Yankees Were Perplexed.

I’m finally reading Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, which I got back in 2013, and it’s excellent — his treatment of “New France” may be superficial, as Etienne warned in that thread, but his explanation of the origins of the various “nations” and how they spread west and determine culture and politics to the present day is fascinating and provides a useful perspective on the usual accounts. At any rate, I’ve found a paragraph of LH interest in the “Appalachia Spreads West” chapter:

Yankees also had difficulty understanding Appalachian dialects and vocabulary. In Indiana one noted the difference in how the members of the two cultures would describe a runaway team of horses. “It run into the bush and run astride astraddle, and broke the neap, reach, and evener,” a Yankee would say. His Hoosier neighbor would interpret these remarks thus: “The horses got skeert and run astraddle of a sapling and broke the tongue, double-tree, and couplin pole.” Yankees were perplexed when young Borderlanders called their spouses “old woman” or “old man” and amused by their use of “yon” for “that,” “reckon” for “guess,” “heap” for “a lot of” and “powerful” where a New Englander would say “very.”

Incidentally, if you’re wondering about where “Hoosier” comes from, nobody knows.

The Importance of Stupidity.

Martin A. Schwartz’s “The importance of stupidity in scientific research” (Journal of Cell Science 2008 121: 1771) begins:

I recently saw an old friend for the first time in many years. We had been Ph.D. students at the same time, both studying science, although in different areas. She later dropped out of graduate school, went to Harvard Law School and is now a senior lawyer for a major environmental organization. At some point, the conversation turned to why she had left graduate school. To my utter astonishment, she said it was because it made her feel stupid. After a couple of years of feeling stupid every day, she was ready to do something else.

I had thought of her as one of the brightest people I knew and her subsequent career supports that view. What she said bothered me. I kept thinking about it; sometime the next day, it hit me. Science makes me feel stupid too. It’s just that I’ve gotten used to it. So used to it, in fact, that I actively seek out new opportunities to feel stupid. I wouldn’t know what to do without that feeling. I even think it’s supposed to be this way. Let me explain.

For almost all of us, one of the reasons that we liked science in high school and college is that we were good at it. That can’t be the only reason – fascination with understanding the physical world and an emotional need to discover new things has to enter into it too. But high-school and college science means taking courses, and doing well in courses means getting the right answers on tests. If you know those answers, you do well and get to feel smart.

A Ph.D., in which you have to do a research project, is a whole different thing. For me, it was a daunting task. How could I possibly frame the questions that would lead to significant discoveries; design and interpret an experiment so that the conclusions were absolutely convincing; foresee difficulties and see ways around them, or, failing that, solve them when they occurred? My Ph.D. project was somewhat interdisciplinary and, for a while, whenever I ran into a problem, I pestered the faculty in my department who were experts in the various disciplines that I needed. I remember the day when Henry Taube (who won the Nobel Prize two years later) told me he didn’t know how to solve the problem I was having in his area. I was a third-year graduate student and I figured that Taube knew about 1000 times more than I did (conservative estimate). If he didn’t have the answer, nobody did.

That’s when it hit me: nobody did. That’s why it was a research problem. And being my research problem, it was up to me to solve. Once I faced that fact, I solved the problem in a couple of days. (It wasn’t really very hard; I just had to try a few things.) The crucial lesson was that the scope of things I didn’t know wasn’t merely vast; it was, for all practical purposes, infinite. That realization, instead of being discouraging, was liberating. If our ignorance is infinite, the only possible course of action is to muddle through as best we can.

That resonated very strongly with me; I’ve been more and more aware of it since my own grad school days. All of us are almost completely ignorant of almost everything, and being aware of that is the only hope of lessening that ignorance even slightly. People to whom it is important that they always be right and that they be acknowledged as the smartest people in the room rarely learn much of importance, though they may accumulate lots of impressive information. (Via Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti.)

Eralash and Light Steam.

In this comment, John Cowan linked to the Zompist culture tests, which are very enjoyable — if you haven’t seen them, check them out (and note that JC wrote the NYC one). I, of course, was particularly interested in the Russian one, where I found a couple of items of LH interest I thought I’d post about.

If you are Russian:
• You are familiar with Cheburashka, Koshei Bessmertnii, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Baba Yaga, Ivan Grozny, Ded Moroz, Snegurochka, Ivan Durak, Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears (Moskva Slezam Ne Verit), With Light Steam (S Legkim Parom), Eralash, Ivan Susanin, Santa Barbara, Nu Pogodi, Terminator and MTV.

I was familiar with all of them but Eralash (note that Santa Barbara is the series, not the city), so I looked it up (Wikipedia has it as Yeralash; the Russian is Ералаш, stress on the last syllable) and discovered that it’s “a Russian children’s comedy TV show and magazine” founded in 1974 and that the word ералаш ‘jumble, mishmash’ is “taken from the Turkic languages” — apparently ar(a)laş. And in the comments there was this exchange:

Anonymous said…

“С лёгким паром” in the film title is translated as “Enjoy Your Bath” (see, e.g., http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0000714AW). It’s not a perfect translation, but better than “With Light Steam.”

W. Shedd said…

I’m aware of what that DVD calls the film (after all, I own it) but I know of no Russian who calls the film anything other than “With Light Steam” and always considered “enjoy your bath” as the less accurate translation.

I had the same reaction as Anonymous, and was fascinated to learn that Russians insist on the silly-sounding (to an English-speaker) “With Light Steam.” (It’s what you say to someone who’s just enjoyed a spell in a bathhouse, and it’s the name of one of the most famous and best of all Russian film comedies, Ирония судьбы, или С лёгким паром! [The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!].)

The Incipient Antarctic Accent.

Last December Susanne Bard reported for SciAm about an unexpected but not actually surprising development:

University of Munich linguist Jonathan Harrington [is] interested in how accents first get started. But because of global communication, most communities are no longer linguistically isolated, and audio recording equipment didn’t exist back when more of them were. So how to capture the early stages of accent formation today? Harrington and his team turned to members of the British Antarctic Survey, who speak with a variety of English accents. “When you are in Antarctica during the winter period, then there’s no way in, and there’s no way out. So they were isolated together, and they interacted with each other, and they have to cooperate with each other.”

Harrington’s team recorded the winterers reciting a list of words before they left for Antarctica. Then, while there, the winterers recorded themselves saying the same words four more times. The linguists then analyzed the recordings—in particular, resonances: the way airflow shapes sound. […] And even during their short time in Antarctica, the way the winterers produced certain vowels began to converge, averaging out the resonances.

In addition, the winterers invented slightly new ways of pronouncing vowels, such as shifting the production of the second syllable in the word “window” very slightly forward in the vocal tract. The linguists think these small changes document the very beginnings a common accent. The study is in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. [Jonathan Harrington et al., Phonetic change in an Antarctic winter] Harrington says the research isn’t just relevant for understanding Earth’s colonial past. He thinks there’s every reason to expect that prolonged isolation will cause astronauts on Mars missions to end up with an out-of-this world accent.

Thanks, Joan!

Sologub’s Petty Demon.

Years ago I read Andrew Field’s translation of Fyodor Sologub’s most famous novel, the 1907 Мелкий бес (The Petty Demon, also translated by John Cournos and Richard Aldington in 1916 as The Little Demon [Project Gutenberg]). I remember being impressed but not overwhelmed by it then; it seemed depressing and somewhat long-drawn-out. I have now finished reading it in Russian, and it feels like a different book — I understand why it made such a splash at the time, and why Stanley Rabinowitz linked it with Bely’s Petersburg as “the two greatest novels of the Symbolist period.”

Part of that, of course, is reading it in its original language; Sologub was famous as a stylist (and was an important poet as well), and I frequently felt compelled to read sentences out loud, a sure sign of good writing. Akim Volynsky wrote “Стихи меня поразили своею ясною простотою, какою-то неуловимою прозаичностью в тончайшем поэтическом повороте мысли” [His verses struck me with their clear simplicity, a kind of elusive prosaic quality in the most subtle poetic turn of thought], and that seems right to me; similarly, his prose is poetic in a subtle way, not blatantly like Bely’s. He uses adverbs as markers of emotional weather; the antihero, Peredonov, speaks and looks сердито [angrily], тупо [vacantly, obtusely], уныло [despondently], угрюмо [sullenly], испуганно [in a frightened way], and these repeated markers achieve an almost cinematic effect, comparable to that of Dostoevsky’s вдруг [suddenly] (see this post) and hard to translate for the same reason: English adverbs are more obtrusive and the repetition would sound bad. And even though the story of Peredonov’s madness and downfall is not a cheery one, the book is not depressing because good writing is never depressing. (Another testimony is on p. 45 of Johannes Holthusen and Dmitrij Tschiz̆ewskij’s handy little 1959 anthology Versdichtung der russischen Symbolisten: “Sologubs Bilder sind einem strengen Calcul unterworfen, seine Sprache ist präzise und besonnen, oft formelhaft wie mathematische Sätze oder Zaubersprüche” [Sologub’s images are subjected to a strict calculation/calculus, his language is precise and level-headed, often formulaic like mathematical theorems or magic spells].)

One reason I wanted to read it is that I’d been reading novels featuring witches who either were burned at the stake (Merezhkovsky’s Leonardo da Vinci) or escaped that fate by suicide (Bryusov’s Fiery Angel), and when I opened my copy of Мелкий бес the first thing I saw was the epigraph “Я сжечь её хотел, колдунью злую” [I wanted to burn her, the evil witch], which turned out to be the first line of a 1902 poem by Sologub himself. That was something of a red herring, though there is in fact a woman named Vershina who is called a “black witch” at one point and keeps luring Peredonov into her garden and persuading him to do things he doesn’t want to do, but even if it’s not part of the sorcery tradition of those early Symbolist years, it’s very much a part of the larger Russian literary tradition, and that’s another thing that kept impressing me as I read.

The only direct shout-outs I remember are to Pushkin (Peredonov says Mickiewicz was a greater poet, and he’s hung a portrait of Pushkin in his bathroom because of his low rank: “он камер-лакеем был”) and Chekhov (one character asks another if he’s read «Человек в футляре» [“Man in a Case”]), but the whole book is full of resonances. The basic theme of a tormented man sinking into paranoia goes back to Gogol’s “Notes of a Madman” and was developed by Sologub’s hero Doestoevsky in The Double and, of particular relevance, in The Brothers Karamazov, where Ivan loses his grip on reality and sees a devil — though there it is the Devil rather than Peredonov’s petty demon, which is a measure of the difference between Ivan and Peredonov. Bely will make use of it in Серебряный голубь [The Silver Dove] and Петербург [Petersburg], where Dudkin is visited by the Bronze Horseman, and Nabokov in Защита Лужина [The Defense]. The theme of the corruption of youth (in the person of the girlish Sasha) is dear to both Doestoevsky and Nabokov. And of course the tragicomic hell that is provincial city life is a perennial theme from Gogol (Dead Souls, The Government Inspector) on. The more Russian literature I read, the more echoes I catch and the more I appreciate it.

See Lizok’s review for more details on plot and characters (don’t miss her quoting “the worst love letter I’ve ever seen”!); I liked the novel so much I’ve decided to read his first one, the 1895 Тяжёлые сны [Bad Dreams], which (along with Merezhkovsky’s first novel and poetry by Bryusov and Balmont) kicked off the Symbolist era and Russian modernism in general. But first I’ll read some Chekhov as a palate-cleanser.

Addendum. Two quotes from W.C. Fields’s classic The Fatal Glass Of Beer that are oddly relevant to Sologub’s novel:

“He little thought they were demons, for they wore the best of clothes.”
“My Uncle Ichabod said, speakin’ of the city: ‘It ain’t no place for women, Cal, but pretty men go thar.'”


I could add some more letters and diacritics, but that gives the general idea; it’s my vague transliteration of what is apparently the Circassian translation of the title of Ostrovsky’s 1876 play «Правда – хорошо, а счастье лучше» [The truth is good, but happiness is better] as performed in a theater in Karachay-Cherkessia in the 2008-2009 season, as seen on the poster featured here. As one of the commenters on that thread says:

Какой емкий язык… Интересно, что там правда, что там счастье, что там хорошо и что лучше. Или у них там для описания и счастья и правды и хорошего и лучшего отдельный термин есть. Молодцы.

What a capacious language… I wonder what part of it is “truth,” what’s “happiness,” what’s “good,” and what’s “better.” Or whether they have a special term that describes all four at once. Good for them.

I suppose it’s unlikely that anyone here can explicate how Щхьззыфӏэфӏыжъ works, but just in case, there it is. I really have to try learning a Northwest Caucasian language one of these days.

Update. As pointed out by Rodger C, that title should be SHEZYFEFYZ — I mistook an Э for a З. Hey, you expect weird consonant clusters in Circassian!

Discovering Occitan.

Beebe Bahrami writes for BBC Travel about her linguistic adventures in the Dordogne:

On a cold winter’s night nine years ago, I made my way along icy cobblestone streets, a howling wind at my back, into the medieval town of Sarlat-la-Canéda in the Dordogne region of south-west France. This area is famous for its prehistoric caves, medieval castles and truffles – but I was here for another reason altogether. This was to be my first session of Café Oc, a monthly conversation circle at the Café La Lune Poivre, where locals gather to practice the regional Occitan language.

Benvenguda a Café Oc,” exclaimed 10 people, all age 60 or older, in Occitan. I introduced myself in French, and they assured me that I was welcome. One woman made a point to sit to my left and in soft whispers translated the conversation into French for me. […] That night at Café Oc, participants spoke of many things, all wedded to the land and traditions. They described growing up cultivating and producing all that their family needed to eat; how to hunt for cepes (porcini); the medieval pilgrimage route that passes through their region toward Santiago de Compostela; gathering and selling truffles at Christmas; and colourful folkloric characters, the most memorable being the lébérou, Périgord’s version of a werewolf-like creature. […]

Graham Robb, in his historical geography, The Discovery of France, noted that despite three centuries of efforts to make standardised French the language of all of France, in 1863 in the south of the country more than half the population remained non-French speaking. In the Dordogne the numbers were even higher, where more than 90% of the population was still largely Occitan speaking.

But a little more than 100 years ago at the turn of the 20th Century, the central government launched an aggressive campaign to extinguish any language that was not the standardised French. Occitan was forbidden to be taught in schools, and any children who used their mother tongue were punished, a practice that infused deep shame in many people. Many older adults in the Dordogne still tell stories about being humiliated in school for speaking Occitan. […]

Soon after my first session of Café Oc, I joined Bruno Eluere and Béatrice Mollaret, local guides and co-founders of regional tour company Dordogne Fellow Traveller on weekly treks exploring caves, castles and forest tracts. I was curious about their experience with Occitan. It seemed that, despite being brought up as French speakers, the language was still very close to their hearts. “Occitan is part of my very first memories,” Eluere told me. “Andrea, my grand aunt’s maid used to call me moun cacalou, my little walnut, which became my first nickname.”

Mollaret went further, explaining that the language is intrinsically tied to Périgord culture and how Occitan intimately describes aspects of life here, details that are lost if expressed in French or that simply do not have French words. “[Occitan] is really linked to the land, to the farm, to the traditions and legends,” she said. “Some things concerning the animals, the plants, are only known in the former language. In the Dordogne, le cluzeau [dug out rock or cave shelter], le cingle [looped or circular path], le téchou [pig] are always expressed in Occitan. […]

I also spoke with a farmer who explained that each year, after he ploughed the field, new stone tools emerged, some from Neanderthals and others from Cro-Magnons. I learned that the name Cro-Magnon itself was Occitan: Cro means ‘hole’ or ‘hollow’ in Occitan (creux in French), and Magnon was the family name of the gentlemen on whose property workers, in 1868 in the village of Les Eyzies, discovered five 27,000-year-old skeletons.

Worth it just to learn about Cro-Magnon (even the OED just says “< Cro-Magnon (French Cro-Magnon), the name of a rock shelter in a limestone cliff”). Thanks, Trevor! (I posted about Graham Robb’s book here and here, and linked to an 1847 map of the languages of France here.)

Germany’s Dialect Iron Curtain.

Last December, Philip Oltermann in the Guardian reported on the dialect situation in Germany:

Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, an invisible border running through Germany continues to resist all efforts to make the country truly whole again. However, this dividing line is not about attitudes to democracy, refugees or Russia, but something more elementary: how to tell the time.

In the northern half of the old West Germany, from Flensburg in the north down to Heidelberg in the south, people use the expression viertel nach zehn (“quarter past ten”) if their clock reads 10.15. Yet in a tract of land that covers the old socialist GDR as well as parts of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, the same time would be described as viertel elf or “quarter eleven”.

With so much potential for failed meet-ups and missed appointments, one would have expected one variant to trump the other over time. But a group of linguists who spent two years analysing a large data set have been surprised to find the opposite is true: not only are some vernacular expressions proving surprisingly sticky, but if anything their use is realigning along the old iron curtain.

For an article in the science journal PLOS ONE, published on Wednesday, Adrian Leeman, Curdin Derungs and Stephan Elspass compared metadata provided by more than 770,000 people in Germany, Austria and Switzerland who had taken part in an online language quiz, with language surveys dating back to the 1970s.

On the one hand they found that German, Europe’s most widely spoken mother tongue and often described as its most diverse, is becoming more standardised, especially north of the River Main. Local expressions for non-professional football playing, such as pöhlen in Westphalia or bäbbeln in Saxony are slowly being replaced by the generic term bolzen, in what linguists call “regional levelling”.

Yet the old east-west border is proving an unexpected bulwark against linguistic change, especially when it comes to food. West of the former Berlin Wall, Germans call a pancake a Pfannkuchen; on the eastern side, they emphatically tuck into Eierkuchen or “egg cakes”. As if to deliberately spread confusion, east Germans use the word Pfannkuchen to describe a doughnut, which is called a Krapfen in the south-west, and a Berliner in the north-west.

More examples, and some striking dialect maps, at the link; here’s the article by Leemann, Derungs, and Elspaß.

Russian Stance Verbs.

Michele A. Berdy of the Moscow Times, occasionally seen around here as mab, writes a column called “The Word’s Worth,” and she’s outdone herself with A Guide to Russian Stance Verbs:

Russian stance verbs – стоять (to stand), лежать (to lie), сидеть (to sit) and висеть (to hang) – are particularly problematic for English speakers.

At first glance, they don’t seem much different than their English equivalents. Стоять describes a vertical position, лежать – a horizontal position, and сидеть is a kind of in-between position. Some things stand and lie just like their English counterparts. If you lean a painting against a wall, you could say in Russian: Картина стоит у стены (the painting is standing up against the wall). But if you lay the painting down on a table, you could say: Картина лежит на столе (the painting is lying on the table). Books placed flat on a desk лежат (lie), while books placed upright on a shelf стоят (stand). Simple, right?

So what’s the problem?

The problem is when you are talking in Russian about inanimate objects or creatures other than humans and pets. In everyday English, we generally just use a form of “to be” to describe location and position: The plate is on the table. The boots were in the hall.

Once when I was getting ready for a party, my friend asked where the plates were. Since plates are flat, I answered: –Тарелки уже лежат на столе (The plates are already on the table). She made a rude noise. I asked what was so funny, and she explained, as if to a child, that in Russian, тарелки стоят (plates stand). It got worse. If little mice were standing on the table, I’d say: Мышки стоят (The mice are standing). More laughter. Мышки сидят (mice sit) even if they are standing. This sounds “logical” to Russian-speakers and totally “illogical” to non-native speakers of Russian.

She goes into detail about which nouns take which verbs in which circumstances, and it’s worth reading even if you’re not a student of Russian; she ends with this intriguing paragraph:

Usage of stance verbs in Russian seems to be acquired by native speakers at an early age. One informant noted that her eight-year-old daughter, who grew up abroad and only spoke Russian at home, used verbs exactly like her parents did – even with animate and inanimate objects she had never described before. There appears to be some internal logic that has not yet been fully described. Discovering that logic – that internal picture of the way objects and creatures are immobile in Russian – would make it possible to develop a more complete and cogent set of usage rules for non-native speakers.

Thanks go to J.W. Brewer for linking to it here and suggesting it deserved a post.

Bunting’s Thrush.

Yesterday’s post reminded me of one of my favorite Basil Bunting poems; it’s the first in his Second Book of Odes:


A thrush in the syringa sings.

‘Hunger ruffles my wings, fear,
lust, familiar things.

Death thrusts hard. My sons
by hawk’s beak, by stones,
trusting weak wings
by cat and weasel, die.

Thunder smothers the sky.
From a shaken bush I
list familiar things,
fear, hunger, lust.’

O gay thrush!

(I don’t think I had realized before that “syringa” is lilac, and Bunting used the fancier word for the resonance with “sings.”) More on Bunting here, and more odes here.