Lost Writings Found.

1) Massive trove of centuries-old undelivered mail seized by British warships going online:

Somewhere in the U.K. National Archives in London, there are 4,000 boxes containing more than 160,000 undelivered letters from ships captured by the British during the naval wars of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Now those letters — some of which are bundled in old mail bags and affixed with wax seals that have never been broken — are about to go online.

“You can imagine the excitement being confronted with such a treasure,” said historian Dagmar Freist, director of the Prized Papers project, which aims to digitize the entire collection. “These letters have not been filtered, they have not been censored, nothing has been thrown away. Quite a few have not been opened.” […]

The documents shed new light on world history, with detailed ship logs of climate conditions, cartography, trade ledgers and correspondence about major events, including colonialism and the American and French Revolutionary wars. There are records from the slave trade, listing the names of enslaved people, their costs, and what slave owners paid for them. But what fascinates Freist the most are the personal letters between ordinary folks — a part of history she says is often overshadowed in favour of stories about powerful people.

There are some touching stories mentioned in the piece.

2) Discovery of Galileo’s long-lost letter shows he edited his heretical ideas to fool the Inquisition:

It had been hiding in plain sight. The original letter — long thought lost — in which Galileo Galilei first set down his arguments against the church’s doctrine that the Sun orbits the Earth has been discovered in a misdated library catalogue in London. Its unearthing and analysis expose critical new details about the saga that led to the astronomer’s condemnation for heresy in 1633.

The seven-page letter, written to a friend on 21 December 1613 and signed “G.G.”, provides the strongest evidence yet that, at the start of his battle with the religious authorities, Galileo actively engaged in damage control and tried to spread a toned-down version of his claims. […]

The letter has been in the Royal Society’s possession for at least 250 years, but escaped the notice of historians. It was rediscovered in the library there by Salvatore Ricciardo, a postdoctoral science historian at the University of Bergamo in Italy, who visited on 2 August for a different purpose, and then browsed the online catalogue.

My hat is off to all diggers in archives!


A Conversation with Chus Pato, by Michael Kelleher, is an interview with “one of the most significant poets writing in Galician today”; I confess I know little about Galician and less about Galician literature, so I was glad to read it. (Note: a Galician version of this conversation is available here.) Kelleher begins:

In Secession, you write, “my native language is a linguistic conflict.” Your native language is Galician, a language once outlawed by Franco (under whose regime you grew up), a language that now exists as co-official with Spanish within the “autonomous community” of Galicia in Northwestern Spain. Can you talk about the complexities of Galicia as a place, of Galician as a “co-official” language, and what it means for a poet to write in Galician? In other words, what is this “linguistic conflict”?

Chus Pato responds:

That’s what I wrote, and that’s how it is. […] I belong to an intermediate generation; my parents were native Galician speakers but always spoke to us in Castilian, as they didn’t want their children to have painful issues in adapting, as they’d had. […] Today, the situation of Galician is opposite to that when I was born. The younger generations now don’t speak Galician because it was not transmitted to them. They don’t know how to speak it [on a daily basis]; they can read and write in it but it’s a dead language for them, for the majority of them. Of course, Galician is alive in a minority that could become a majority if there were decent linguistic policies. Will this ever happen? Anything is possible.

[Read more…]


If I knew about this, I’d forgotten:

Antillia (or Antilia) is a phantom island that was reputed, during the 15th-century age of exploration, to lie in the Atlantic Ocean, far to the west of Portugal and Spain. The island also went by the name of Isle of Seven Cities (Ilha das Sete Cidades in Portuguese, Isla de las Siete Ciudades in Spanish).

It originates from an old Iberian legend, set during the Muslim conquest of Hispania c. 714. Seeking to flee from the Muslim conquerors, seven Christian Visigothic bishops embarked with their flocks on ships and set sail westwards into the Atlantic Ocean, eventually landing on an island (Antilha) where they founded seven settlements.

The island makes its first explicit appearance as a large rectangular island in the 1424 portolan chart of Zuane Pizzigano. Thereafter, it routinely appeared in most nautical charts of the 15th century. After 1492, when the north Atlantic Ocean began to be routinely sailed, and became more accurately mapped, depictions of Antillia gradually disappeared. It nonetheless lent its name to the Spanish Antilles.

I learned about it from this post at Poemas del río Wang, where you will find the usual mix of stories, information, and gorgeous photos.

Some Bunting Odes.

I have been asked, in a revived 2004 thread, to provide more poetry, and since that post was a Basil Bunting poem and I love Bunting and I haven’t posted any Bunting in quite a while, well, here you go, from his Uncollected Odes:

Coryphée gravefooted precise, dance to the gracious music
Thoughts make moving about, dance to the mind’s delicate symphony.

The flat land lies under water
hedge-chequer-grill above concealing
(not long) heliotrope monotony.

Cold water shin-embracing clacks
desolately, no overtones. Lukewarm
moist socks trickle sea-boot squeezed
black gutters muttering between the toes.
Moreover it rains, drizzles.

Utter-horizon-penetrating glances
spoil only paupers towing derelict home
the flat land hedge-grilled heliotrope under water.

7 Envoi to the Reader
From above the moon
      to below the fishes
nobody knows
      my secret heart.
Do you suppose
      I’d publish it?
Spell out a fart
      and have it printed?

Translating Culture vs. Cultural Translation.

Harish Trivedi, professor of English at the University of Delhi and “a prolific and engaged commentator on the politics of global English,” has a wonderfully acerbic essay (from 2005, but surely still applicable) on what Bathrobe, who sent me the link, calls the postmodernist appropriation of the concept of “translation.” He starts with a brief account of the historical reasons for the recent boom in translation, which “are probably traceable back to three distinct moments across the span of the twentieth century”:

The first of these was the concerted movement of translating Russian fiction into English which began in the 1890s and went on until the 1930s, which revealed to readers in English a body of imaginative work from an area outside Western Europe which was so new and exciting as to be shocking and indeed to induce a state of what was then called the “Russian fever,” with writers as diverse as Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence not only enthusing about the newly discovered nineteenth-century masters of Russian fiction but actually helping to translate them in collaboration with the Russian emigre S. S. Koteliansky. The other two moments belong to the other end of the twentieth century, occurring as they did in the 1970s and the 1980s when two other bodies of literature from hitherto unregarded parts of the world were translated into English and caused a comparable sensation: from Latin America, and from the East European countries lying behind the Iron Curtain.

He then gets into Translation Studies, Cultural Studies, and “something called Cultural Translation”; here is a sample of his peroration:

If this is cultural translation, we perhaps need to worry about the very meaning of the word “translation.” One wonders why “translation” should be the word of choice in a collocation such as “cultural translation” in this new sense when perfectly good and theoretically sanctioned words for this new phenomenon, such as migrancy, exile or diaspora are already available and current. But given the usurpation that has taken place, it may be time for all good men and true, and of course women, who have ever practised literary translation, or even read translation with any awareness of it being translation, to unite and take out a patent on the word “translation,” if it is not already too late to do so. […]

All the recent talk of multiculturalism relates, it may be noted, not to the many different cultures located all over the world, but merely to expedient social management of a small sample of migrants from some of these cultures who have actually dislocated themselves and arrived in the First World, and who now must be melted down in that pot, or tossed in that salad, or fitted as an odd little piece into that mosaic. These stray little flotsam and jetsam of world culture which have been washed up on their shores are quite enough for the taste of the First World. Migrancy, often upper-class elite migrancy as for example from India, has already provided the First World with as much newness as it needs and can cope with, and given it the illusion that this tiny fraction of the Third World has already made the First World the whole world, the only world there is. Those of us still located on our own home turf and in our own cultures and speaking our own languages can no longer be seen or heard.

Over the top? Maybe, but most worthwhile polemic is over the top to some extent, and I enjoyed it a lot. (Warning: contains prophylactic doses of Bhabha and Derrida.)

The Loss from the Fire.

I had heard about the recent fire at Brazil’s National Museum, but hadn’t realized its linguistic consequences; Diogo Almeida writes on Facebook:

Translating the news from Cinda Gonda, a Brazilian colleague, just breaks my heart even more:

“Folks, there’s nothing left from the Linguistics division. We lost all the indigenous languages collection: the recordings since 1958, the chants in all the languages for which there are no native speakers alive anymore, the Curt Niemuendaju archives: papers, photos, negatives, the original ethnic-historic-linguistic map localizing all the ethnic groups in Brazil, the only record that we had from 1945. The ethnological and archeological references of all ethnic groups in Brazil since the 16th century… An irreparable loss of our historic memory. It just hurts so much to see all in ashes.”

(Yes, of course that’s not the most tragic loss; I think we can take that as given.) Thanks, Trevor!

Teaching Classical Chinese Without Prerequisites.

Victor Mair had a Log post with a suggestion that I found surprising and immediately convincing:

I am strongly opposed to requiring Mandarin as a precondition for the study of LS/CC. I know of many schools that require two, three, or even four years of Mandarin for students who wish to enroll in an introductory LS/CC course. I think that is absolutely ridiculous. I don’t even think that we should require one year of Mandarin for students to take LS/CC. […] I have studied Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Hindi, Italian, French, etc., and I’m certain that Mandarin is further removed from LS/CC than Italian is from Latin, than Modern Greek is from Classical Greek, or Hindi is from Sanskrit, yet we do not demand that students of Latin first become proficient in Italian, that students of Classical Greek first become proficient in Modern Greek, or that students of Sanskrit first become proficient in Hindi or Bengali, etc. […]

As for the language of instruction, Mandarin would not be a good choice, not only for the reasons outlined above, but also because students who learn LS/CC tend to mix up the two languages and become very sloppy in the precise parsing and explication of the literary / classical language. Furthermore, it means that students whose primary, or only, East Asian language is Japanese, Korean, etc. cannot participate. I welcome students in my Introduction to LS/CC course to recite the texts in Korean, Japanese, Cantonese, and so forth. I have even had students with a background in Sanskrit, Greek, and Sogdian (yes!) and do very well without vocalizing the hanzi / kanji / hanja at all.

At first it seems obvious that one should know the modern form first, but Classical Chinese is so different (I once lived with someone who studied it intensively, so I got some idea) that, as Mair says, acquaintance with it would tend to just muddle your understanding of the ancient language. I encourage others to follow his lead!

Vladimir’s Foreign Ties.

My new History of Russian Literature (see this post) sent me to the Instruction of Vladimir Monomakh (Поучение Владимира Мономаха: “Among the most anthologized works of the medieval period, prized now as a rare example of the personal voice”), where I found this LH-relevant statement:

Егоже умѣючи, того не забывайте доброго, а егоже не умѣючи, а тому ся учите, якоже бо отець мой, дома сѣдя, изумѣяше 5 языкъ, в томъ бо честь есть от инѣхъ земль.

Forget not what useful knowledge you possess, and acquire that with which you are not acquainted, even as my father, though he remained at home in his own country, still understood five languages. For by this means honor is acquired in other lands.

I take the translation from Serge A. Zenkovsky’s Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales (see this post for Zenkovsky on Afanasy Nikitin’s languages), where the introduction to the excerpt from the Instruction says:

The son of Prince Vsevolod and of a Byzantine princess of the house of Monomakh, Vladimir married Gita, the daughter of the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold, who was defeated at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. After this defeat the surviving members of the Anglo-Saxon family lived as émigrés in Vladimir’s court at Kiev. Vladimir Monomakh, continuing the tradition of Yaroslav the Wise, maintained lively relations with Western Europe; his sister, Eupraxy, became the wife of the German Emperor, Henry IV; and his children married into various royal houses, including those of Hungary, Sweden, and Byzantium.

And the History of Russian Literature says (p. 104) that “Monomakh may have been influenced by an Anglo-Saxon example (possibly King Alfred’s spiritual testament known to Monomakh through his Anglo-Saxon wife, Gytha of Wessex).” The European world of the eleventh and twelfth centuries was a lot more interconnected than we tend to remember.

How Does Language Change Impact You?

Rose Jacobs at Lingua Franca has an interesting idea:

And yet I accept that language changes. I like it, even. So why am I resistant to such a widely accepted if relatively novel usage? I’m reminded of a New Yorker piece by Robert Sapolsky in which the author, a neurobiologist, investigates the age at which a person’s appetite for novelty is likely to dwindle — and when our taste for the new vanishes completely. He finds that if you haven’t heard a certain style of music by the time you’re 35, you probably won’t become a fan. You’ve got a longer time window with culinary tastes, and a shorter one when it comes to body art (Sapolsky probed piercings). What about linguistic taste? He didn’t look into it, but we can.

I’ve chosen seven examples of novel language that have emerged in the past 75 years or so, tried to roughly pinpoint when each came into relatively common usage, and put them into a shared Google spreadsheet. My dates might be off, and I welcome your comments and corrections — but note that I’m not looking for Oxford English Dictionary-backed evidence of when a neologism began. Yes, impact was around as a verb in the early 1600s, and yes, there are scattered examples of its use ever since, but according to the Google N-Gram viewer at least, its boom time began in the 1970s.

Anyway, the point of the shared spreadsheet is data collection. If you’re up for taking part, fill in one row with your birthdate and a “Yes” or “No” in each subsequent column, according to whether the language at the top of that column bothers you. Once we have critical mass, we can start looking for patterns.

The examples involve reveal as a noun, Xerox and impact as verbs, the noun skillset, morph as a verb outside the context of computer animation, medal as a verb, and lowkey/low-key as an adverb; I’m mildly annoyed by the last, but not really, and I’m not taking part in the survey because my responses (as someone who has spent many years purging himself of peevery) would be so skewed. But I urge you to take part if it appeals to you, and I look forward to the results. (Sapolsky’s findings seem spot-on to me; the late 1980s, right after I turned 35, are precisely when I lost interest in new music.)

Why Before and Not After?

BBC News reports on a shocking suggestion:

The suggestion by a pair of Belgian teachers to drop a rule of grammar drilled into every French speaker at an early age has led to some amusement and consternation in France. The teachers say rules for past participles that follow the verb avoir (to have) should be simplified. The change would save some 80 hours of teaching time, they argue. It has been endorsed by the linguistic authorities of Belgium’s French-speaking Wallonia region and Brussels.

Currently, the rule is that the past participle of a verb does not agree with the direct object of a sentence if it comes after it, but it does when the object comes before the participle. So for instance, in the sentence j’ai mangé des frites (I ate chips), mangé remains the same. But in the sentence les frites que j’ai mangées (the chips that I have eaten), the participle agrees with the word chips, which is feminine and plural.

The two teachers, Arnaud Hoedt et Jérôme Piron, argue the rule is overly complicated and inconsistent, and that the participle should remain unchanged regardless of the position of the object in the sentence if used with the verb to have. “Schoolchildren ask, why before and not after?” they said in an opinion piece in Liberation (in French). The rule was imported from Italy by pedants in the 16th Century and is being dropped in everyday use, the pair argue. The suggestion led to anger and derision on social media, with some arguing the change would amount to ignoring the subtleties of the language. One teacher and grammar expert said the change was akin to “wanting to raze all the little streets in an old city”.

Quelle horreur! Actually, I think we’ve seen this before at LH, and I feel obliged to point out that les frites que j’ai mangées is not a sentence, but what the hell — this kind of thing is always fun. Thanks, Trevor!