Four Words for Friend.

Steven Poole has a brief Guardian review of what sounds like it might be an interesting book, Four Words for Friend by Marek Kohn:

The author, a native Polish speaker, makes a powerful case for knowing more than one language as a life-enriching skill that may enlarge our sympathies in a world that wants to build walls. Though, as Kohn unsentimentally points out, linguistic differences can sometimes be erected as walls themselves. In Papua New Guinea, home to 800 languages, one village decided to change its word for “No” so as to be different from its neighbours.

We learn much here about the politics of languages in Latvia, India and the US, as well as the science of language acquisition in infancy and adulthood, and the pros and cons of growing up perfectly bilingual. Surprisingly, it was the expert consensus only half a century ago that this was harmful to intellectual development, but current research suggests the opposite.

Alas, it seems to be infected with Sapir-Whorf Syndrome (“different languages, because they carve up the world in different ways, cause speakers to perceive and think differently […]. Hence the book’s title: in Russian, one is obliged to specify one of four levels of closeness when referring to a friend”), but that’s a venial sin that the reader can correct for. Thanks, Lars!


The last chapter of Alison Smith’s For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being (see this post) includes a section titled “Evolving Sosloviia: The Hidden Stories of Ascription,” which begins:

In some ways, the most basic part of being a member of one of imperial Russia’s soslovie societies was having one’s name written down in the pages of a book. The act of listing names in a book or on a document had both evidentiary and symbolic importance. Ascription was the source of proof that an individual had certain rights and privileges.

This mildly confused me. Of course, having studied Latin with the redoubtable Brother Auger in high school, I knew that ascription was from Latin ad– ‘to’ + scrībere ‘to write’ and thus could theoretically mean ‘writing into/onto,’ but I’d never seen it used that way, only in the (originally metaphorical) sense of ‘attribution,’ and the dictionary (M-W, AHD) confirmed that that was its current meaning in English. The OED provided the interesting tidbit that it had once, in 1597, been used to mean “The action of adding in writing, subscription” (T. Morley Plaine & Easie Introd. Musicke Annot. sig. * All diminution is signified, a number sette to the signe, or else by asscription of the Canon), but that has no relevance to a 21st-century book; since the 17th century it has meant “The action of setting to the credit of; attribution of origin or authorship” or “The action of ascribing, attributing, imputing, or declaring that something belongs to a person or thing; concrete the declaration thus made.” So what was going on here? Alison Smith has a fine command of English and seemed unlikely to make a blatant error.

Then it occurred to me that it might be a Russian-translation thing. If you look up ascription in an English-Russian dictionary you get приписывание, which is formed exactly the same way as the Latin: prefix при- plus the root of писать ‘to write.’ But the Russian verb приписывать/приписать can also be used in the literal sense of ‘to add (to something written),’ and I suspect that if you spend a lot of time using Russian archives that sense will leak over into your use of the English sort-of-equivalent. In essence, it’s another example of the “echelon” problem.

Dostoevsky’s Gentle Creature.

I’m almost halfway through Dostoevsky’s Дневник писателя [A Writer’s Diary], and I’ve gotten to the onslaught of mad apocalyptic prophecy I was dreading in this post — I have to skim whole chapters as he rants repetitiously on about wicked Westerners and Jews and the salvation the great Russian people will bring the world under the holy leadership of the tsar. It’s bizarre, a real Jekyll-and-Hyde thing, as Gary Saul Morson points out in his brilliant introduction to the first volume of the English translation: his original concept for the diary was imaginative and original, a mix of genres circling around a common theme (childhood, trials, etc.) for each monthly issue, and as long as he stuck to it the diary makes fascinating reading, but once the Balkan crisis erupts he forgets everything he knows about the vital importance of individual cases, the prosaic nature of life, the importance of the family, etc., and falls right into the cesspit of bloodthirsty patriotism (he actually celebrates a man who leaves his home village to fight the Turks, taking his little daughter with him and saying he’s sure he’ll find a good Christian family to look after her while he’s killing or being killed!).

But then comes the November 1876 issue, which is wholly given over to a novella, Кроткая, translated as A Gentle Creature (and I see it was made into a movie by Bresson, which I’ll have to watch someday). It’s a wonderful piece of writing; of course it’s got the melodramatic features Dostoevsky loved so much — eavesdropping on assignations, hidden revolvers brought out at dramatic moments, weeping, kissing the beloved’s feet, hysterical fits, etc. — but either I’ve gotten used to them or they’re used appropriately for the story, because I didn’t find myself wincing. It’s in the form of a confession/self-analysis by the husband of a suicide (suicide was much on Dostoevsky’s mind, and he had noted several recent examples from the news in earlier issues), and it’s done with penetrating psychological analysis. I recommend it unreservedly.

Here’s the thing, though. As good as it is, it’s basically turning a woman’s story into a man’s. He started from a news report of a young woman made desperate by poverty and inability to find work who threw herself out of a high window clutching an icon to her chest, which understandably haunted him… but instead of imagining himself into her head, he imagined himself into that of a man who married her (essentially the Underground Man, except that instead of staying in his basement he became a pawnbroker) and slowly drove her to desperation. I kept thinking of the failed promise of Netochka Nezvanova (see this post) — he was clearly capable of creating an individualized woman seen for her own sake rather than as an accessory to a man, but after his arrest and exile he seems to have lost interest in doing so. Almost all his later women are either pathetic young victims (as here) or elderly relatives. I’m glad about what he gave us, but I can’t help wishing for more; Russian literature had too many Tatyanas, Natashas, and gentle creatures, and it desperately needed more Netochkas.

[N.b.: I changed “All” to “Almost all” in the penultimate sentence because of D.O.’s correction of my overstatement in the first comment.]

The Benefits of Resurrecting Lost Languages.

Alex Rawlings writes for the BBC about Ghil’ad Zuckermann:

While Australia may be famous the world over for its biodiversity, for a linguistics professor like Zuckermann, the country has another allure: its languages. Before European colonisers arrived, Australia used to be one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the world, boasting around 250 different languages. Due in part to Australia’s long geographic isolation, many of these had developed unique grammatical structures and concepts that were unknown to languages in other parts of the world. […]

“I believe that most people care more about animals that are endangered than about languages that are endangered,” Zuckerman explains. “The reason is that animals are tangible. You can touch a koala, even though in the wild you’d be crazy to do so because she can kill you with her claws. But koalas are cute. Languages, however, are not tangible. They are abstract. People understand the importance of biodiversity far more than that of linguistic diversity.”

Yet for Zuckermann, preserving linguistic diversity is hugely important. For indigenous communities in Australia and worldwide that are still grappling with the legacy of colonisation, being able to speak their ancestral language is about empowerment and reclaiming their identity. It may even carry significant consequences for their mental health.

There’s a good discussion of when and why it makes sense to try reviving languages which goes beyond the usual touting of the beauties of diversity. Thanks, Bathrobe!


I’m almost done with Alison Smith’s For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia (see this post), and I was stopped dead by a Russian word provided in parentheses in the middle of this (very interesting) passage about Venedikt Malashev, whose father was a member of the minor Polish nobility (and originally named Malaszewicz) but had become enserfed after the partition of Poland and who himself had been freed by Count Vorontsov in 1810; given the freedom to choose his estate (see that previous post), he became a member of the artisan guild:

Malashev knew well the language of soslovie, but his specific choice shows that even those statuses chosen rather than inherited might be disconnected from the way individuals actually lived. Moscow’s artisan guild was subdivided into twenty-four subguilds, and individuals belonged to one or the other of those guilds. Some were based on obvious crafts, like cooking, carpentry, or hat-making, but Malashev joined one of the more unusual guilds: the barber’s (fershel’nyi) guild. Despite its name, it officially included an odd hodgepodge of crafts and trades: not just hairdressers and hair dyers but also those making pomades, perfumes, and rouges; tobacconists, including cigar makers; and those who made “chalk for card games.” None of these seem to have much to do with Malashev’s life before his freedom—and nor did they reflect his next actions.

In essence, Malashev’s registry was simply one of convenience. Registry in the guild gave Malashev status in Moscow, but he immediately set off to work elsewhere.

For the rest of Malashev’s saga, you’ll have to read the book, but what stopped me was the word fershel’nyi. I might have thought it was a typo, but the book is remarkably free of them (kudos to Oxford University Press!), and when I looked it up it turned out to be an adjective from fershel’, a variant of fel’dsher, a familiar word to anyone who studies Russian — it’s defined in my beloved, beat-up, much-annotated Oxford dictionary as “doctor’s assistant, medical attendant (medical practitioner lacking graduate qualification).” It has its own Wikipedia article:

According to the World Health Organization, a feldsher (German: Feldscher, Polish: Felczer, Czech: Felčar, Russian: фельдшер, Swedish: Fältskär) is a health care professional who provides various medical services limited to emergency treatment and ambulance practice. In Russia and in other countries of the former Soviet Union, feldshers provide primary-, obstetric- and surgical-care services in many rural medical centres and clinics […]

The equivalent type of provider may also go under different titles in different countries and regions, such as “physician assistant” in the United States or “clinical officer” in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. The International Standard Classification of Occupations, 2008 revision, collectively groups such workers under the category “paramedical practitioners”.

But the next section, on the history of the word, is truly striking:

The word Feldsher is derived from the German Feldscher, which was coined in the 15th century. Feldscher (or Feldscherer) literally means “field shearer,” but was the term used for barber surgeons in the German and Swiss armies from the 17th century until professional military medical services were established, first by Prussia in the early 18th century. Today, Feldshers do not exist in Germany anymore, but the term was exported with Prussian officers and nobles to Russia.

Another striking etymology I recently learned is for the word гирло [girlo], which I came across in Bunin (a rich source of unusual words); according to Brockhaus and Efron, it means a strait, canal, or more or less deep channel laid down by the flow of a river (and often confused with the river’s mouth). Vasmer says it’s from Romanian gîrla ‘brook, rivulet; backwater,’ which is itself borrowed from Slavic *gъrlo, which gives Russian горло ‘throat.’ So it’s one of those there-and-back-again etymologies we recently discussed somewhere.

At the Akkadian Cleaners.

Noor Al-Samarrai at Atlas Obscura describes “an Akkadian cuneiform text from ancient Ur […], dubbed ‘At the Cleaners’ by scholars, dating back to 1600 B.C. or so”:

The text is a take on the classic, “the customer knows best” trope, says Martha Roth, editor in charge of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, except that in this case the client isn’t just making idle demands—he really does know how the task is done. But that doesn’t make him any less of a pest. He gives the cleaner excessively detailed instructions, down to the water that should be used to wash his clothes: “come upstream of the city, in the environs of the city—let me show you a washing-place,” and the wind he should use to dry them, specifically from the east, and the specific types of wood and stones that the cleaner should use to felt and flatten the clothes to restore them to their original fit. The text illustrates that a Mesopotamian cleaner’s tasks went beyond removing dirt, oil, and other detritus of everyday life. He was a full-service shop, charged with repairing clothing and restoring it to its original condition (size, shape, tightness of warp and weft). The process involved a variety of specialized implements, and a great deal of care was taken to ensure the job was done right.

The cleaner is frustrated by the customer’s haranguing and lowball offer for his services (a single measure of barley). “He says, ‘No way! How do you have the nerve to talk like that, nobody could manage it—I’ll show you a washing place and you can do it yourself if you think you know the work so well,’” Roth says. […]

Roth says that the text was likely used to educate scribes. The text is modeled after dialogues and riddles that would have been classics at that time. The garment the cleaner is tasked with washing is a luxury item, with many features that require special treatment, such as fringes, complex weaving, and embroidered adornments. These details offer the opportunity to bring in a technical vocabulary, as well as grammatical quirks. Like the school exercise in which children have to instruct an alien in how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in excruciating detail, this basic task is used to illustrate a great deal about many aspects of the culture at once—and is entertaining to boot. Educational texts like these actually serve the same purpose for lexicographers such as Roth over 3,000 years later.

Thank goodness for scribal education!

Wuthering Mimesis.

Amateur Reader (Tom) at his blog Wuthering Expectations (see this LH post) is beginning a series of posts about Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, which I wrote briefly about here; his first post covers the first two chapters, his second chapters 3-7. In the latter he mentions something I had not noticed, the book’s Francocentrism:

Here I will stop to note that there are sixteen chapters left, and the linguistic division is: two Italian, two English, one German, one Spanish and thus (I will need all of my fingers) ten chapters about French literature. Which sounds about right to me. Auerbach only glances at Russian literature because discussion “is impossible when one cannot read the works in their original language” (Ch. 18, 492), and he completely ignores American literature because he, I don’t know, does not care, however much I would love to read his (imaginary) chapter on Moby-Dick.

Mimesis is half French. And Auerbach, and for that matter the translator, Willard Trask, assumes we all read French. Long passages are translated, but untranslated sentences and phrases are scattered everywhere.

Anyone interested should start following along; I find that Internet Archive has the whole thing available online, which is certainly convenient. I will quote the following passage, of linguistic interest, from chapter 6:

How much more elastic and mobile this language is than that of the chanson de geste, how much more adroitly it prattles on, conveying narrative movements which, though still naive enough, already have far freer play in their variety, can be observed in almost every sentence. Let us take lines 241 to 246 as an example: La la trovai si afeitiee, si bien parlant et anseigniee, de tel sanblant et de tel estre, que mout m’i delitoit a estre, ne ja mes por nul estovoir ne man queïsse removoir. The sentence, linked by la to the preceding one, is a consecutive period. The ascending section has three steps, the third step contains an antithetically constructed summary (sanblant-estre) which reveals a high degree of analytical skill (already a matter of course) in the judgment of character. The descending section is bipartite, and the parts are carefully set off against each other: the first—stating the fact of delight—in the indicative mood; the second—hypothetical—in the subjunctive. Nothing so subtle in structure, and merging with the narrative as a whole so smoothly and without apparent effort, is likely to have occurred in vernacular literatures before the courtly romance. I take this opportunity to observe that in the slow growth of a hypotactically richer and more periodic syntax, a leading role seems to have been played (down to the time of Dante) by consecutive constructions (the sentence quoted on page 100 [p. 95 in my paperback edition — LH] from the Folie Tristan also culminates in a consecutive movement). While other types of modal connection were still comparatively undeveloped, this one flourished and developed characteristic functions of expression which were later lost; the subject has recently been discussed in an interesting study by A. G. Hatcher (Revue des Études Indo-européennes, 2, 30).

How often do you see a reference to Revue des Études Indo-européennes in a work of literary criticism? The passage he cites from the Folie Tristan:

en ki me purreie fier,
quant Ysolt ne me deingne amer,
quant Ysolt a si vil me tient
k’ore de mei ne li suvient?

(In whom can I have confidence, if Ysolt deigns not to love me, if Ysolt considers me so despicable that she does not now remember me?)

Translating MLE.

Robert Booth reports for the Guardian on the linguistic situation in English courts:

Do you know your “tum-tum” from your “ching” and your “corn” from your “gwop” (gun, knife, ammunition and money)? Neither do police and prosecutors, who have begun consulting a linguistics professor to help decipher urban slang and drill lyrics used as evidence in criminal investigations. The complexity of inner-city dialects and the growing use of texts and social media posts in court evidence has forced detectives and lawyers in London, the West Midlands and Essex to seek translations, according to Tony Thorne, an academic at King’s College London, who has been studying youth slang since 1990. Thorne has compiled dictionaries of hundreds of slang words and a vocabulary of drill, a form of rap music which often deals with real-life violence. He said he has advised police on more than a dozen cases, including one where police believed the use of the word “plug” meant stab, but it was being used to describe a source.

The dialect has become known among academics as multi-ethnic London English (MLE), though is not limited to the capital. Last autumn, an image circulated of a glossary of “youth language” on a whiteboard in a Lancashire police station including “peng = attractive, feds = police, swear down = tell the truth”. Courts in places such as Northampton are also struggling to deal with its shifting meanings; schoolchildren in east Yorkshire are speaking the dialect, as it spreads rapidly through song lyrics and the internet. “I am advising defence lawyers, criminal prosecutors and police with interpreting and translating language which is being used in evidence,” Thorne said. “If they want to dispute evidence they need someone like me to translate. They put me on the list with translators of Hindi and Gujarati.”

Thorne has a network of informants including teachers, youth workers and grime and drill enthusiasts to help him, but admits there are holes in his knowledge and that it might seem anomalous that an “elderly white guy” would seek to be an expert in the dialect. […] MLE mixes white working-class English with patois, largely from black Caribbean dialect, but with some Arabic and Polish. It is rich in status words (badmanz – tough male, bozz – leader, wallad – foolish male) and relationship words (darg – attractive male, game – flirtatious, begfriend – sycophant, fam – group).

Thanks, Original Lars!

How To Irritate Europeans.

Most of this map (from Brilliant Maps) has nothing to do with language, but the few bits that do are funny enough I thought I’d post them here:

Bulgaria: Still use the Russian alphabet?
Portugal: Do you speak Brazilian right?
Turkey: Can you translate this Arabic sentence?

And yes, it’s odd they include Turkey but not Russia in “Europe.” Via Des Small at Facebook; he says “There’s nothing for Danmark, sadly, but perhaps that’s part of the joke. (There’s no need to make fun of Belgium, obviously.)”

Daughter of Greed.

I was enjoying the splendid lament in Micah 1:8, which in the King James version reads “Therefore I will wail and howl, I will go stripped and naked: I will make a wailing like the dragons, and mourning as the owls,” and wondered why the Russian version has страусы ‘ostriches’ for the final word, and upon investigation I discovered, as you will if you click the above link, that some versions have one and some the other. That’s odd, thought I, and googled up A Commentary on Micah by Bruce K. Waltke, who on p. 66 quotes G. R. Driver:

The literal meaning of bat ya‘ănâ . . . is either ‘daughter of greed’ (Gesenius) or ‘the daughter of the wilderness’ (Wetzstein), and it has consequently been always explained as the ostrich […] for this bird is noted for its voracious appetite and is found only in the wilderness. Not all, however, that is said of this bird in the O.T. is applicable to the ostrich. This indeed inhabits the open wilderness but requires water […] but it does not haunt deserted or ruined cities (Is. xiii 21; Jer. i 39); it certainly does not wail (Mic. i 8) but booms; nor is it raptorial. These are all habits of owls, so that the bat ya‘ănâ may well be the eagle-owl, a large owl which is found in semi-desert areas covered with scrub, where it rests on bushes during the day and hunts partridges, hares and rodents, by night […]

Which is all well and good, but I’m always suspicious of arguments from scientific plausibility when dealing with poetic biblical texts (cf. this LH post from last year). Does anybody know anything about what “daughter of greed” might have meant to the author of the Book of Micah?