Dauvit Horsbroch on the Scots Leid.

Dauvit Horsbroch, of the Scots Language Centre, has a video lecture (just under 20 minutes) on the Scots language (“leid” in Scots) that’s a fascinating experience for an English speaker; the more you listen the more you understand, and it’s a linguistically informed talk about language — what’s not to like?

Via MetaFilter, where Happy Dave (“I’m Scottish, speak Scottish English day-to-day, occasionally dot my sentences with Scots words and have academic connections to the Scots leid folks through my wife”) has the following informative comment, responding to someone else saying “I don’t know anything about this guy, but I knew people who spoke Scots and they didn’t sound much like that”:

Just a note on this – this fella is a Scots language (leid) specialist, so he’s speaking a pretty formalised form of Scots with deliberate substitution of words, including some that are pretty much archaic/extinct in everyday speech. There’s an attempt to document and make consistent some of the spellings etc and I believe this is the form of Scots the Scottish Parliament uses when producing documents in Scots.

However, a lot of people slide between broad Scots (and its sub-dialects like Doric) and Scottish English, sometimes in the space of sentence, all day every day. And there are not, so far as I know, any Scots speakers (even those who speak to to the exclusion of all else) who do not speak Scottish English. If you speak Scots, you also are capable of speaking Scottish English, although the reverse is not always true.

The people you knew may have have been speaking a different regional sub dialect of Scots, or a less formalised version with less archaisms, or Scottish English with a smattering of Scots words.

On Interviewing Translators.

Well, it’s not really about interviewing translators, it’s about interviewing coders, using translators as a stand-in: What if companies interviewed translators the way they interview coders? by Jose Aguinaga. But how can I resist something that has questions like “how did the Arabic invasion in the Iberian Peninsula between the years of 711 and 1492 affected the Spanish language?” and

So next question: the words “pater”, “father”, “Vater”, are from Latin, English, and German respectively; we can see in some cases the “p” evolved to a “v”, but in others evolved to a “f”. The words “piscis”, “fish”, and “Fisch”, in the other hand–

and a demand to translate ΠΕΡΙ ΤΟΥ ΠΑΙΔΟΣ ΤΟΥ ΕΠΙΒΙΟΝΤΟΣ on a whiteboard?

Via MetaFilter (where the discussion, of course, is entirely about coding except for somebody who pointed out the error in the Arabic invasion question).

The Bloggers Karamazov.

I recently discovered the existence of what looks like a very interesting Russian-lit blog, The Bloggers Karamazov (“The Official Blog of The North American Dostoevsky Society”); I discovered it in the most flattering possible way, by their asking me if I would mind if they republished my post Dostoevsky’s Stepanchikovo. I said that of course I wouldn’t, and they have done so in their latest post (accompanied by a nice Levitan painting of a village). My thanks to them for supporting my obsession with Russian lit!

Language Is Like Flowing Water.

R. Devraj of the excellent blog Dick & Garlick has posted about an interesting bit of poetry:

भाखा बहता नीर: language is like flowing water

I’m not too sure where I came first across this line of Kabir’s, which describes his views on language in a pithy epigrammatic style, contrasting the dead Sanskrit of the ancient religious texts with bhakha or bhasha (literally ‘language’), the colloquial living language of his time which he used in his own verse.’संस्करित है कूप जल, भाखा बहता नीर’ it reads: Sanskrit is like stagnant water in a well, but bhakha, the true language of the people, changes constantly and cannot be bound by rules, like flowing water. That’s a lot to say in just six words, and I’m curious what the second line of the couplet could be. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find it online. If any reader can provide it, I’ll be most grateful.

I know what it is to need one’s curiosity satisfied, so I thought I’d repost the question here and hope someone can answer it. Also, I’d like to be able to quote the couplet, which is very relevant to my interests!

The Wor(l)d of Ulysses.

Stan Carey at Sentence first has a great post about the mess that is the text of Joyce’s Ulysses:

The length and complexity of Ulysses, and the difficulties of its publication, mean that many subtly different versions of the text exist. The first legal edition in the US, which became its standard edition for decades, was based on a pirated copy, for example.

Typographical errors arose inevitably from multiple sources; complicating things further is the fact that some ‘errors’ were deliberate but wrongly ‘corrected’ by printers or editors. And then there were all those rewrites and updates by the author while the thing was being serialised. And afterwards.

So there is no ideal, ‘master’ text; in fact Joyce scholars fight over the best way to decide what this even means.

He provides some interesting quotes from Jeri Johnson‘s essay “Composition and Publication History,” starting with Leopold Bloom’s seeing his name misprinted as “L. Boom” in a list of attendees to a funeral; Johnson notes that the original French edition of Ulysses

mistakenly ‘corrected’ the fictive Dublin typesetter’s mis-set ‘L. Boom’, just as they mistakenly deleted the mistakenly reported ‘Stephen Dedalus’. Joyce correctly reinstated these errors in the Errata lists. […]

When earlier in the day, Bloom (this time in the guise, not of L. Boom, but of Henry Flower) reads Martha Clifford’s billet-doux, he encounters more ‘bitched type’: ‘I called you naughty boy because I do not like that other world. … So now you know what I will do to you, you naughty boy, if you do not wrote’. Her substitution of ‘world’ for ‘word’ teases the imagination: we notice, perhaps for the first time, that ‘world’ contains ‘word’ (plus a floating ‘l’ – the one gone missing from ‘Boom’?), the two being inextricably joined in this book. […]

Her second mistyping, ‘if you do not wrote’, floats into Bloom’s mind a paragraph later: ‘I wonder did she wrote it’. The odd thing about this mistake is that Joyce the author wrote ‘write’. It was either the typist or the typesetter who ‘wrote’ ‘wrote’. Joyce did not notice it until several proofs of this episode had been pulled and had repeatedly repeated ‘wrote’. When he did notice it, Joyce the writer wrote Bloom’s ‘I wonder did she wrote it’, thus opening wide his authorial arms to embrace the typesetter’s mistake. As Stephen Dedalus says later: ‘A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery’. Errors, it seems, are volitional even when made by someone else. […]

We trust, that is, that despite their erroneous status ‘L. Boom’, ‘world’, and ‘wrote’ communicate meanings that lie outside the scope of narrow rectitude. Ulysses repeatedly reminds us that certitude aligns itself with bigotry, racial hatred, blind nationalism, egotism, violence. … Joyce’s alternative authority is one which recognizes the inevitability of error, exercises a healthy scepticism, and yet happily embraces the new world occasioned by the fall, the lapses.

I like that last paragraph a lot.

Edge of the Knife.

Catherine Porter reports for the NY Times on what sounds like a very worthy promising project, Canada’s first Haida-language feature film, Edge of the Knife:

With an entirely Haida cast, and a script written in a largely forgotten language, the film reflects a resurgence of indigenous art and culture taking place across Canada. It is spurred in part by efforts at reconciliation for the horrors suffered at those government-funded residential schools, the last of which closed only in 1996. […]

Fewer than 20 fluent speakers of Haida are left in the world, according to local counts. For the Haida themselves, the destruction of their language is profoundly tied to a loss of identity.

“The secrets of who we are are wrapped up in our language,” said Gwaai Edenshaw, a co-director of the film, who like most of the cast and crew grew up learning some Haida in school but spoke English at home. […]

Mr. Edenshaw was a co-writer of the script for the 1.8 million Canadian dollar ($1.3 million) film, which is set in Haida Gwaii — an archipelago of forested islands off the west coast of Canada — during the 1800s. It tells an iconic Haida story of the “wildman,” a man who is lost and becomes feral living in the forest. In this version, the wildman loses his mind after the death of a child, and is forcibly returned to the fold of his community in a healing ceremony.

The script was translated into two remaining, distinct dialects of the language: Xaad Kil and Xaayda Kil. None of the stars are conversant in either dialect. The crew held a two-week language boot camp in April so cast members, who also have little or no acting experience, could learn to pronounce their lines before filming started in May. […]

The film would seem cripplingly ambitious if not for the record of the executive producer, the Inuit director Zacharias Kunuk. He made his name with “Atanarjuat” (“The Fast Runner”), which depicted an Inuit folk epic and starred untrained Inuit actors speaking their traditional language, Inuktitut.

That film won the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001, and is still considered one of the best Canadian films of all time.

I saw Atanarjuat and can confirm that it is absolutely terrific, so I have high hopes for this one. We discussed Haida poetry here (with Robert Bringhurst himself appearing in the comment thread) and the language here (where marie-lucie said “Sapir thought that Haida belonged to [Na-Dene], but more recently this has been considered very unlikely, and Vajda’s work makes it even more improbable”). Thanks, Eric!

Alexander and the Mosquito.

I’ve just started Turgenev’s novel Накануне (On the Eve) — I’ve reached the 1860s! — and in the first few pages, in the course of a conversation between the young friends Bersenev and Shubin, the latter, lying on his stomach and observing the goings-on in the grass, says:

Меня больше всего поражает в муравьях, жуках и других господах насекомых их удивительная серьезность; бегают взад и вперед с такими важными физиономиями, точно и их жизнь что-то значит! Помилуйте, человек, царь созданья, существо высшее, на них взирает, а им и дела до него нет; еще, пожалуй, иной комар сядет на нос царю создания и станет употреблять его себе в пищу. Это обидно.

What strikes me most in the ants, beetles, and other gentlemen of the insect kingdom is their astonishing seriousness; they run back and forth with such grave expressions you’d think their lives actually meant something! For heaven’s sake, a person, lord of creation, a higher being, is looking at them, and they could care less. What’s more, some mosquito might sit on the nose of a lord of creation and start using him for its food. It’s insulting.

Fortunately, thanks to my strictly chronological path I had just read Turgenev’s famous lecture Гамлет и Дон-Кихот [Hamlet and Don Quixote], and the memory of this passage was fresh in my mind:

Если бы мы не боялись испугать ваши уши философическими терминами, мы бы решились сказать, что Гамлеты суть выражение коренной центростремительной силы природы, по которой все живущее считает себя центром творения и на все остальное взирает как на существующее только для него (так комар, севший на лоб Александра Македонского, с спокойной уверенностью в своем праве, питался его кровью, как следующей ему пищей; так точно и Гамлет, хотя и презирает себя, чего комар не делает, ибо он до этого не возвысился, так точно и Гамлет, говорим мы, постоянно все относит к самому себе).

If we were not afraid of frightening you with philosophical terminology, we would have said that Hamlets are the expression of the fundamental centripetal force of nature, according to which every living thing considers itself the center of creation and looks on everything else as existing only for it (so a mosquito, sitting on the forehead of Alexander of Macedon, with quiet conviction of its right to do so, fed itself on his blood as its proper food; just so does Hamlet — though he despises himself, which the mosquito does not do, because it has not raised itself to that point — just so does Hamlet, we say, constantly relate everything to himself).

It’s fun to see Turgenev using the same image in such different contexts! I presume the mosquito is the one that is supposed by some to have infected Alexander with his fatal disease.

Chinghiz Aitmatov and Kyrgyzstan.

I still haven’t read any Chinghiz Aitmatov, though I’ve been wanting to for ages (and I got a collection of his back in 2011), so I was intrigued to see Ted Trautman’s Paris Review piece on him from a few years ago (thanks, Trevor!). I hadn’t realized quite how central he was to the cultural life of his country:

It’s hard to overstate Aitmatov’s importance to Kyrgyzstan’s national identity. In my time there, new acquaintances regularly quizzed me on the country’s national this and national that. Kyrgyzstan’s national food? A fried rice dish called plov. The national music? Anything played on the ukulele-like komuz. The national writer? Chinghiz Aitmatov, obviously. (My younger English students had a hard time understanding why I couldn’t as quickly recite the United States’ national writer, et al.) December 12, the author’s birthday, is celebrated nationwide as Chinghiz Aitmatov Day. After Kyrgyzstan gained independence, Aitmatov represented the young country as an ambassador to the European Union, NATO, and elsewhere. “One of the great charms of Aitmatov’s life,” Scott Horton wrote for Harper’s shortly after the writer died, “was that he charted first the decline of the Central Asian life and identity, and then participated in its resurrection as the Soviet Union collapsed and as the Central Asian states regained, quite unexpectedly, their autonomy and footing on the world stage.”

After describing “his masterpiece, The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years,” Trautman says:

Aitmatov wrote The Day Lasts and much of his later work in Russian, seeking a larger audience, just as Vladimir Nabokov switched from Russian to English after fleeing the Bolsheviks. But the fact that Aitmatov wrote his early work in Kyrgyz challenged me to see the beauty in a language I often thought of as limited. Compared to English, the Kyrgyz vocabulary is quite small: present and future tense are one and the same; the subtle distinctions between words like similar and same are folded into a single word that hangs on its context. […]

But long before Aitmatov wrote his first words, the Kyrgyz had a robust oral storytelling tradition. The most famous of these stories is the Epic of Manas, the legendary founder of Kyrgyzstan, whose story takes days to recite. Like the Iliad and the Odyssey, Manas is a story of conquest—of Uighurs and Afghans, mainly—followed by a long journey home. As Aitmatov himself said of the oral tradition, while other peoples display their culture in tangible arts like architecture and written books, the Kyrgyz “expressed their worldview, pride and dignity, battles, and their hope for the future in [the] epic genre.”

Every name in Kyrgyzstan tells a story—a village called Mailuu Suu, or “Oily Water,” for example, helpfully reminds travelers that it sits on top of a nuclear-waste dump. And a shameful number of new parents give their daughters names like Boldu (“Enough”) and Burul (“Turn”), to indicate that they would have preferred a son. But less discussed is the name Kyrgyzstan itself, which means more than its primary definition, “the land of the Kyrgyz.” The word Kyrgyz is derived from the phrase körk küz, which means “forty girls”—a reference to the forty daughters of Manas, who became the mothers of the forty tribes of Kyrgyzstan. I can think of no other country whose name is derived from a work of fiction, unless you count the Bible. Even as Kyrgyzstan continues to face the struggles of a developing country, it’s worth remembering that the country came to be in part because its bards told its story again and again. It falls to the storytellers on Aitmatov’s shoulders to write the next chapter.

That starts off mildly dubious but acceptable: OK, small vocabulary, present and future tense the same, subtle distinctions between words yada yada, your basic exotic-language shtick. But that last bit made me grind my teeth. Why are writers so irresistibly drawn to obviously fake etymologies? If Kyrgyz is derived from körk küz, I’ll eat all my hats. Even frequently credulous Wikipedia calls it a “myth” (and says “The original root of the ethnonym appears to have been the word kirkün […], probably meaning ‘field people’). Ah well, hopefully no one goes to the Paris Review for linguistic science.

Latin-speaking Muslims in Medieval Africa.

Lameen Souag has a fascinating post at Jabal al-Lughat about an unexpected survival of spoken African Latin:

In his recent book La langue berbère au Maghreb médiéval (p. 313), Mohamed Meouak uncovers a short recorded example of spoken African Latin from between these two periods, which otherwise seems to have escaped notice so far.

The 11th-century Ibadi history of Abu Zakariyya al-Warjlani, he gives a brief biography of the Rustamid governor Abu Ubayda Abd al-Hamid al-Jannawni (d. 826), who lived in the Nafusa Mountains of northwestern Libya. Before assuming his position, this future governor swore an oath:

Bi-llaahi (by God) in Arabic, and bar diyuu in town-language (بالحضرية), and abiikyush in Berber, I shall entrust the Muslims’ affairs only to a person who says: “I am only a weak being, I am only a weak being.”

In al-Shammakhi’s later retelling, the languages are named as Arabic, Ajami, and Berber (بلغة العرب وبلغة العجم وبلغة البربر). As Mohamed Meouak correctly though hesitantly notes, diyuu must be Deo; he leaves bar uninterpreted, but it is equally clearly Latin per, making the expression an exact translation of Arabic bi-llaahi. The Berber form is probably somewhat miscopied, but seems to include the medieval Berber word for God, Yuc / Yakuc.

The earliest Romance text is the Old French part of the Oaths of Strasbourg, made in 842 and opening Pro Deo amur… “for the love of God”. The Ibadi phrase recorded above curiously echoes this, although it predates it by several decades.

There is speculation in the comments on what African Latin would be like if it had survived; Hugelmann Alexis writes that “Martin Posthumus, a conlanger (language inventor) imagined such a descendant of North African Romance which he named ‘Tunisian’ : https://www.veche.net/tunisian.”

Crystal on Grammar and Be.

Yes, I know that post title reads oddly, but I’m trying to mash together the titles of two new books by David Crystal which I received in the same review-copy package from Oxford: Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar and The Story of Be: A Verb’s-Eye View of the English Language. As you would expect (I’ve praised Crystal many times here), they’re excellent.

Making Sense is a combination of a practical guide for improving the instruction of grammar, with which I am not concerned, and an explanation of how English grammar works, which he carries out with gusto. His “top ten” manifesto begins with the points that “Grammatical change is normal and unstoppable” and “Grammatical variation is normal and universal,” which warms my heart — I’ve long since boiled down my descriptivist approach to the basic points that both language change and language variation are inevitable, and that’s OK. He finds gems like John Keats writing to his publisher in 1819 “I should not of written,” a good example from 200 years ago of a confusion many people assume to be a product of these degenerate times. He has a chapter on the benefits of the internet to language investigation; you can find out about, say, Singaporean usage without having to go to Singapore or buy Singaporean newspapers, simply by going online, and you can study grammatical change as it happens. It’s Crystal at his best, regardless of whether you agree with his grammatical theories (“My approach to grammar is expounded in its fullest form in the two reference grammars written by Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik, A Grammar of Contemporary English […] and A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language“).

The Story of Be is a detailed look at the history and uses of the most complex English verb; it has chapter titles like “Being, as was,” “Time being,” and “You’re cheeky, you are,” and a great many vintage cartoons with piquant captions like:

Squire. “Well, Matthew, and how are you now?”
Convalescent. “Thankee, Sir, I be better than I were, but I beant as well as I were afore I was bad as I be now.”

Of course, I particularly enjoy detailed historical exegeses like the sidebar “The infinitive form, be,” with sentences like “That depends on how you date the Ruthwell Cross in Dumfriesshire, south-west Scotland.” I’m looking forward to delving into it more thoroughly; this is exactly the sort of book I like to keep around for random perusing.

While I’m here, I’d like to thank effusively whatever LH reader sent me a copy of China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia, by Peter C. Perdue; it’s absolutely gorgeous (the maps! the color plates!), and I can’t wait to dig into it and learn all about the tragedy of the Dzunghar Mongols.