The AO Language.

Oksana Rosenblum writes about Yevgeniy Fiks’ solo exhibition “Himl un erd: Yiddish Cosmos” at Stanton Street Shul in New York (on view until December 16), which “explores the connections between the twentieth-century experience of Eastern European Jews and the Soviet space program.” Unexpected, eh? But I want to highlight this particular passage:

The revolutionary spirit dictated that the construction of a new society required the creation of a new language, so that inhabitants of all worlds, everywhere, could communicate. Volf Gordin, a prominent anarchist theoretician, accordingly proposed the idea of a universal language, which he called “AO,” in 1920.

It is worth taking a step back to discuss the Gordin brothers, Abba and Volf. Born into the family of a Lithuanian rabbi, they were fluent in both Hebrew and Yiddish. They spent their seemingly boundless energy on organizing the pan-anarchist movement, but their approaches differed. Abba at first attempted to work together with newly inaugurated Soviet power, but, having failed at that, found himself in exile and later escaped to the USA. Volf, on the other hand, remained in the Soviet Union and invented the “AO” language in 1920. The purpose of AO, like the earlier Esperanto, would be to unite the various inhabitants of the Universe, or cosmopolites, under a single linguistic umbrella. A circle of so-called inventists formed around Volf, who later turned to Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, an early Soviet rocket scientist, to ask for his support in spreading the word about AO.

In April 1927, the First World Exhibit of Models of Interplanetary Mechanisms and Devices took place at the Association of Inventists in Moscow. The largest display at the Exhibit was dedicated to AO and explained how the language worked; it also contained grammar books and numerous related newspaper articles.

“Those who study and speak AO, are cosmopolites — citizens of the Universe”, read caption to one display.

Yevgeniy Fiks’ Stanton Street Shul exhibit draws deeply on this utopian history. His AO prints are visually bold and conceptually complex, unearthing and bringing to life an all-but-forgotten, substantively failed, yet beautiful attempt to create a universal language capable of overcoming national and state boundaries. AO was meant to be simultaneously as precise as a mathematical formula but inspirational enough to motivate its bearers, the cosmopolites, “to set off on an interplanetary voyage,” as one of the prints poetically states.

There’s an “Alphabet of the Language AO” image which looks impressive and explains that the language “derives its justification and existence from the absence in modern languages of any relationship between words and things-concepts and, even more, between sounds and things-concepts.” So it’s another in the endless series of doomed attempts to eliminate l’arbitraire du signe, but it’s a particularly striking one that doubtless ran straight into the Stalinist meat-grinder within a few years.

Fast Enough.

Anatoly (of Avva) wrote me as follows:

Recently I was discussing a Trump tweet with a friend (hold on, my question is apolitical). The tweet went “He was dumb as a rock and I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough.”

During the discussion I realized that my friend (whose native language is Russian, like mine) misunderstands the meaning of this phrase (I think!). The way he understood “couldn’t get rid of him fast enough” was “failed to fire him as quickly as the situation required”, or in Russian “не смог достаточно быстро его уволить”. Whereas I was reading it as “was very impatient to fire him as quickly as possible”, that is “не мог дождаться, когда наконец смогу его уволить”.

Do you think my friend is right, or I am, or is it the case that these two meanings blend in your mind?

To me, they are very distinct and provide an example of what I occasionally see as a single English verb exhibiting distinct meanings that correspond to what Slavic languages embody as aspect, e.g. мог/смог. Do you experience them as such?

With that particular phrase, I feel the meanings are distinct because I can switch from one to the other mentally; that is, my friend’s interpretation, I feel, is not ungrammatical, but simply doesn’t fit the context (in a phrase like “I couldn’t press the trigger fast enough”, it’s just fine). Although come to think of it, I don’t know how to further explain “doesn’t fit the context”.

I responded that it was a very interesting question and that I thought the meanings blend for me, though the more I think about it the less sure I am — I’m starting to feel, like Anatoly, that I can switch from one to the other mentally. So I throw it open for responses by the Varied Reader.


My wife and I are back to watching the BBC adaptation of Trollope’s parliamentary novels, The Pallisers, which is (as I wrote here) absolutely splendid. But I have a bone to pick. In the last episode we watched, a lawyer deploys the fine old Latin adverb anglice, defined accurately by Merriam-Webster at that link as “in English; especially : in readily understood English (the city of Napoli, anglice Naples).” It is traditionally pronounced, as you can see at the M-W link, /ˈæŋgləˌsiː/ (ANG-gli-see), just as one would expect of an old Latin loan. It can also be pronounced (though not by me) as the ostentatiously classicizing /ˈanɡlikeː/ (AHN-gli-kay), as Wiktionary suggests. It cannot, however, be pronounced /aŋˈgliːs/ (ahng-GLEES), as if it were French, which is how the actor playing the lawyer said it. I would wince but not be surprised if I heard that in a current TV show, but from the BBC in 1974 I would have expected better things. (Oddly, anglice does not occur in the text of Phineas Redux, which that episode is based on.)

I am also disappointed with The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s decision to cancel their excellent language blog Lingua Franca. You can read laments at posts by Rose Jacobs (Dec. 10) and Anne Curzan (Dec. 11), and doubtless others as the deadline draws near. It seems there’s an endless demand for discussion of language… as long as it’s not by actual linguists. Bah.

Leskov’s Laughter and Grief.

Leskov’s 1871 Смех и горе (Laughter and Grief, not translated into English as far as I know) is a short novel, around 200 pages, and it shouldn’t have taken me a month to read it, but I had very mixed feelings about it and kept putting it aside. It didn’t repel me enough to reject it entirely, like the later parts of Nekuda (see this post), but it didn’t grip me either. Gabriella Safran describes it as “a series of tales united only by the narrator’s thesis that Russian life is full of unpleasant surprises,” and that’s pretty much what it is. So there’s not much of a plot line to keep you hooked, but most of the tales are enjoyable enough you want to read more of them. Since I did end up finishing it, I figure I’ll provide a public service by summarizing it so people can get a better idea of what it’s like.

It starts on a brisk March evening in Petersburg; the narrator, his uncle Orest Vatazhkov, and a couple of acquaintances have come from the Palm Sunday fair (вербный базар) where people buy gifts for the holiday, and they are discussing the meaning of such presents. Orest, an old bachelor, says the only presents children get should be whippings to prepare them for adult life, and offers to tell a “potpourri” of tales to illustrate his point. Most of the rest of the book consists of his narration; there are 92 chapters, which can be divided into various sections, and I’ll give a brief description of these, with chapter numbers in parentheses. Basically, the first half consists of random events, which I’ll present in some detail; the second half, set in Orest’s home village, is a tangled tale of corruption and stupidity that I’ll describe more briefly.
[Read more…]

Machine Analysis of Sumerian.

Sophie Hardach writes for BBC Future on new technology helping to unlock old tablets:

[…] Some 90% of cuneiform texts remain untranslated. That could change thanks to a very modern helper: machine translation.

“The influence that Mesopotamia has on our own culture is something that people don’t know much about,” says Émilie Pagé-Perron, a researcher in Assyriology at the University of Toronto. […] Pagé-Perron is coordinating a project to machine translate 69,000 Mesopotamian administrative records from the 21st Century BC. One of the aims is to open up the past to new research.

“We have information about so many different aspects of the lives of Mesopotamian people, and we can’t really profit from the expertise of people in different fields like economics or politics, who if they had access to the sources, could help us tremendously to understand those societies better,” says Pagé-Perron. […]

“Sumerian is probably the last member of what must have been a large family of languages that goes back thousands and thousands of years,” says Irving Finkel, the curator in charge of the 130,000 cuneiform tablets stored at the British Museum. “Writing appeared in the world just in time to rescue Sumerian… We’re just lucky that we had some ‘microphone’ that picked it up before it went away with all the others.”

Thanks, Jack!

The Brothers K for the 21st Century.

Check out this book cover. (Thanks, Jeff!)

Morphists and Adaptationists.

Via John Cowan (“Very accessible, and should provoke some good responses from David M!”), Martin Haspelmath’s Morphists and adaptationists in 19th century biology, and in modern linguistics: Some intriguing parallels:

Recently I’ve been reading up on various aspects of the history of biology, and I noted some similarities between biology and linguistics that I found quite amazing. Maybe historians of science will dispute my interpretations, but I cannot resist the temptation to draw some parallels between what I call “morphists” (scholars who emphasize pure “form”) and adaptationists in both biology and linguistics.

The alleged contrast between “formalists” and “functionalists” is well-known to most linguists (cf. Newmeyer 1998), but I never really understood it, and I don’t normally use the term “formalist”. (After all, everyone recognizes that languages have forms that need to be described – though it is true that some linguists seem to be completely oblivious of the often striking match between functions and forms.)

However, it’s clear that some linguists are interested in explaining the forms of languages with reference to their functions, and others tend to downplay or ignore the functions of grammatical patterns. So it’s interesting to see that in 19th century biology (before Darwin), there were two main approaches to understanding the similarities observed in comparative biology: what I call here morphism (the idea that pure form somehow determines what animals and plants look like), and adaptationism (the idea that the shapes of animals and plants are adapted to their environment, or “conditions of existence”).

Thanks, JC, and I too look forward to what DM has to say!

Efficient Languages.

I think we all know John McWhorter is not to be relied upon when he ventures away from his bailiwick of creole languages, which he is frequently called on to do since he has become the go-to linguistics popularizer, but he does have a pleasant prose style and it’s always fun to argue about his overgeneralizations and sometimes wacky obiter dicta (like the one about the Awful Russian Language). Anyway, herewith from the Atlantic (from 2016, but I appear to have missed it back then) The World’s Most Efficient Languages (“How much do you really need to say to put a sentence together?”):

Just as fish presumably don’t know they’re wet, many English speakers don’t know that the way their language works is just one of endless ways it could have come out. It’s easy to think that what one’s native language puts words to, and how, reflects the fundamentals of reality.

But languages are strikingly different in the level of detail they require a speaker to provide in order to put a sentence together. In English, for example, here’s a simple sentence that comes to my mind for rather specific reasons related to having small children: “The father said ‘Come here!’” This statement specifies that there is a father, that he conducted the action of speaking in the past, and that he indicated the child should approach him at the location “here.” What else would a language need to do?

Well, for a German speaker, more. In “Der Vater sagte ‘Komm her!’”, although it just seems like a variation on the English sentence, more is happening. “Der,” the word for “the,” is a choice among other possibilities: It’s the one used for masculine nouns only. If the sentence were about a mother, it would have to use the feminine die, or if about a girl, the neuter das (for reasons unnecessary to broach here!). The word for “said,” sagte, is marked with a suffix for the third-person singular; if it were “you said,” then it would be sagtest—in English, those forms don’t vary in the past tense. Then, her for “here” means “to here”: In German one must become what feels to an English speaker rather Shakespearean and say “hither” when that’s what is meant. “Here” in the sense of just sitting “here” is a different word, hier.

This German sentence, then, requires you to pay more attention to the genders of people and things, to whether it’s me, you, her, him, us, y’all, or them driving the action. It also requires specifying not just where someone is but whether that person is moving closer or farther away. German is, overall, busier than English, and yet Germans feel their way of putting things is as normal as English speakers feel their way is.

He goes on to consider Mandarin Chinese, Persian, Finnish, and the Maybrat language of New Guinea before winning my heart with a whole paragraph about one of my favorite languages:

If there were a prize for the busiest language, then a language like Kabardian, also known as Circassian and spoken in the Caucasus, would win. In the simple sentence “The men saw me,” the word for “saw” is sǝq’ayǝƛaaɣwǝaɣhaś (pronounced roughly “suck-a-LAGH-a-HESH”). This seems like a majestic monster of a word, and yet despite its air of “supercalifragilisticexpealidocious,” the word for “saw” is every bit as ordinary for Karbadian-speakers as English-speakers’ “saw” is for them. It’s just that Karbadian-speakers have to pack so much more into their version. In sǝq’ayǝƛaaɣwǝaɣhaś, other than the part meaning “see,” there is a bit that reiterates that it’s me who was seen, even though the sentence would include a separate word for “me” elsewhere. Then there are other bits that show that the seeing was most significant to “me” rather than to the men or anyone else; that the seeing was done by more than one person (despite the sentence spelling out elsewhere that it was plural “men” who did the seeing); that this event did not happen in the present; that on top of this, the event happened specifically in the past rather than the future; and finally a bit indicating that the speaker really means what he’s saying.

Go to the link for more languages and his explanation of what it all means; I’ll leave you with my 2007 post Greetings from Kabardia! (which still gives me a chuckle). Thanks, Jack!


“Reconstructing an Indo-European Family Tree from Non-native English texts,” by Ryo Nagata and Edward Whittaker (pdf, Google cache) has an intriguing premise; here’s a summary by John Cowan, who sent me the link:

The conceit is an attempt to reconstruct the IE tree by looking at articles written in English by native speakers of 11 IE languages and seeing what features they have in common. As anchors, papers by native English speakers and in English by native Japanese speakers were also used.

The results are unequivocal: of French, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, Czech, Russian, Bulgarian, and Polish papers, the algorithms correctly identify the Italic, Germanic, and Slavic families. Furthermore, Germanic is correctly divided into West and North, and Romance into Western and Eastern. Only in Slavic are things a bit strange, with Czech and Russian closest and either Bulgarian and Polish close, or with Polish an outlier as against Czech-Russian and Bulgarian, depending on the algorithm used.

Native English papers, however, do not fall into the Germanic group but are remote from all 11, showing that “non-nativeness” is itself a common factor, at least from the IE languages. Japanese papers, however, are more different from the 11 + English than they are from each other, making them the very first to split off from Proto-Paper-English.

Thanks, JC!

Translators on the Art of Translation.

To celebrate the National Book Award for Translated Literature, Emily Temple at Literary Hub quotes ten translators on how they translate; the most high-flown and most annoying is Nabokov (from his 1941 essay “The Art of Translation”):

Three grades of evil can be discerned in the queer world of verbal transmigration. The first, and lesser one, comprises obvious errors due to ignorance or misguided knowledge. This is mere human frailty and thus excusable. The next step to Hell is taken by the translator who intentionally skips words or passages that he does not bother to understand or that might seem obscure or obscene to vaguely imagined readers; he accepts the blank look that his dictionary gives him without any qualms; or subjects scholarship to primness: he is as ready to know less than the author as he is to think he knows better. The third, and worst, degree of turpitude is reached when a masterpiece is planished and patted into such a shape, vilely beautified in such a fashion as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public. This is a crime, to be punished by the stocks as plagiarists were in the shoebuckle days.

. . .

We can deduce now the requirements that a translator must possess in order to be able to give an ideal version of a foreign masterpiece. First of all he must have as much talent, or at least the same kind of talent, as the author he chooses. In this, though only in this, respect Baudelaire and Poe or Joukovsky and Schiller made ideal playmates. Second, he must know thoroughly the two nations and the two languages involved and be perfectly acquainted with all details relating to his author’s manner and methods; also, with the social background of words, their fashions, history and period associations. This leads to the third point: while having genius and knowledge he must possess the gift of mimicry and be able to act, as it were, the real author’s part by impersonating his tricks of demeanor and speech, his ways and his mind, with the utmost degree of verisimilitude.

(Note “Joukovsky” for Zhukovsky.) In other words, “if you’re not a gr-r-reat genius like me, don’t bother trying.” Jerk. Anyway, there’s much of interest there; perhaps the most astonishing tidbit is in Temple’s intro: “In college, I met someone who told me that I would learn Russian easily and in a matter of months if I just sat down and worked my way through The Master and Margarita in the original, with a dictionary. Reader, it did not work.” I guess I can believe that there are people who can learn that way, but you have to be pretty clueless not to realize it’s not universally applicable. Thanks, Trevor!