Collops and Fíbíns.

Manchán Magan writes about “the lost language of Ireland’s landscape”:

Do you understand the sentence: the banbh was hiding out in the clochán from the brothall? Or how about: I took the boreen over the bawn and down the congár through the cluain beyond the esker to fetch some dillisk on the cladach.

The language we use to describe landscape, farming and the natural world in Ireland is changing so fast that a person can be aged to within a few decades by their understanding of a single sentence. Your grandfather would likely know what biolar, caonach and bundún mean; while you probably understand bawn, kesh and crubeen, but your children mightn’t understand any of these. They mightn’t even know what a gandal is, or have ever been chased by a furiously hissing one.

The English spoken in Ireland (Hiberno-English) even 40 years ago was so speckled with residual Irish words that it can appear today like another tongue. Each of us holds fond memories of words our grandparents used that are now largely meaningless. Cróinín always held a particular fondness for me – it means the first run of small autumn salmon; and branar, which refers to a stretch of broken lea. Nowadays, even the English word “lea” is understand by few: in Britain it refers to meadow or arable land, while in Ireland it normally describes land that has been ploughed, or grubbed before seeding. As to what “grubbed” means, well, that’s a whole other story.

If you’re wondering, collop is “the old count for the carrying power of land” (“The grazing of one cow or two yearling heifers or six sheep or twelve goats or six geese and a gander was one collop”), and fíbín is “the running of cattle caused by the sting of a gadfly.” It’s a great read, and it quotes PW Joyce, the great-great-uncle of Trevor Joyce, who sent me the link — thanks, Trevor!

Pomyalovsky‘s Molotov.

A couple of months ago I reported on Nikolai Pomyalovsky’s Мещанское счастье [Bourgeois happiness]; now I’m on the sequel, Молотов [Molotov]. Forewarned by my earlier experience, I decided to post about this one before it went off the rails; now, halfway through, the plot is about to kick in (a father is going to force his daughter to marry a man she doesn’t love and doesn’t want to marry), so I figure it’s time. Pomyalovsky is excellent in his unique way, but plot is not his forte.

What he’s very good at is observing Russians and their society from an unusual angle and writing about it and them convincingly and entertainingly (in this he resembles Pisemsky). The book begins with a description of a large Petersburg apartment building and its inhabitants: the most important and richest people on the middle floors facing the street, the somewhat less important ones on the middle floors facing the courtyard, the poor but honest on the top floor, and the poor and dishonest (with their connections to nearby Haymarket Square) below street level. In one of the better apartments lives the Dorogov family that is the focus of the novel (along with Molotov, of course). There is a long passage explaining in detail how this comfortable bourgeois family took a century to arrive at its current status, having started with a man making bad shoes and a woman making bad pies; his description of the constant striving to squirrel away every spare kopeck and keep the children profitably occupied until they can be married off reminded me strongly of the recent TV series “Victorian Slum House” (which I highly recommend). What is particularly remarkable here is that he neither condemns nor idealizes any of this; he presents this middle stratum of society (minor bureaucrats, lesser administrators, doctors, the occasional artist or writer) as being just as important and interesting as any other, if mostly limited in their views and ambitions. It’s very refreshing after reading so many stories about aristocrats and serfs; Russian culture in general has been hostile to the petty bourgeoisie.

After that, Pomyalovsky focuses in on Nadya, one of the Dorogov daughters (she was mentioned in the earlier novel as a childhood friend of Molotov’s). She spent years at a boarding school for young ladies that is portrayed with a horrified intimacy that suggests the author had a sister or good friend who had done time in such an institution. The hypocrisy and brutality make the reader ache in sympathy (wealthy girls are treated with kid gloves, of course, while the poor are punished by being put in straitjackets and having to spend prolonged periods of time on beds in the “infirmary”); Nadya rejects it all spiritually but has no desire to be treated like the openly rebellious girls, so she keeps her head down, does her tedious classwork, and waits. Here is a passage from this section (the Russian, available at the link above, begins “Не диво, что Надя встала в стороне от этой жизни”):
[Read more…]

Reduplicated Compounds in Turkish?

Bruce Allen writes:

Oedipus Schmoedipus — so long as he loves his mother.

Years and years ago, I had a professor of Greek who said that this particular kind of reduplicated rhyming compound (schm-) originated not in Yiddish, but in Turkish.

I don’t find anything to substantiate this and he died years ago, but I figure if anyone can shed light on it, it’s LH readers, if not yourself.

I can’t shed light myself, so I turn it over to the assembled illuminators.

Français de nos régions.

Le français de nos régions vous intéresse ? (Does regional French interest you?) Then you’ll enjoy this site, with sections on pneu ou peneu ?, words pronounced differently in different parts of France (persil: is the final -l pronounced or not?), words newly added to the dictionary, and much else. I know marie-lucie will be interested; I hope others will.

Fastness.

Today’s mail brought a very welcome package: a copy of Trevor Joyce’s Fastness: A Translation from the English of Edmund Spenser. The “About the Author” page begins “For fifty years, since publication of his first book in 1967, Trevor Joyce has been a unique voice in Irish writing,” and the second paragraph reads:

His early work explored possibilities of the lyric, and began a lifelong engagement with translation. In the mid-seventies he gave up publishing and turned instead to the study of Chinese poetry, while working as a systems analyst in industry. His later work, following twenty years silence, is unparalleled within Irish poetry. Successive books explore the possibilities of found text, computer-mediated composition, writing under constraint, and radical approaches to translation.

All of which is to say, he’s an interesting guy and the perfect person to do what he’s doing here, which is to rethink and rewrite Spenser’s Mutability Cantos (original and “translation” are presented en face). Some quotes from the introduction will give you an idea of what perfect LH material this is:
[Read more…]

Constant Motion.

Stan Carey has a fine Macmillan column on the fact that language constantly changes and there’s nothing we can do about it, so we might as well accept it:

Understandably, this unsettles people. We may refuse to accept a new usage, especially if the change happens in our lifetime: Why can’t words stay as they are, with a fixed meaning and sound and use? Words here can be a substitute for deeper concerns. We tend to prefer when things are stable, and find instability disturbing.

The converse also applies. If we get on board with the fact that everything is in flux, it becomes easier to adjust to linguistic change instead of being automatically upset by it. It can be seen as a form of realism: we drop the false idea that language doesn’t or shouldn’t change.

It’s well said, and of course I thoroughly agree, but I might not have posted it here if it hadn’t begun thus: “To Heraclitus we owe the saying (variously phrased) that you can’t step into the same river twice.” Check out that parenthetical link; you may be as surprised as I was that the “same river twice” interpretation is basically folk philology — according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “we call a body of water a river precisely because it consists of changing waters; if the waters should cease to flow it would not be a river, but a lake or a dry streambed. There is a sense, then, in which a river is a remarkable kind of existent, one that remains what it is by changing what it contains.” That is actually more interesting than the traditional interpretation, at least to me.

Jungaria.

I’m now about halfway through Perdue’s China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia (see this post) and have just gotten to the central event, the extermination by the Qing Empire of the Western Mongol nation he calls the Zunghars in the 1750s: “The [Qianlong] emperor deliberately targeted young and able men in order to destroy the Zunghars as a people…. This deliberate use of massacre has been almost completely ignored by modern scholars.” It’s a splendid, brilliantly written historical account, but history is not the remit of LH, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to write about the name of the nation, which is variously spelled Dzungaria (the Wikipedia version), Zungharia, Zungaria, Jungharia, Jungaria, and Dzhungaria. (I was tempted to title this post “J/Dz(h)ung(h)aria,” but it looked too ugly.) If the Jungar Empire had not been wiped out, presumably we would have settled on one version, but since it’s been nearly forgotten, we have to look under D, J, and Z in the index of every historical work that might cover it in hopes of finding it. (I’ve taken to penciling in cross-references under each of those letters pointing to whichever one the book uses.)

Fortunately, Christopher I. Beckwith (see this post) published an article called “A Note on the Name and Identity of the Junghars” (Mongolian Studies 29 [2007]: 41-45) that deals with just this topic. He begins by discarding the “very old” folk etymology from Middle Mongolian jegün gar ‘left (or east) hand (or wing of an army)’ (“nonsensical historically”; he later says “it is impossible at this point to establish a genuine etymology of the name”); he continues:

The spellings ‘Dzungar,’ or ‘Zungar’ represent modern Mongolian dialect forms that developed after the Mongol Empire period and have become dominant since the Junghar Empire period. The spelling ‘Dzungar’ reflects the pronunciation of the name in the dominant modern Khalkha dialect, whereas the spelling ‘Zungar’ reflects the modern Kalmyk züünghar [zü:ngar]. […]

The pronunciation züünghar is reflected in a number of modern foreign transcriptions. However, historically contemporaneous oral transcriptions of the name ‘Junghar’ into directly neighboring languages (Russian, Chinese, Tibetan, and Persian) — that is, transcriptions made at the time of the Junghar Empire — regularly give the initial consonant as j-/j– [ʤ] or in some cases unaspirated č– [ʧ], both reflecting foreign [ʤ] […] The most accurate historical spelling in English would thus seem to be ‘Junggar,’ or simply ‘Jungar,’ as in one of the most frequent spellings of the name of their homeland, ‘Jungaria.’ I have however spelled it ‘Junghar’ in order to reflect the undeniable influence of the putative etymology on the modern forms in Mongol dialects. In any case, the pronunciation of their name by the Junghars themselves during the time of their empire thus seems fairly clear.

Me, I’m going with Jungaria because it’s the simplest and apparently reflects their own pronunciation, but feel free to pick and choose according to your own inclination. Nobody will care except a few scholars.

Dostoevsky’s Worst Novel.

If you google the phrase “Dostoevsky’s worst novel” (with quotes, because otherwise it defaults to telling you about his best novels), the reply is unambiguous: The Insulted and Injured [Униженные и оскорбленные]. I’ve read three of the four parts, and I’m here to tell you that that judgment is faultless; if it hadn’t been by Dostoevsky, I’d have given up after a few chapters. It starts with a fine passage, mind you: Ivan, a struggling writer, tells how a year ago he saw an old man and a dog going into an eatery, followed them in, and witnessed a scene that ended with the ragged old Jeremiah Smith dying on a Petersburg street. Unfortunately, he then moves into the late Smith’s wretched top-floor apartment, meets his granddaughter Elena (aka Nelly), saves her from prostitution, and acts as go-between for his love Natasha and her parents, whom she left to live with the foolish young Alyosha, whose father, Prince Valkovsky, wants him to marry the heiress Katya… In short, it gallops straight into melodrama and never looks back. There are the pure of heart, who are crushed (or, if you like, insulted and injured) by the mustache-twirling villain, and there is the improbably simple-minded author/narrator, who tells us the tale, with frequent cliffhangers and repetitions of “I’ll tell you all about it… but not right now.”

I’m exaggerating for effect; naturally, since it’s Dostoevsky there are many good things, culminating (as far as I’ve read) in a splendidly malicious rant by the prince at the end of the third part. I’ll probably provide an update when I finish it, with whatever more mature judgment I reach. But at the moment I want to point to a couple of things of linguistic interest.

[Read more…]

Tombac.

I ran across the Russian word томпак [tompak], looked it up, and discovered it was defined as “tombac.” Just this once, the Oxford dictionary took pity on the ignorant user and added the parenthetical “(copper and zinc alloy),” so I knew what it meant, but of course I wanted to know the derivation. Vasmer told me it was from French tombac and originally from Malay, AHD said “French, from Dutch tombak, from Malay tembaga,” and Wikipedia says the latter is “an Indonesian/Malay word of Javanese origin meaning copper,” but the best (or at any rate most intriguing) etymology I’ve found (via Google Books) is in Robert Blust’s “Linguistics versus Archaeology” in Archaeology and Language III: Artefacts, Languages and Texts, p. 138:

A second term that spread in much the same way as Dempwolff’s *pirak was the Prakrit /tamraka/ ‘copper’, attested as Tagalog /tumbaga/ ‘copper-gold alloy’, Malay /tembaga/ ‘copper’. As noted in Blust (1992) this term appears to have entered the AN world during the early Srīwijaya period. During the later Srīwijaya or early Islamic period it was diffused via Malay trading activities into the Philippines, apparently arriving first in the area of Manila Bay. In time the Manila galleon trade which brought New World metals to the Philippines to trade for southern Chinese silks led to a redefinition of the earlier Tagalog /tumbaga/ ‘copper’ to mean ‘copper-gold alloy’, and the borrowing of a Southern Min word (Tagalog /tansoʔ/) as a new term for copper’.

And Prakrit tamraka is presumably Sanskrit ताम्रक tâmra-ka ‘copper,’
whose etymology I do not know. A well-traveled word!

The Lesser Prince of the Night.

I recently came across the Polish word księżyc ‘moon’ and thought “That’s odd — the other Slavic languages have reflexes of either Proto-Slavic *luna (like Russian) or *měsęcь (like Serbo-Croatian and Czech). Where did this come from?

It turns out (and this is a great etymology) that it’s originally a diminutive of książę ‘prince’; to quote Buck’s Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages: “As the sun was the lord of the day, the moon of the night, the latter was the lesser ‘prince’.” What I want to know is, is that transparent to Poles, or is it something they learn with at least mild surprise when they see it pointed out?