Ossetian Genealogy.

Richard Foltz, a professor in the Department of Religions and Cultures of Concordia University, is living in Ossetia researching and writing a book on the place, and he has a blog A Canadian in Ossetia that has lots of information and gorgeous photos. I want to focus here on his post Ossetian Genealogy: From Arya to Alan to Ir, because at the end of this passage he makes a perfectly understandable error I want to correct:

Given centuries of shared existence it is only natural that the Ossetes would have much in common with Georgians, Circassians and Chechens, despite their very different origins. Trying to untangle their mutual connections is hardly a straightforward project, and it has led to much bitterness and even bloodshed. It is one thing to take pride in the glories of one’s ancestors, but too often this leads to exaggeration, exclusivism, and counter-productive hostilities. I will attempt here to briefly characterize the validity of prevalent Ossetian notions regarding their own past in relation to that of their neighbours.

The Ossetes speak an Iranic language which is directly descended from that of the Scythians, diverse tribes of often warlike pastoral nomads who occupied the steppes from eastern Europe all the way to Mongolia during the first century BCE. They were known to the Greeks, the Persian and the Chinese, who all feared their military might as mounted archers. They were also known for producing magnificent gold jewelry, which was especially prized by the Greeks with whom they traded in settlements around the Black Sea.

The Sarmatians were a Scythian group who interacted with the Romans, often fighting them but sometimes being coopted as cavalry into the Roman army. A Sarmatian contingent was settled by the Romans in Britain during the first century, and the Arthurian legends have been connected with them. A century later the Sarmatians come to be referred to in Latin sources as Alans, which is a phonetic transformation of the ethnonym “Aryan”, meaning “noble”, by which the diverse Iranic tribes referred to themselves. The Ossetes today call themselves “Ir” (adjectival form iron), and their country Iryston, which is etymologically identical with “Iran”: both mean “Land of the Aryans”.

That is the traditional etymology of ir, and you will still find it in a lot of sources, but as I say in my 2008 post on Ossetia:

[…] it used to be thought that Ir was derived from *arya- ‘Aryan’ and thus related to Iran, but Ronald Kim denies this in “On the Historical Phonology of Ossetic: The Origin of the Oblique Case Suffix,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 123 (Jan.– Mar. 2003), pp. 43-72 (JSTOR); the relevant discussion is on p. 60, fn. 42. Kim says it may be from a Caucasian language, or it may be descended from PIE *wiro- ‘man.’

Wiktionary says “From Proto-Iranian *wiHráh (“man”), from Proto-Indo-Iranian *wiHrás, from Proto-Indo-European *wiHrós. The traditional etymology from Proto-Indo-Iranian *áryas, the self-denominator of speakers of Indo-Iranian languages, is erroneous”; I don’t know if they’re not mentioning the Caucasian possibility to keep it simple or whether they reject it for some reason. At any rate, there it is; remember, kiddies, Ossetians may be virile, but they’re not Aryan!


I don’t think I’ve ever had the classic Provençal stew called daube or boeuf en daube, but it sounds mouth-watering. I probably first came across it in To the Lighthouse (see this 2012 post), but — never having had it and being more focused on literary effects than the menu — I’d forgotten it; now I am reminded by Tom’s splendid post at Wuthering Expectations:

The long dinner chapter of To the Lighthouse (1928), Chapter XVII of “The Window,” what a masterpiece. It does so much. […] Mrs. Ramsay thinks of celebration but also death, that love “bear[s] in its bosom the seeds of death.” Then the outside intrudes on her and the dinner guests praise the dish, a boeuf en daube, and mock English cooking as “an abomination (they agreed).” […]

The stew is first mentioned about twenty pages earlier, in Ch. XVI. Mrs. Ramsay is nervous about her big dinner:

… and they were having Mildred’s masterpiece – Boeuf en Daube. Everything depended upon things being served up to the precise moment they were ready. The beef, the bay leaf, and the wine – all must be done to a turn. To keep it waiting was out of the question… things had to be kept hot; the Boeuf en Daube would be entirely spoilt. (80)

When I last read To the Lighthouse, maybe twenty-five years ago, I suppose I nodded along, sympathizing with Mrs. Ramsay’s anxiety. This time, though – do you cook? – you saw it, right? “The bay leaf must be done to a turn”? The bay leaf!

Please visit the link for Tom’s vivid explanation of how the dish is made and what poor Mrs. Ramsay does not understand; once again, he has deepened my understanding of a novel I thought I knew, and made me want to go back and reread it. And, since this is LH, you’ll want to know the origin of daube: “Borrowed from obsolete Italian dobba (“marinade”), perhaps from Catalan adobar (“to marinate”).” Wiktionary adds, beside the stew meaning, the slang sense “crap; crappiness (something of low quality)”; I guess its former use to mean ‘clap, gonorrhea’ is lost in temps perdu.

Yiddish on Duolingo.

Oscar Schwartz writes for the Guardian about the problems that arise when the language-learning app Duolingo tries to add endangered languages:

In October last year, Meena Viswanath, a 31-year-old civil engineer from Berkeley, California, joined a small team of volunteers who were developing a Yiddish course on Duolingo, the free language learning app with over 300 million users. Having grown up in the only Yiddish-speaking family in a majority English-speaking New Jersey neighborhood, the prospect of broadcasting her mother tongue to a global network of students was exciting.

Throughout October, Viswanath and three other contributors regularly met to discuss the curriculum over a shared Slack channel. They had a target to get the course up and running towards the end of 2020, and to begin, progress was solid. But then they hit a roadblock.

Yiddish, which combines elements of German, Hebrew, Aramaic and Slavic, is a language of many dialects corresponding to the different regions of Europe where they emerged. The differences in pronunciation and grammar between these dialects are subtle, but for a native speaker they carry meaningful information about identity, culture and religious affiliation.

If you hear someone speaking Central European Yiddish, Viswanath explained to me, it would be a relatively safe bet that they are from a Hassidic community in Brooklyn. Whereas a speaker of Northern European Yiddish is more likely to have been taught at a secular university or school. So whose dialect was going to be digitally archived as the Yiddish dialect?

Uncertain how to navigate this impasse, the team drafted a poll and posted it online, inviting others to vote. It triggered a community-wide debate: some felt that the Northern dialect, which closely matches the written form, was most appropriate. Others argued that Central Yiddish, which is most widely spoken, made more sense. This was further heightened by a fraught history. There were 13 million Yiddish speakers before the Holocaust; today the number hovers at around half a million. Teaching a dialect, therefore, is seen by many as a defiant homage to what was lost.

“People felt like this was not just a question about a dialect, but a political, socio-cultural question,” Viswanath said. “And we realized that we were going to make a lot of people angry, no matter what we picked.”

The piece goes on to discuss Scottish Gaelic, Hawaiian, and Navajo; as Schwartz writes:

But languages do not become endangered peacefully, and the diminution of native speakers is often embedded in histories of colonialism and suppression. For many communities who speak their tongue within a dominant culture, linguistic education is thus tied up with political resistance. And when Duolingo adds endangered languages to its platform, the company inevitably becomes entangled in this historical context.

Thought-provoking stuff; thanks, Kobi! (If anyone’s interested in Ms. Viswanath, here’s an oral history: “Meena Lifshe Viswanath, engineer, native Yiddish speaker, and granddaughter of Mordkhe Schaechter, was interviewed by Christa Whitney on August 18, 2017 at Yidish-Vokh in Copake, New York.”)


Jonathan Morse has a meditation on a Brooklyn Daily Eagle story from November 13, 1919: “Bodies of 111 U.S. Soldier and Sailor Dead Brought Home. Gallant Michigan Boys Gave Lives in Northern Russia — Impressive Ceremonies at Pier.” There are thoughts about “the failed campaign of the American Expeditionary Force, North Russia, between 1918 and 1919 […] where the 111 men of rainy Hoboken met their deaths” and some striking photographs (a war monument in the form of a polar bear!), but the LH material is represented by the end of the Eagle excerpt: “[…] between ranks of spectators standing with hats off along the curbstones.” We have hats and we have that term “curbstones”: “As of 1919, curbs actually were made of stone,” Jonathan points out. Nowadays we just say “the curb.”

Parasite Translator.

No, not an interpreter of parasites, but Darcy Paquet, the guy who did the English-language subtitles for Bong Joon-ho’s movie Parasite, this year’s surprise Oscar winner; Lee Hana had a nice interview with him last year for Korea.net, and I’ll quote the most linguistically interesting bits here:

– For “Parasite,” you and Bong jointly revised the final version of the subtitles. What was that process like?

I typed up the subtitles for about a week and half. We sent some emails back and forth. Afterwards, there were two days of long meetings with the director, the producer, me and several people from the distribution company. They all spoke English and offered suggestions. It was helpful to have a group of us thinking together about the challenging parts of the translation.

– In one scene, a woman calls a dish “jjapaguri” but the subtitle says “ramdon.” Is it true that “jjapaguri” was the hardest to translate?

I was embarrassed because I made up this word “ramdon.” I thought people would laugh at me for it, but it works in the film. The word is first used during a phone conversation. Later, as one character prepares the food, we see the packages on the screen and I wrote “ramyeon” and “udon” over them to show how “ramdon” came about. I did actually Google “ramdon” before writing it and nothing came up. It appears to not be a word in any language at all.

– Couldn’t you have written in “jjapaguri” so that foreign audiences could look it up later?

There are always debates like that. In that case, if you put the original Korean word, people can search it up later. There are other examples, like “Seoul National University” (SNU) being translated to “Oxford.” The first time I did the translation, I did write out SNU but we ultimately decided to change it because it’s a very funny line, and in order for humor to work, people need to understand it immediately. With an unfamiliar word, the humor is lost.

– Was there a reason you went with Oxford rather than Harvard?

I think Bong likes England a lot. I’ve been joking about this as well, but when I was a high school student, I applied to Harvard and didn’t get in. Jokes aside, I think Harvard is too obvious a choice. It’s more memorable when you say Oxford.

He describes how he got the job and offers advice for people wanting to break into subtitle translation. Thanks, Bathrobe!

Euboean Greek to Etruscan to Latin.

Nick Kampouris writes about the path the alphabet took on its way to us:

As early as in the 8th century BC, Chalkideans sailed to Italy and established the first Greek colony on the peninsula, the city of Cumae (Κύμη). In what is now an ancient site near the town of Cuma (whose name was derived from ancient Cumae) lies the secret of the creation of the alphabet which is currently used by most of humankind. […]

The Greeks of Cumae spread their Greek culture throughout Italy and introduced the Euboean alphabet, the one their ancestors were using on Euboea, Greece, to the local people. The Etruscans, whose civilization came into direct contact and interrelation with the Greek settlers, were heavily influenced by Cumae and the rest of the nearby Greek settlements. Thus, from approximately 650 BC up until around 100 BC, the Etruscans adopted and used the Euboean alphabet introduced to Italy by the Cumaean Greeks, to create a written form for their own, Etruscan language. […]

The Etruscans, of course, added their own elements, shaping the Euboean alphabet in a way that would suit their own language, thus creating the precursor of the alphabet the Romans would eventually use. […] The Romans, along with their complete conquest of the Italian peninsula, adopted the Etruscan alphabet to use it as a written form of their own, Latin language, which soon became the lingua franca of Italy, eclipsing the Etruscan language and other dialects.

There are more details, as well as some great images and a fair amount of hot air (“The journey of any alphabet or language is far more complicated than we could ever even imagine…”), at the link. Thanks, Trevor!

The Provinces.

Back in 2010, I linked to Anne Lounsbery’s “To Moscow, I Beg You!”: Chekhov’s Vision of the Russian Provinces; she’s since incorporated her thoughts from that and other articles into her new book Life Is Elsewhere: Symbolic Geography in the Russian Provinces, 1800–1917. I am looking forward to acquiring it when used copies become available at a reasonable price (the Kindle version is a very reasonable $9.99, but this is one I want in hardcopy); in the meantime I had a sample delivered to my Kindle, and I’ve been enjoying it so much I wanted to quote some passages. Fortunately, I found another article of hers, No, this is not the provinces!”: Provincialism, Authenticity, and Russianness in Gogol’s Day, that has some of the same material in easily copy-and-pasted form, so I will take the easy way out and copy-and-paste a few paragraphs from that:

Ever since the founding of Petersburg in 1703, Russia has been in the rather anomalous position of having two capital cities. Both Moscow and Petersburg are undeniably capitals (stolitsy); each has inspired its share of literary paeans and literary attacks; each has been described and redescribed in terms ranging from the sociologically precise to the mystically evocative. But “the provinces,” on the other hand—and particularly the provincial city—have often been represented simply as the not-capital, as the embodiment of lack. The history of the word provintsiia and its cognates reflects this. The noun provintsiia entered Russian with Peter the Great’s reforms, when it was used to designate a large administrative and territorial unit of the Russian Empire. In 1775, under Catherine, another round of reforms did away with the term, replacing it with guberniia. After provintsiia lost its concrete administrative meaning, it came to refer simply to the not-capital, to things outside of Petersburg and Moscow; at the same time, it began to serve less as a real geographic designation than as a qualitative judgment.

But the designation “the provinces” does not refer to absolutely everything outside of Petersburg and Moscow, because the label “provincial” does not focus on rural life per se. Rural life is the village (derevnia, derevenskii). Instead, provintsial’nyi (or gubernskii) typically describes provincial cities and towns—places like N, the setting of Dead Souls. Similarly, a nobleman’s estate, regardless of its location, can be deeply provincial or not provincial at all. (For example, a huge lavish estate like the Sheremetevs’, complete with its own opera company, cannot accurately be described as provincial.) It is therefore crucial to recognize that in this sense of the word, peasants are not provincials, and peasant culture is not provincial culture. Above all, peasants are associated with a folk authenticity—and as I will argue, it is precisely authenticity to which the provincial sphere has no legitimate claim. Peasants are not trying and failing to follow the mode of the capital; they are not implicated in the system that Franco Moretti has described as “fashion, this great metropolitan idea … this engine that never stops, and makes the provinces feel old and ugly and jealous—and seduces them forever and a day.”

Russian literature’s preoccupation with provinciality seems to go hand in hand with the absence of a strong regionalist tradition. The striking frequency with which the peculiarities of European Russia’s huge array of local subcultures are collapsed into the label “the provinces” suggests that this literary tradition is not one in which particular regions (regions within European Russia, that is) have strong associations with particular meanings. Compare this to canonical European novels, in which, as Moretti has argued, quite typically “what happens depends a lot on where it happens.” In Jane Austen’s plots, for example, narrative complications generally arise in certain English counties,and these narrative complications then meet their (matrimonial) resolutions in certain other counties. Furthermore, English Gothic novels are virtually never set in the regions where Austen’s narratives unfold. This indicates that Britain’s and even England’s internal borders, those that divide regions, are meaningful for the narrative structure of English prose. In France, Balzac’s enormous Human Comedy develops a whole anatomy of the country’s very different, highly individualized provinces. While Lucien Chardon (in Lost Illusions, 1837–43) is as desperate to escape the provinces as any Russian hero has ever been, Chardon’s cheerless provincial hometown is a real place (Angoulême),and Balzac describes this real place in great historical and social detail. The same holds for the American tradition: we have learned to expect entirely different things of a story set in Oxford, Mississippi, than we expect from a story set in Maine. In fact, to a large degree American prose fiction (and particularly American realism) developed in response to the pressures and contradictions of regionalist perspectives.

All of which is extremely relevant to my 2013 post about the “city of N” and the lack of regional literature in Russia (using “regional” in Lounsbery’s sense of ‘part of traditional Russia outside the capitals, not the borderlands’).

OED Milestones.

The OED editorial leadership team has decided to change the way they update the dictionary; I’m not entirely clear on how it will work in practice, but it seems significant enough to post here:

Since the launch of the OED website 20 years ago, the OED editorial project has made numerous incremental changes in editorial practices, but the fundamental approach of revising all components of each entry in their entirety before publication has not changed. The website therefore presents a hybrid text, in which some entries are fully revised and others wholly unrevised; this inhibits holistic analysis of the OED dataset and delays implementation of important corrections and updates. Our current efforts are concentrated on finding ways of alleviating this situation, and removing constraints in accessing OED data for research purposes through OED.com or other means, while (as throughout the last decade) continuing with targeted revision of material most in need of thorough reassessment.

To accelerate the benefits of OED’s revision, the project is launching a new initiative, OED Milestones, through which the editorial team will implement cross-textual improvements to the dictionary alongside traditional entry-by-entry revision, as well as making the OED’s data accessible to scholars in new ways. The new approach to editing will be flexible and dynamic, but will in no way compromise the integrity and quality of the OED’s research. In order to facilitate these new ways of working, the project is also implementing some changes to its editorial structure.

They mention things like “Prioritizing those entries or parts of entries which stand in most urgent need of revision,” “Making spot-corrections to inaccurate or outdated entries,” and “Improving coverage of global varieties of English.” On the latter front, the previous OED blog post on Nigerian English makes enjoyable reading; a sample paragraph:

One particularly interesting set of such loanwords and coinages has to do with Nigerian street food. The word buka, borrowed from Hausa and Yoruba and first attested in 1972, refers to a roadside restaurant or street stall that sells local fare at low prices. Another term for such eating places first evidenced in 1980 is bukateria, which adds to buka the –teria ending from the word cafeteria. An even more creative synonym is mama put, from 1979, which comes from the way that customers usually order food in a buka: they say ‘Mama, put…’ to the woman running the stall, and indicate the dish they want. The word later became a generic name for the female food vendors themselves—Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka notably includes a Mama Put character in one of his works.

Book of Kells Now Online.

Josh Jones wrote this piece for Open Culture almost a year ago, but I missed it then:

If you know nothing else about medieval European illuminated manuscripts, you surely know the Book of Kells. “One of Ireland’s greatest cultural treasures” comments Medievalists.net, “it is set apart from other manuscripts of the same period by the quality of its artwork and the sheer number of illustrations that run throughout the 680 pages of the book.” The work not only attracts scholars, but almost a million visitors to Dublin every year. “You simply can’t travel to the capital of Ireland,” writes Book Riot’s Erika Harlitz-Kern, “without the Book of Kells being mentioned. And rightfully so.” […]

Its exquisite illuminations mark it as a ceremonial object, and its “intricacies,” argue Trinity College Dublin professors Rachel Moss and Fáinche Ryan, “lead the mind along pathways of the imagination…. You haven’t been to Ireland unless you’ve seen the Book of Kells.” This may be so, but thankfully, in our digital age, you need not go to Dublin to see this fabulous historical artifact, or a digitization of it at least, entirely viewable at the online collections of the Trinity College Library. The pages, originally captured in 1990, “have recently been rescanned,” Trinity College Library writes, using state of the art imaging technology. These new digital images offer the most accurate high resolution images to date, providing an experience second only to viewing the book in person.”

(There is more, and a couple of video clips, at the link.) I was thrilled to see it in person when I was in Dublin many years ago, and I am thrilled to have it available online. Thanks, internet!

How Pushkin Became a Cat.

Ilya Vinitsky reports for NYU’s Jordan Russian Center (Part I, Part II) on the backstory of a surprisingly popular American cat name:

At the tail end of 1934, when Gorky and Co. were defending the honor of the USSR’s national poet from bourgeois vulgarity, with the result that the eponymous Moscow café was deprived of its name, the famous Hollywood singer and actress Lilian Harvey (1906-1968) ran a notice in Los Angeles newspapers. Her blue- and brown-eyed white Persian cat, who went by the name of “Pushkin,” had gone missing. […]

I don’t know whether this kitten with the multi-colored eyes (who, today, might have been named in honor of David Bowie) was ever found, but my attention was drawn to a curious coincidence, dating to the very same period. Newspapers from the end of 1934 to the beginning of 1935 tell us that a certain school in Arizona staged a puppet show entitled Pushkin, starring a kitten with the very same name — though it is unclear whether it was Lilian Harvey’s runaway — along with two of his relatives. English-language culture offers few themes more banal than “three little kittens,” and yet I remained interested in the question of why a 1930s-era American would name a kitten in honor of Russia’s greatest poet.

Moreover, an American magazine article from 1936 plainly states that “the name Pushkin is ideal for a cat.” The tradition has proven quite powerful — in fact, one of my friends in Philadelphia has a cat named Pushkin. […] In fact, American newspaper clippings from the 1930s allow the historian to pose the question somewhat differently: when and why did these Pushkin-kittens appear?

Let’s start with what we know. In 1922, prolific Philadelphian author and well-known gourmand Christopher Morley (1890–1957) released a children’s book called I Know A Secret. The 1920s and 30s saw several editions of this delightful book released in America and England, accompanied by Jeanette Warmuth’s delightful illustrations. One of Secret’s most popular stories, “The Scheming Cat,” features a naughty white kitten named Pushkin. […] Several sources attest to the popularity of this story, including some from 1934. The puppet show about the naughty Pushkin was most likely an adaptation of this very story. The Hollywood actress and singer, therefore, likely named her white cat Pushkin under the influence of the children’s tale about the mischievous kitten in the bathroom. Incidentally, Morley himself loved the kitten he invented so much that he signed his editorial column in the Saturday Evening Post “the Cat Pushkin.”

In Part II he suggests that Morley, who is not known to have been interested in Russia or Russian literature, may have given his kitten the name “based on the phonetic model for funny children’s nicknames, along with ‘baby-talk’ modes of addressing children: Munch-kin, Pussy-cat, puss-puss-puss-push-push-push, Push-kin.” All I know is that I myself have a cat called Pushkin, and I had no idea of the tradition he unwittingly represents.