The Bookshelf: Miscellany VIII.

For those who have truly waited until the last minute, or for those who give New Year’s presents, here are some books that escaped my attention when I made my last such post:

1) Sociolinguistics: A Very Short Introduction, by John Edwards. This won my heart right off the bat by having a dedication in Irish: “Do Dorren agus d’Oisín Ó Siochrú, beirt a bhfuil grá mór agus cion agam dóibh.” It is indeed short, a little over a hundred pages, with chapters on Coming to terms; Variation and change; Perceptions of language; Protecting language; Languages great and small; Loyalty, maintenance, shift, loss, and revival; Multilingualism; and Name, sex, and religion.

2) Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation, by Ammon Shea. Stan Carey of Sentence first has an excellent review, saying “It is light yet scholarly, explaining disputes in a clear, informed and entertaining fashion and proceeding in each case to a sensible conclusion.” I’ve been greatly enjoying dipping into it.

3) I’ve just started The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst, which jamessal gave me a while back; he wrote me: “this book, unlike The Stranger’s Child, really picks up at the end, so there’s even more enjoyment than merely some of the best prose fiction written in some time,” and I loved The Stranger’s Child (see this post), so I have complete confidence in recommending it. Thanks, Jim!

4) Another book I’m in the middle of is A History of War in 100 Battles, by Richard Overy; any fan of military history will know Overy’s name, and this is even better than I expected (having been bowled over by his Russia’s War) — the introduction alone is worth the price of the book.

George Szirtes on Being Bilingual.

The Hungarian-born poet George Szirtes is an old favorite here at LH (1, 2, 3 — that last post, on Hungarian second-person pronouns, has 455 comments!), and his Guardian piece (from last May) on “what being bilingual means for my writing and identity” is worth a read. On his early experience with language:

When I was [...] seven, in Budapest, I spoke only Hungarian. My vowels were pure; the mouth that produced the pure vowel shapes never closed gently into a diphthong. The letter “p” was formed further forward as was the letter “t”, maybe more the way the Irish pronounce it in Dublin. My early rzeka experience was set in Hungarian. I did, however, have a bilingual book of A A Milne’s Winnie the Pooh (known as Micimackó) in Hungarian, and Now We Are Six, both translated by the great 20th century humourist Frigyes Karinthy. My first memory of English was of the page that opened on the great capital letters, of AND, BUT, SO, which I then pronounced the Hungarian way as OHND, BUTTE and SHAW.

And on returning to Hungary:

The disadvantage of being (relatively) bilingual is that you are neither this nor that. You don’t fully belong. We spent nine months in Hungary in 1989 watching the state collapse around us and, under those circumstances, it became clear that I wasn’t truly Hungarian, but an observer – a visitor with privileges, who could be useful but not of the language or its poetry. In England, the rest of the time, a foreign-born poet is of the language until he isn’t; the point at which he hits the thick glass of English Words, where he will be deemed never quite to understand cricket or, say, John Betjeman, because these things are not in his DNA.

I can’t get enough of this kind of meditation on multilingualism. Thanks, Trevor!

On Translating Babel.

Boris Dralyuk talks about translating Babel’s Red Cavalry:

[...] The dialect also lends the text tremendous flavour. One rather profane example occurs in the story ‘The Italian Sun’, in which the narrator sneaks a look at a psychopathic Cossack’s letter to a woman who holds an important position in the Party. The Cossack asks to be sent to Italy, so that he can assassinate the king. The letter begins on the second page: ‘…lung’s shot through and I’m a little cracked or, as Sergei says, flew off my nut. You don’t just step off that nut, you fly. At any rate, jokes aside and tail out of the way… Let’s get down to business, my friend Victoria…’

What is this tail? Earlier translators have rendered the phrase (khvost nabok) as ‘tail to the side’, ‘tails sideways’, and ‘horsetail to one side’; this doesn’t clarify the situation. Babel makes use of a common Cossack saying, which also pops up in Sholokhov: ‘Jokes are jokes, but get the tail out of the way’. In other words, get the filly’s tail out of the way so we can get down to business. This may appear to be a small and distasteful detail, but it sets the tone. A bowdlerized Babel isn’t worth his salt.

Another example. In ‘The Life Story of Pavlichenko, Matvei Rodionych,’ the titular character, commander of the Cavalry Army’s Sixth Division, traces his rise from peasant herdsman to heroic general, employing colourful turns of phrase that subtly contribute to the narrative’s growing tension. In the second paragraph, Pavlichenko describes his idyllic but frustratingly idle youth: ‘And so I’m herding this cattle of mine, cows on every side. I’m shot through with milk, stink like a sliced udder, and I’ve got bull calves walking around me for propriety’s sake, mousy-grey bull calves.’ The key image here is ‘shot through’ (na vylet prokhvatilo); previous translators have rendered the phrase as ‘soaked in milk’, ‘steeped all through with milk’, and ‘doused in milk’, but this isn’t quite adequate. The suggestion of a bullet wound is very important, and it will become even more important in Pavlichenko’s comment to his bride Nastya: ‘My head’s not a rifle – it’s got no foresight, and no back-sight either. And you know my heart, Nastya – it’s all empty, it must be shot through with milk. It’s an awful thing, how I stink of milk….’ Pavlichenko’s metaphorical repertoire is strictly military, from the stripes on his shoulder-pads to the foresight in (or on) his head. The Cossack is a weapon, and he’s bound to go off. [...]

I love that kind of pickiness.

Aksakov on Angling.

When I finished Anastasia Marchenko (see this post), I started an early novel by Saltykov but found it tediously ideological and gave up after a few chapters. (I expect this to become an increasingly severe problem as I approach the 1860s; that’s one reason I’m happy to linger in 1847.) I then read Alexander Druzhinin‘s «Полинька Сакс» (Polinka Saks); it was wildly popular when it came out and, according to L.K. Mansour, “influenced an entire generation,” and I can see why — I knew I was going to enjoy it when in the very first line the protagonist Saks (whose wife is the young and naive Polinka) addresses his correspondent as “почтенный пантагрюэлист” (‘venerable Pantagruelist’), and it carried its sentimental/melodramatic story along quite efficiently (Saks goes away on government business, leaving the hapless Polinka to be feverishly wooed by the fiery young Prince Galitsky, with unhappy results; he goes to “the town of —ov, four hundred versts from the capital,” which I figured must be Pskov, and, amusingly, this was confirmed when he refers to “Псковскими мужиками” — either he or the censor forgot to disguise that occurrence). While I was deciding what novel to turn to next, I thought I’d dip into Sergei Aksakov‘s first publication, Записки об уженье ‘Notes on fishing’ (for the second, much expanded, 1854 edition, the title was also expanded to Записки об уженье рыбы, which means the same thing).

Aksakov is best known for his autobiographical trilogy, «Семейной хроники» (A Family Chronicle), «Воспоминания» (Memoirs, translated as A Russian Schoolboy), and «Детские годы Багрова-внука» (Childhood years of grandson Bagrov, translated as A Russian Childhood); I knew that his little book on fishing had been well received, but I didn’t expect to spend much time with it. Instead, I found myself hooked (as it were), and it looks like I’m going to wind up reading the whole thing. Having been reading chronologically, I’m just as fed up with clever/ironic society tales as the Russian public must have been, and Aksakov’s straightforward, clean Russian prose and no-nonsense manner is immensely appealing. Surprisingly, there’s a translation into English, and the translator, Thomas P. Hodge, writes in his introduction:

Notes on Fishing is a literary achievement that merits mention alongside such works as Juliana Berners’s Treatise of Fishing with an Angle, Walton’s The Compleat Angler, Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne, Thoreau’s Walden, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. In short, it belongs among the Western classics of fishing literature and nature writing.

So if anyone’s interested in a Russian take on an age-old pastime, with good advice on how to make your equipment (an honest Russian birch branch, well chosen and planed smooth, will serve you just as well as those fancy English rods they sell in the shops in Petersburg!), you know where to go.

Needless to say, I find myself looking up a fair amount of vocabulary; one of the fish names, язь, is translated as “ide” and “orfe,” neither of which meant anything to me, so I googled the Russian word to find out what it looked like and got this hilarious half-minute video (you don’t need to know Russian to enjoy it; he caught a язь and is very happy about it) and this equally hilarious Луркоморье page about the meme inspired by the video (which you do need to know Russian to enjoy; for Луркоморье/Lurkmore, see this LH post).

There Is No Language Instinct.

Linguist Vyvyan Evans has a piece in Aeon that gives a good rundown of the arguments against Chomsky’s irritatingly influential theory of the language instinct; here’s the conclusion:

From this perspective, we don’t have to assume a special language instinct; we just need to look at the sorts of changes that made us who we are, the changes that paved the way for speech. This allows us to picture the emergence of language as a gradual process from many overlapping tendencies. It might have begun as a sophisticated gestural system, for example, only later progressing to its vocal manifestations. But surely the most profound spur on the road to speech would have been the development of our instinct for co‑operation. By this, I don’t mean to say that we always get on. But we do almost always recognise other humans as minded creatures, like us, who have thoughts and feelings that we can attempt to influence.

We see this instinct at work in human infants as they attempt to acquire their mother tongue. Children have far more sophisticated learning capacities than Chomsky foresaw. They are able to deploy sophisticated intention-recognition abilities from a young age, perhaps as early as nine months old, in order to begin to figure out the communicative purposes of the adults around them. And this is, ultimately, an outcome of our co‑operative minds. Which is not to belittle language: once it came into being, it allowed us to shape the world to our will – for better or for worse. It unleashed humanity’s tremendous powers of invention and transformation. But it didn’t come out of nowhere, and it doesn’t stand apart from the rest of life. At last, in the 21st century, we are in a position to jettison the myth of Universal Grammar, and to start seeing this unique aspect of our humanity as it really is.

For the details, click the link. (Thanks, Paul!)

The Writer without Static.

I finally got around to reading Patrick Modiano’s Nobel lecture (in English, because I am lazy; here‘s the original French), and I liked it a lot; here are some of the bits that particularly struck me:

A novelist can never be his own reader, except when he is ridding his manuscript of syntax errors, repetitions or the occasional superfluous paragraph. He only has a partial and confused impression of his books, like a painter creating a fresco on the ceiling, lying flat on a scaffold and working on the details, too close up, with no vision of the work as a whole.

Writing is a strange and solitary activity. There are dispiriting times when you start working on the first few pages of a novel. Every day, you have the feeling you are on the wrong track. This creates a strong urge to go back and follow a different path. It is important not to give in to this urge, but to keep going. It is a little like driving a car at night, in winter, on ice, with zero visibility. You have no choice, you cannot go into reverse, you must keep going forward while telling yourself that all will be well when the road becomes more stable and the fog lifts.

When you are about to finish a book, you feel as if it is starting to break away and is already breathing the air of freedom, like schoolchildren in class the day before the summer break. They are distracted and boisterous and no longer pay attention to their teacher. I would go so far as to say that as you write the last paragraphs, the book displays a certain hostility in its haste to free itself from you. And it leaves you, barely giving you time to write out the last word. It is over – the book no longer needs you and has already forgotten you. From now on, it will discover itself through the readers.

[. . .]

I always think twice before reading the biography of a writer I admire. Biographers sometimes latch onto small details, unreliable eyewitness accounts, character traits that appear puzzling or disappointing – all of which is like the crackling sound that messes with radio transmissions, making the music and the voices impossible to hear. It is only by actually reading his books that we gain intimacy with a writer. This is when he is at his best and he is speaking to us in a low voice without any of the static.

[. . .]

With the passing of the years, each neighbourhood, each street in a city evokes a memory, a meeting, a regret, a moment of happiness for those who were born there and have lived there. Often the same street is tied up with successive memories, to the extent that the topography of a city becomes your whole life, called to mind in successive layers as if you could decipher the writings superimposed on a palimpsest.

[. . .]

Themes of disappearance, identity and the passing of time are closely bound up with the topography of cities. That is why since the 19th century, cities have been the territory of novelists, and some of the greatest of them are linked to a single city: Balzac and Paris, Dickens and London, Dostoyevsky and Saint Petersburg, Tokyo and Nagai Kafū, Stockholm and Hjalmar Söderberg.

He quotes Yeats and Mandelstam, which makes me like him all the more, and refers to “My distant relative, the painter Amedeo Modigliani” — anybody know the etymology of the Sephardic name? (And if there are any Modiano fans reading this, I’d be glad of recommendations of favorite books.)

Strong Language.

I’m happy to announce the appearance of Strong Language, a new group blog about swearing created by linguist James Harbeck and Stan Carey of Sentence first, one of my favorite language sites. The About page says, “This blog gives a place for professional language geeks to talk about things they can’t talk about in more polite contexts. It’s a sweary blog about swearing.” If that sounds like your cup of tea, head on over and check it out. And while we’re on the subject of swearing, here‘s a seven-plus-minute video consisting almost entirely of swearing in Hungarian (with English subtitles) so thrilling that it makes me want to resume my study of that fine language; thanks for the clip go to the many-languaged bulbul, who says “The obvious highlight is 2:16, but the rest is eminently watchable as well.” (Serendipitously, I just found this post at Poemas del río Wang, which begins: “The baggage cart advances with a painful squeal in the deep, bottomless mud and drizzling rain. An old blue-shirted soldier drives it, while smoking his pipe. The one sitting next to him, unshaven, in gray uniform, is urging the cart on by cursing in three languages. He’s a Hungarian…”)

Languages of Influence.

Michael Erard, a longtime LH favorite, has a good piece in Science on a paper by Shahar Ronen et al., “Links that speak: the global language network and its association with global fame“:

The study was spurred by a conversation about an untranslated book, says Shahar Ronen, a Microsoft program manager whose Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) master’s thesis formed the basis of the new work. A bilingual Hebrew-English speaker from Israel, he told his MIT adviser, César Hidalgo (himself a Spanish-English speaker), about a book written in Hebrew whose translation into English he wasn’t yet aware of. “I was able to bridge a certain culture gap because I was multilingual,” Ronen says. He began thinking about how to create worldwide maps of how multilingual people transmit information and ideas.

Ronen and co-authors from MIT, Harvard University, Northeastern University, and Aix-Marseille University tackled the problem by describing three global language networks based on bilingual tweeters, book translations, and multilingual Wikipedia edits. The book translation network maps how many books are translated into other languages. For example, the Hebrew book, translated from Hebrew into English and German, would be represented in lines pointing from a node of Hebrew to nodes of English and German. That network is based on 2.2 million translations of printed books published in more than 1000 languages. As in all of the networks, the thickness of the lines represents the number of connections between nodes. For tweets, the researchers used 550 million tweets by 17 million users in 73 languages. In that network, if a user tweets in, say, Hindi as well as in English, the two languages are connected. To build the Wikipedia network, the researchers tracked edits in up to five languages done by editors, carefully excluding bots.

In all three networks, English has the most transmissions to and from other languages and is the most central hub, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But the maps also reveal “a halo of intermediate hubs,” according to the paper, such as French, German, and Russian, which serve the same function at a different scale.

In contrast, some languages with large populations of speakers, such as Mandarin, Hindi, and Arabic, are relatively isolated in these networks. This means that fewer communications in those languages reach speakers of other languages. Meanwhile, a language like Dutch—spoken by 27 million people—can be a disproportionately large conduit, compared with a language like Arabic, which has a whopping 530 million native and second-language speakers. This is because the Dutch are very multilingual and very online. [...]

There’s lots more good stuff there, and here‘s an interactive visualization. Thanks for the Erard link, Nick!

The Bookshelf: Miscellany VII.

For those casting about for last-minute presents, here are some possibilities:

1) Orin Hargraves (see this LH post) has produced an excellent book on clichés, It’s Been Said Before. He classifies them, gives citations, and briefly discusses their use and degree of perniciousness. In his “Afterthoughts,” he says that “carelessness and ignorance are certainly responsible for a great deal of cliché that is expressed in speech and print,” but he adds:

I will have failed in my mission with any reader who, after perusing this book for minutes, hours, or days, feels at liberty to dismiss me as a usage curmudgeon. I have no agenda to reform English. I embrace the whole mansion of it, from the dankest corner of promotional blurb to the grandest auditorium of epic poetry. It is out of love and respect for it that I write about it. It is a tall order to suggest to speakers and writers that they choose their words more carefully and that they be more circumspect about using words whose presence does not add meaningfully to what they are saying, but I fully own that there is a respect in which this book urges that advice.

2) Neil MacGregor’s Shakespeare’s Restless World: Portrait of an Era is gorgeously illustrated and should make any Shakespeare-lover happy.

3) Slavica Publishers (see this LH post) is publishing a series Russia’s Great War & Revolution, “a decade-long multinational scholarly effort that aims to fundamentally transform understanding of Russia’s ‘continuum of crisis’ during the years 1914-1922.” I haven’t seen any of the books yet (and at $44.95, the ones so far published are too pricey for my budget), but I have every confidence that they’re worth reading.

I Mumble in Mandaic.

Josh Tyra’s “I Am the Very Model of a Biblical Philologist” is an absolute delight, illustrations included. Go watch it. (Warning: After it’s over, if you don’t click “Cancel” another video begins. I don’t know why this is the case with so many YouTube videos now, but it is.) Thanks, bulbul! (He also sent a link to “A sitcom (of sorts) in Yiddish,” YidLife Crisis, so for those of you who have been yearning for such a thing, there it is.)