsky, and oh what a difference! The first two were still trying to figure out where they were going; Pisemsky was at the top of his game, and created one of the masterpieces of Russian drama. Горькая судьбина, translated as A Bitter Fate in 1933 by Alice Kagan and George Rapall Noyes (it’s been reprinted in Masterpieces of the Russian Drama, edited by Noyes and published by Dover), is a tragedy in four short acts that achieves its effects with brutal efficiency. It’s about a man whose wife has a child with a lover, an ancient subject hopelessly complicated by the fact that the man and his wife are serfs and the lover is their owner. The central character is Ananii, the husband; he’s been off in Petersburg earning money to pay obrok (much more lucrative than staying on the estate and farming), and while he’s been gone his wife Lizaveta, who apparently resented the marriage from the beginning, has had an affair with Cheglov, the sentimental and ineffectual landowner.

A lesser writer would have set up the situation with an interminable backstory; Pisemsky starts in medias res, with Lizaveta’s mother Matryona and her neighbor Spiridonevna waiting for the long-absent Ananii to arrive. He comes with gifts for everyone, in the company of a resentful drunk, Nikon, who almost immediately spills the beans about the child they’ve been trying to hide. Before he does, though, there’s an amazing conversation that is apparently irrelevant but in fact crucial (as is clear from the fact that it takes place at all in this pared-down drama); I’ll translate it here (for the Russian, search on “Что, батюшко, Ананий Яковлич” at the first link):
[Read more…]


I’ve started reading The Adventures of Augie March (thanks, jamessal!), and have already run across a couple of passages of LH interest. On the Russian front (Grandma Lausch is from those parts; roman is Russian for ‘novel’):

Still the old lady had a heart. I don’t mean to say she didn’t. She was tyrannical and a snob about her Odessa luster and her servants and governesses, but though she had been a success herself she knew what it was to fall through susceptibility. I began to realize this when I afterward read some of the novels she used to send me to the library for. She taught me the Russian alphabet so that I could make out the titles. Once a year she read Anna Karenina and Eugene Onegin. Occasionally I got into hot water by bringing a book she didn’t want. “How many times do I have to tell you if it doesn’t say roman I don’t want it? You didn’t look inside. Are your fingers too weak to open the book? Then they should be too weak to play ball or pick your nose. For that you’ve got strength! Bozhe moy! God in Heaven! You haven’t got the brains of a cat, to walk two miles and bring me a book about religion because it says Tolstoi on the cover.”

The old grande dame, I don’t want to be misrepresenting her. She was suspicious of what could have been, given one wrong stitch of heredity, a family vice by which we could have been exploited. She didn’t want to read Tolstoi on religion. She didn’t trust him as a family man because the countess had had such trouble with him.

(On which, my last post is relevant.) And this presents a linguistic mystery:

Grandma Lausch played like Timur, whether chess or klabyasch, with palatal catty harshness and sharp gold in her eyes. Klabyasch she played with Mr. Kreindl, a neighbor of ours who had taught her the game. A powerful stub-handed man with a large belly, he swatted the table with those hard hands of his, flinging down his cards and shouting “Shtoch! Yasch! Menél! Klabyasch!” Grandma looked sardonically at him. She often said, after he left, “If you’ve got a Hungarian friend you don’t need an enemy.”

If anyone knows the background(s) of the shouted terms, by all means share.

Tolstoy’s Family Happiness: A Disappointment.

After finishing Oblomov (post), I read Dostoevsky’s 1859 Дядюшкин сон (Uncle’s Dream), which was silly but fun; as I said here, “the scene between the mother (who is trying to get her daughter Zina to marry the half-dead prince) and Zina (who thinks the whole idea is vile and repulsive) is masterly, and a clear template for the more consequential struggles in later works.” I went from that to Tolstoy’s Семейное счастие (Family Happiness), published a month later. It wasn’t fun at all; in fact, it annoyed me almost as much as the Second Appendix of War and Peace, so here I am to complain.

The first thing I noticed when I started reading was that it was told from a female point of view (in an odd coincidence, the narrator is named Marya Aleksandrovna, just like the domineering mother in the Dostoevsky), and I thought “That’s interesting, I wonder how he’ll handle it.” The second thing I noticed was that the female point of view was utterly unconvincing, unless you’re a male who doesn’t know much about women. And the third was that the story was mind-bogglingly tedious and clichéd. Here’s my summary, eighty pages boiled down to a paragraph:

I’m a pure teenage girl whose mother has just died. I feel sad, and yet somehow my spirit is bursting within me — I am young and crave life and adventure! Oh, my guardian, Sergei Mikhailovich, has come; I always liked him and looked up to him. Now he looks at me in a strange, intense way — I think I love him — I’m sure he’ll propose to me! He did! Now we’re married, and I’m unbelievably happy, all I want to do is settle down with him here in the country and lead a life of service to other people. But wait, I’m strangely dissatisfied; I am drawn to life in Saint Petersburg, even though my beloved Sergei finds it repulsive and says I should avoid it. But he loves me, so he’s taking me there. Whee, this is fun! Balls, music, high-class people telling me how wonderful and pretty I am — Sergei is grumpy about it, but who cares, he wants me to be happy, doesn’t he? What a stick-in-the-mud! Now we’re in Baden for the waters, and there’s a younger Englishwoman who’s suddenly getting all the attention I’m used to getting, the only one who’s still fixated on me is a smarmy Italian guy who looks kind of like my husband only younger and handsomer, and he’s insisting on walking with me in the woods and holding my arm and I feel afraid and yet drawn to him… OMG, he kissed my neck!! Now I see the folly of my ways and am running to my husband to throw myself at his feet and confess and ask forgiveness, but he’s receiving me coldly, he’s not embracing me and weeping like I expected, so the hell with him. Now we’re back in Russia, back at the country estate since we can’t afford Petersburg, and I’m enchanted with my little boys (did I mention I had a couple of little boys?), and I’ve decided to give up on my childish ideas of love and just be a good mother and devoted wife.

(Oddly, the end comes up as a plot point in Philip Roth’s wonderful novel The Counterlife; the whole last section is quoted on p. 186 of my paperback edition.) The first part, up to the move to Petersburg, takes up fifty pages, and the entirety of it should have been cut and replaced by a one-sentence summary to set the scene. The rest contains what actual plot there is, but really, the whole thing reads like a moral sermon (of the kind Tolstoy was so drawn to all his life): “Hey, young women! You have all these crazy ideas about love and happiness, but that’s all nonsense! Listen to me and give up your childish fantasies before it’s too late and you ruin yourselves and your families!” What’s especially amusing/irritating is that Tolstoy at the time was only thirty and had never been married; furthermore, he presents his hero Sergei Mikhailovich as a worn-out old codger who’s had his fill of social life and just wants to sit at home and tend his estate… at thirty-six! But I recovered my faith in Tolstoy when I read in the Russian Wikipedia article on the story that he hated it so much he wanted to give up writing (“оказалась такая постыдная гадость, что я не могу опомниться от сраму, и, кажется, больше никогда писать не буду” [it’s such disgraceful filth that I can’t come to my senses from the shame, and I don’t think I’ll write anything else]). Good man! Just give it a few years and you’ll be writing War and Peace, and all will be forgiven.


I don’t spend much time reading or thinking about philosophy, so when I occasionally run across the name of Emmanuel Levinas I mentally put it in the same “incomprehensible French thinker” bag as Derrida, Deleuze, et hoc genus omne. But when I hit William Rees’s TLS review of three books on Levinas, it suddenly occurred to me to wonder what kind of name that was. Russian Wikipedia explained it, and the explanation is interesting enough I thought I’d post it. He was born in 1906 into a Lithuanian Jewish family in Kovno/Kaunas, then in the Russian Empire, and named Emmanuel Levin (Levin being a common Jewish surname in those parts). When Lithuania became independent after World War I, the name was written according to Lithuanian rules of orthography as Emmanuelis Levinas; when he moved to France for his university education, the first name reverted to the more French-sounding Emmanuel, but the surname remained. Voilà!

I can’t resist pointing out an idiotic statement in the second paragraph of Rees’s review: “Born in 1906 into a family of bourgeois Lithuanian Jews, Levinas left the Russian empire to pursue philosophical studies in France, choosing Strasbourg because it was ‘the city closest to Lithuania’.” Does Rees not realize the empire ended in February 1917?

Coffee & Donatus.

The blog Coffee & Donatus (“Early grammars and related matters of art and design”) had, alas, only five posts during its brief period of activity (early 2014 to early 2015), but the posts that are there are well worth checking out: An Englishman’s Armenian Grammar—Lord Byron at the Monastery of Saint Lazarus; A Learned Spider’s Epitaph; The Art of Grammar: Buno’s Neue Lateinische Grammatica 1651; Adjectives, Doughnuts in Rhyme, and Excellent White Bread; and Excerpts from Grammars No. 1: Charles Peter Mason 1879. A great concept, as Bathrobe (who sent me the link) said, and hey, perhaps the blogger is just taking a break!

Talking Black.

I have to admit I’ve gotten somewhat fed up with John McWhorter in recent years. When he’s on his game, he’s great, but when (as is too often the case) he’s pontificating about matters outside his specialty he’s irritating. I’m happy to report that Vinson Cunningham’s New Yorker review of his latest book, Talking Back, Talking Black, does a good balancing act, appreciating the good stuff while calling him out on the bad (at least that part of it that has to do with culture). I’ll let you read the latter at the link; here I want to quote this passage, which makes some useful points:

In five short essays, McWhorter demonstrates the “legitimacy” of Black English by uncovering its complexity and sophistication, as well as the still unfolding journey that has led to its creation. He also gently chides his fellow-linguists for their inability to present convincing arguments in favor of vernacular language. They have been mistaken, he believes, in emphasizing “systematicity”—the fact that a language’s particularities are “not just random, but based on rules.” An oft-cited instance of systematicity in Black English is the lastingly useful “habitual ‘be,’ ” whereby, Carlson’s quip notwithstanding, the formulation “She be passin’ by” contains much more than an unconjugated verb. That naked “be,” McWhorter explains, “is very specific; it means that something happens on a regular basis, rather than something going on right now.” He adds, “No black person would say ‘She be passin’ by right now,’ because that isn’t what be in that sentence is supposed to mean. Rather, it would be ‘She be passin’ by every Tuesday when I’m about to leave.’ ” A mistake to untrained ears, the habitual “be” is, “of all things, grammar.”

However logical, examples like these have failed to garner respect, because to most Americans grammar does not inhere in linguistic rule-following generally but in a set of specific rules that they have been taught to obey. McWhorter offers a couple of typical directives: “Don’t say less books, say fewer books,” and “Say Billy and I went to the store, not Billy and me went to the store.” This narrow notion of grammar has amounted to a peculiar snobbery: the more obscure and seemingly complex the grammatical rule, the more we tend to assert its importance and to esteem those who have managed to master it. “People respect complexity,” McWhorter writes. His smirking and somewhat subversive accommodation to this Pharisaism is to emphasize the ways in which Black English is more complex than Standard English.

One of these ways—the truest, I should add, to my own experience of the language—is the use of the word “up” in conjunction with a location. Hip-hop fans might recognize this construction from the chorus of the rapper DMX’s hit song “Party Up (Up in Here)”: “Y’all gon’ make me lose my mind / Up in here, up in here / Y’all gon’ make me go all out / Up in here, up in here,” etc. McWhorter, playing the tone poet’s patient exegete, scours several instances of the usage, settling on the idea that in this context “up” conveys the intimacy of the setting it qualifies. The sentence “We was sittin’ up at Tony’s,” according to McWhorter, “means that Tony is a friend of yours.” This is an artful and convincing reading, and McWhorter carries it out in an impishly forensic manner, proving his thesis that, in some respects, Black English has “more going on” than Standard English. The latter lacks such a succinct “intimacy marker” as Black English’s “up,” and someone who studied Black English as a foreign language would have a hard time figuring out when, and how, to deploy it.

And McWhorter, defending features like “uptalk” and “like,” is, sadly, correct in saying “Americans have trouble comprehending that any vernacular way of speaking is legitimate language.”

New Interest in Italian Dialects.

Silvia Marchetti’s piece on Italian dialects has a silly title but an encouraging message:

All of Italy is seeing a renewed interest in dialects, a revival linked to a national — and greater European — identity crisis. “It’s a matter of territorial belonging,” says Andrea Maniero, a linguistics expert and resident of Nardò, where everyone understands the local lingo even if they don’t speak it. “The ones most lured to learning it are the youth, who are fascinated by the old speech of their grandparents.”

According to national statistics, half of all Italians prefer to speak in a dialect, whether it’s picturesque Napulitano (Neapolitan), Siculo (Sicilian), Francoprovenzale (an ancient Gallo-Romance language spoken in Alpine valleys), Fùrlan (Friulan, typical of the Friuli region in northeastern Italy) or Ladino (an old version of Latin) — just to name a few. In fact, Italy’s Union of Tourist Boards calculates that the country has some 11,000 dialects. The influence of Napulitano and Siculo is so strong that the iPhone offers them as language options.

To feed this demand, there are online courses; DIY books that teach archaic forms of Albanian and Greek that pirates brought to Italy centuries ago; and spontaneous get-togethers in crumbling castles to chat in Zeneize (Genoese, a dialect of the Ligurian language). A few kindergartens and middle schools in Naples have introduced courses on Napulitanamente (”the Neapolitan way”). In Rome, some curricula feature Romanesco, the colorful vernacular of the great 19th-century Roman poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli.

(Of course “Ladino” should be Ladin in English, and god knows what Marchetti means by “an old version of Latin,” but what the heck, it’s journalism, not linguistics.) Folklorist and songwriter Andrea Baccassino says of his native Neretino: “My dialect is real, richer than Italian, which is a fake construction. There are untranslatable words with no Italian equivalent.” Which, yeah, is unscientific, but I’m glad dialect speakers feel that way. Thanks, Trevor!

How the Corded Ware Culture Was Formed.

It’s been a couple of years since we got into the whole Indo-Europeans-and-Corded-Ware thing (e.g., here), so I thought I’d post Re-theorising mobility and the formation of culture and language among the Corded Ware Culture in Europe, by Kristian Kristiansen, Morten E. Allentoft, Karin M. Frei, Rune Iversen, Niels N. Johannsen, Guus Kroonen, Łukasz Pospieszny, T. Douglas Price, Simon Rasmussen, Karl-Göran Sjögren, Martin Sikora, and Eske Willerslev, from Antiquity 91. Here’s the Abstract:

Recent genetic, isotopic and linguistic research has dramatically changed our understanding of how the Corded Ware Culture in Europe was formed. Here the authors explain it in terms of local adaptations and interactions between migrant Yamnaya people from the Pontic-Caspian steppe and indigenous North European Neolithic cultures. The original herding economy of the Yamnaya migrants gradually gave way to new practices of crop cultivation, which led to the adoption of new words for those crops. The result of this hybridisation process was the formation of a new material culture, the Corded Ware Culture, and of a new dialect, Proto-Germanic. Despite a degree of hostility between expanding Corded Ware groups and indigenous Neolithic groups, stable isotope data suggest that exogamy provided a mechanism facilitating their integration. This article should be read in conjunction with that by Heyd (2017, in this issue).

And here’s an intriguing excerpt:

The new data conforms well to the reconstructed lexicon of Proto-Indo-European (Mallory & Adams 2006), which provides important clues that the subsistence strategy of early Indo-European-speaking societies was based on animal husbandry. It includes, for instance, terms related to dairy and wool production, horse breeding and wagon technology. Words for crops and land cultivation, however, have proved to be far more difficult to reconstruct. These results from historical linguistics are supported by similar evidence from archaeology (Andersen 1995; Kristiansen 2007). With the recent study by Kroonen and Iversen (in press), we can now demonstrate how social and economic interaction with existing Neolithic societies also had a corresponding linguistic imprint. This should not surprise us, as similar results are well documented from the interaction of Yamnaya societies with their northern Uralic-speaking neighbours (Parpola & Koskallio 2007).

Thanks, Trevor!